Commercial Art Is Keeping Phoenix Artists Afloat -- But At a High Cost

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"When I worked there, I used to flip through magazines and look for the high-end fashion ads," says Angel. "Whatever colors Gucci was selling that season were a safe bet. It's all about color trends."

Angel was one of Phoenix Art Group's stars. He figured out the formula and, since Cline and Grassia's model changed to pay artists per piece instead of per month, Angel painted as much as he could. Cline promoted Angel to a designer position and later gave the same gigs to Slack and Dauncey.

In 1994, the downtown art district was stabilizing. Artists continued to move in, fix up buildings, and look for jobs. Phoenix Art Group moved into its current 72,000-square-foot building on 14th Street north of Indian School Road.

A year later, Angel recognized the difference between what he was being paid and how much Phoenix Art Group was selling the work for (often in the tens of thousands of dollars) — and he left along with Slack and Dauncey.

"It was just time," says Angel. "We knew it was time to move on, and all of us really wanted to start focusing on our own artwork."

Today, the Phoenix Art Group building is closed to the public, but from the parking lot, anyone can see activity on all four floors through the large glass windows.

Former employees say that on the top floor, a small number of artists work as designers who create artwork with carefully documented techniques, colors, and step-by-step instructions. These designs travel down to the third floor, where a larger number of artists reproduce the pieces (on canvas, surface-measured and stretched on the second floor) according to demand for that design or how well that particular "artist" is selling.

Those paintings go to another floor, where they're framed or reproduced as prints. And the final products travel to the first floor, where sales representatives have them packaged, shipped, and sent off to all corners of the world.

And if they don't sell, they're sent along with last season's materials to the dumpsters.

Phoenix Art Group's international success wasn't long-lived. Tougher competition from Florida-based commercial business Rosenbaum Fine Art and smaller producers meant strict rules for artists: no showing "similar" styles in local galleries (even under their own names); no complaining; no taking supplies home; and certainly no challenging the way the business was run.  

Jay Hall, whose pop-art paintings and designs are sold locally at Frances and Phoenix Metro Retro, says he was fired after arguing with Phoenix Art Group CEO Harriett Hilburn about hand-painting 2,000 framed mirrors with leopard spots. In Hall's opinion, there was an easier and faster way to get the paint onto the frame. According to Hall, Hilburn (who also declined to be interviewed by New Times) thought that way was out the door.

"I was in an industry that is looked at through a very romantic lens," he says. "Artists are supposed to be laid back, drink a lot, get laid, wear mismatched socks, have funny haircuts . . . When John first started [Phoenix Art Group], we painted, we played music, we had beer on Fridays. But when money got involved, it became all about the formula — the more we produced within a simple, very non-offensive palette, the more we could make by capturing the largest part of the market."

Today, Phoenix Art Group is still producing and selling artwork, but the company is well past its peak. Most of the original members — including Fred Tullis, Susan Woodruff, Mark Pasek, Mike March, and Gronowski — have left, but the roster of fictional artists they (and dozens of other artists) painted as on the Phoenix Art Group website remains the same.

There are no more big parties or gallery openings, no talk of tight competition or extra commission bonuses, and for fear of losing any kind of "cred" in the art community, many artists still won't go on record to talk about their experiences or involvement.

Phoenix Art Museum's Ballinger says he recognizes the need to make a living and insists that commercial involvement doesn't affect how he looks at an artist's work or whether or not he chooses to include them in museum exhibitions.

"Even the earliest American artists started life as currency engravers," he says. "Or take a look at Norman Rockwell, who people love and hate for his imagery but have to respect for his technique . . . Good artwork requires getting out there, experiencing life, and responding. In my opinion, it depends on how an artist views their work. Is there a separation between what they paint for a hotel and their personal work? Ultimately, art that makes a difference has heart and soul. That's what I look for."

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton