No Go for LoDo

At a time when Phoenix's downtown art scene is finally beginning to flourish, one of the city's first significant galleries is closing.

After months of rumors of its demise, Studio LoDo/Phoenix Center for the Contemporary Arts will shut its doors for good June 24. "We had a good four-year run, but it's done," says Kathleen Thomas, director of LoDo/PACA.

Thomas, 33, opened the gallery in the uncertain weeks after 9/11 with money earned from her faux-finishing business. She says she wanted to do something to help the Arizona artists she saw turned away from established Scottsdale galleries like Bentley and Larsen, where she worked as an assistant. "I wanted to provide a space for local artists to exhibit that was the most professional I could afford," she says. "I wanted to raise the bar."

Her gallery was housed in a 1920s brick warehouse on Jackson Street, just north of the railroad tracks that mark the start of the city's tough side. It had 14-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls and 3,000 square feet of exhibition space. Its door was a loading dock. In Phoenix, a city with a suburban soul, Studio LoDo quickly became the epitome of urban cool.

The night the gallery opened, Thomas sold $10,000 worth of art. A year later, Art in America magazine called Studio LoDo one of Phoenix's "most ambitious galleries" and LoDo was invited to the prestigious fair Art Basel Miami. Thomas represented some of the region's most promising artists, comers like Colin Chillag and Jon Haddock. When people talked about Phoenix's burgeoning cultural scene, they pointed to Studio LoDo as a sample of the good things to come.

News of LoDo/PACA's death surprises many people, because it comes at a time when Phoenix's art scene is on a roll.

"It's been a myriad of small things pecking away at the viability of the space," Thomas says, standing in the white-walled main room of LoDo/PACA with her dogs Jack and Stella. Things like money, she says. Lack of parking. Her health. And Studio LoDo/PACA's distance from the thriving gallery districts along Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Street.

First, the money.

Thomas wouldn't elaborate on Studio LoDo/PACA's financial situation. "Money is a small part of what happened," she insists. That said, Thomas admits Studio LoDo/PACA was having problems meeting its expenses. "I can't afford this space anymore," she says.

In the gallery's early days, Thomas eked out operating expenses from art sales, the occasional donation from a patron, and earnings from her day job. From the beginning, Thomas took big chances with her gallery. She encouraged artists to make pieces completely different from their usual work, like the time she had Phoenix woodcarver Hector Ruiz make a room-sized installation featuring a 13-foot-high papier-mâché figure.

In 2003, two years into LoDo's existence, Thomas began reorganizing the gallery into a nonprofit organization that would provide assistance to artists. Studio LoDo became the Phoenix Center for the Contemporary Arts, a nonprofit organization designed to get its funding from grants, workshop fees, sales from exhibitions, and memberships that ranged from $25 for artists to $10,000-plus for patrons. In return, LoDo/PACA would offer workshops, peer critiques, dinners, portfolio reviews conducted by Thomas, and juried group shows for member artists. LoDo/PACA also published a directory listing contact info for member artists and mailed it to 600 curators and gallery owners around the world.

"I was trying to get the word out about what was going on in Arizona," Thomas says.

At its peak PACA had about 200 members, Thomas adds, most of them artists. But the high-dollar patrons were scarce. It was even getting hard to find warm bodies. Not many people were coming around anymore, not even during the First Friday art walks that were drawing thousands to Roosevelt and Grand. "When the space opened, so many people came forward to help. They were hungry for this sort of space," Thomas says. But no one opened near Thomas, the way they've gathered together in the other art districts.

Within the art community, there was much trash talk about Studio LoDo/PACA, including claims Thomas didn't pay artists promptly for work sold by the gallery. A half-dozen calls or e-mails to four artists and two local arts leaders, all rumored to be critics of Thomas, bore nothing.

Instead, several artists who've shown work at Studio LoDo/PACA talked about the good Thomas had done for them and for the arts scene.

"She was really concerned with the artist," says Phoenix artist Michael Maglitch. "She was more involved in the whole creative experience than most gallery owners are. She offered something vital, something Phoenix needed."

Ruiz, who now runs a gallery on Grand called The Chocolate Factory, agrees Thomas was a positive force. "She had a good idea, and she was good to her artists," he says. "But she was too far south."

Bentley Projects, the other SoHo-looking gallery in town, is even farther down in the belly of lower downtown. But Bentley, which represents internationally known art stars like Robert Rauschenberg as well as local emerging artists like John Nelson, isn't as reliant on sales from its downtown space. It's got another location in Scottsdale to help pay the bills. Bentley Projects also shares its Grant Street location with a bookstore and a restaurant, creating its own artsy synergy. And Bentley has parking.

Parking, or rather, lack of it, was a huge problem for LoDo/PACA. On nights when the Diamondbacks or Suns were playing, the parking lot outside the gallery quadrupled its rates to $20 a car. On some nights you couldn't get a space even if you were willing to cough up the inflated rate. "Part of me, in my naiveté, thought I might have some crossover," Thomas says. But when she stayed open on event nights, no one came.

Then last summer, Thomas says she got West Nile virus that turned into encephalitis. She was unable to work for weeks, and even after she recovered, she found her energy had waned so much that she couldn't keep up with the work at the gallery.

She never considered moving to a cheaper, smaller space on Roosevelt. "I didn't want to downsize. I needed a place where I could show 12-foot paintings," she says. "I won't be shy. I'll say I dream big."

Last Saturday, Thomas sold off the remaining pieces of her dream at a yard sale. The proceeds from the sale will go to pay some bills "that need paying," Thomas says. A pair of artists will move into the space next month, using it for studios and First Friday openings. July 1, a show opens curated by Keri Jhaveri, featuring some of the best artists in town, including Brian Boner and Randy Slack.

"As sad as it is that it's closing . . . I would do this space a huge injustice if I called it a failure," Thomas says. "Everything in downtown comes in cycles. We were the beginning of the new wave."

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Leanne Potts