"Peace?" danced in roughly spray-painted gold letters down one pole outside the building.
"IRONY," was scrawled on another.
The graffiti alluded to the space’s affiliation with art maven Bill Tonnesen, and was the most recent in a series of hiccups for the new business, founded by Marrioth Alfonzo and Nico Saucedo.
The Imaginarea opened on Friday, October 4, in the venue formerly called The Lavatory. The two artists behind the venue said they took on the project to create space for the Phoenix art community to grow.
The couple, who said they married in June of this year, certainly have the credentials to facilitate an immersive art space. Alfonzo has studied and worked in various art mediums, from photography to sculpture to website management, in five countries. The former employee of the Lavatory notes that she built much of the space with her own hands. Saucedo is himself a successful local photographer.
The former Lavatory museum was founded and run by local artist Tonnesen, who last month was accused of sexual misconduct by at least 15 women. Phoenix New Times has spoken with several more alleged victims since. The women said many of the alleged incidents happened inside the museum, which temporarily shut down the day before the article’s publication.
With the announcement of the Imaginarea’s launch on October 4 – the exact day that The Lavatory promised to resume business – doubts circulated around whether the new project was completely independent of Tonnesen’s control.
A group of six protesters gathered outside the new art venue’s official opening on Friday night, standing right next to the “By Bill Tonnesen” sign that adorns many of his properties. Only about an equal number of guests purchased tickets for the event. Though ticket sales rose throughout the weekend, a press conference at the space on Sunday night, which Alfonzo and Saucedo said they held in an attempt to clarify misinformation, quickly became volatile.
The couple has confirmed they’re paying rent to the Tonnesen family — Alfonzo was quick to note they’re paying Pilar Tonnesen, and not her husband, Bill — for access to the space. But they deny accusations that their business is in any way working with the previous tenants.
Alfonzo said she and Saucedo have not yet called the police to report the vandalism. The Strip has security cameras in clear view of the Imaginarea entrance, but law enforcement will not have access to those unless a report is filed.
The BackstoryIn June of this year, Saucedo founded his own limited liability company, NRS1 LLC, according to public filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission. He and Alfonzo said they had been talking about founding the Imaginarea, which would be a new immersive art space, and would also host workshops led by members of the art community, for months. They were actively saving, and Alfonzo said she had already moved into a more limited role at The Lavatory, managing Bill Tonnesen’s website and tickets for the space.
Alfonzo was added to the NRS1 LLC ownership on September 24, a few weeks after the first New Times article on Tonnesen’s alleged sexual misconduct was published.
After the article came out, Alfonzo said she continued to work for the Tonnesens, solely to issue refunds for Lavatory tickets. But she said she didn’t hear from the family for several weeks. Then Pilar Tonnesen reached out to say that they were not going to continue with The Lavatory. She asked if Alfonzo wanted to rent the space, Alfonzo said.
“We really thought about it for a few days,” Saucedo said. Alfonzo said she herself had never been mistreated by Bill Tonnesen or been present when any of the alleged harassment occurred (none of the accounts of people who reported sexual misconduct to New Times mentioned Alfonzo witnessing or playing any role in the acts). In several conversations, the couple declined to comment further on the allegations.
In the end, they signed a yearlong lease, with the first month's rent free.
“If we had all the money in the world, we’d be in our own warehouse,” Alfonzo said. The couple is entirely using their own savings to fund the project, she said. It’s also why several Tonnesen art pieces remained on display at the Imaginarea events over the weekend, the couple said.
“It was there. It was not the best scenario, we never wanted to be judged by the community, but sometimes, nothing else appears to you," Alfonzo said. "And also, I put a lot of my own work into this space. It was a long time, and a project that demanded all of our time. It’s why we feel connected to this space, which is already set up as an interactive art space.”
The ImaginareaDespite the money going to the Tonnesen family through rent payments, Alfonzo and Saucedo repeatedly stated that it's the Tonnesen's only source of profit from the Imaginarea.
Bill Tonnesen is not allowed on the Imaginarea property.
“This agreement is with Pilar Tonnesen and NRS1 LLC. Bill Tonnesen has no affiliation with the tenant," states the lease agreement, which was reviewed by New Times. "This lease is the tenant’s assurance that Bill Tonnesen will not have access to the premises. Violation of this assurance shall void the lease.”
The agreement solely deals with apartments #111 and #112 of the building; it does not forbid Tonnesen from entering the rest of The Strip complex property.
Following the criticism over the weekend, the Imaginarea owners said they’ve taken several steps to legally distance themselves from the former business.
On October 7, Alfonzo and Saucedo spoke with the Phoenix Fire Department, and paid for a new inspection, which is not required, but would update the current max capacity sign outside the museum. It currently reads, "130 Persons By Order of the Fire Marshall – The Lavatory." Starting next week, the sign will say “The Imaginarea” instead.
And after Tuesday's vandalism, they decided to close the rooms of the Imaginarea that contain Tonnesen art, and reopen them next month without any of his previous work.
“Every artist and innovator who wants to submit their art work for the contest, ‘Everything: It’s constant movement’ will be able to work on the transformation of this space,” said Alfonzo, who is originally from Venezuela.
“We want to do what we can to show this is a new thing,” she continued. “We want people to know that for us, it’s about the work."
She also said she understands the concern from alleged victims and others that she and Saucedo are dealing with the Tonnesen family.
“They are still married, as far as we know, and we get that’s hard for people," Alfonzo said. She continues to communicate with Pilar Tonnesen regularly — during one of the meetings with New Times, a text from the landlady interrupted a video Alfonzo was showing the reporter on her phone.
"But our intentions are honest," Alfonzo added. "We would like that people treat us because of who we are, and just that. It’s a lot of responsibility to this, but we want to go forward with it, and we want to go forward with it well.”