Pop Art: For Some Local Artists, the Bad Economy Is Good News | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Pop Art: For Some Local Artists, the Bad Economy Is Good News

Correction: This story should have identified Bentley Calverley as the owner of the building that houses Bentley Gallery on Marshall Way in Scottsdale. It also should have reported that Bentley Gallery is closed for the month of July, but open in June, August, September, and October. The gallery does not...
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Correction: This story should have identified Bentley Calverley as the owner of the building that houses Bentley Gallery on Marshall Way in Scottsdale. It also should have reported that Bentley Gallery is closed for the month of July, but open in June, August, September, and October. The gallery does not participate in Thursday night ArtWalk between June and October. Finally, Bentley Calverley should have been quoted as saying that she recalls that it was not unusual 20 years ago to see 1,200 people on Marshall Way for an artwalk. New Times sincerely regrets the errors. Note: The story below has been edited to reflect the corrections.

The first Thursday night in June, a lithe blonde in a red summer dress walks into the 5 and 6 Fine Art Space on Marshall Way in Old Town Scottsdale and makes a beeline for a portrait.

"I saw this piece last week, and I'm interested in buying it," she tells a gallery employee.

The portrait, by local artist Jason Rudolph Peña, is part Greta Garbo, part Betty Boop, and all gigantic, quivering eyes. It costs $300.

In the front windows of Soyal Gallery next door, a mannequin with a bright blue wig and colorful checker-pattern legs stands on a platform between two World War II-era bombs, one painted hot pink. The painted bombs are the work of Soyal co-owner Emmett Potter, and he says the two in the window are the last he has — he's sold three already.

On the other side of Soyal, photographer Eric Cassee and local artist Brian Drake are having an opening reception at Spec10 Gallery. The three-room gallery is packed with people sipping champagne and schmoozing with the artists. There's a long buffet table in the back room overflowing with appetizers from Frasher's steak house, including some saucy meatballs that two tall, beautiful brunettes are noshing off toothpicks.

"The models are eating," Drake says. "There's something wrong with that."

Drake, looking somewhat like a model himself in his Italian suit, spots the blonde in the red dress who was in 5 and 6 earlier. "I know her," he says. "She used to be a curator at the Smithsonian. Excuse me, I'm going to go sell something."

Business hasn't been this good on Marshall Way in a long time. Two months ago, almost half of the buildings on the street were empty. This part of Scottsdale was the first place in metropolitan Phoenix to host art walks, and it still does every Thursday. But it's been hit by the recession, and for several months, there were more empty storefronts than galleries. And though a handful of established galleries on Marshall Way continued to be destinations for art lovers, a lot of people didn't want to stroll a row of "space available" signs.

But in the past several weeks, many of those unused retail spaces have become galleries — 5 and 6, Soyal, Jean Rashkind, Brian Drake, and Spec10. They're bringing more contemporary and pop art to an area better known for its expensive international art and Southwestern kitsch, and they're bringing a diverse new stream of traffic to Marshall Way.

And they could disappear as quickly as they sprang up.

The owner of the empty retail spaces agreed to let local artists move in for a reduced rate, on the condition that they must move if he finds a renter willing to pay the full rate. Such sudden and temporary spots are called "pop-up galleries." The phenomenon began in Los Angeles but has spread to cities like London, Chicago, and New York City.

The pop-up galleries along Marshall Way are among the first in the Valley. There's also a huge pop-up called Gallery 2345 off 24th Street and University Drive, in a 15,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by the Department of Economic Security. And it looks as if other prime spots, particularly Mill Avenue in Tempe, could see similar projects soon.

People involved in the revitalization of Marshall Way and the Scottsdale ArtWalk describe the phenomenon — on the record, anyway — as a "win-win situation" for everyone. Instead of getting nothing for empty spaces, landlords get some money and a new presence on their properties. The artists are thrilled to be in prominent spaces they can afford, showing their art to people who might actually buy it. The art walkers are happy to see more offbeat, emerging art and to talk with the artists.

Even the owners of established, longstanding Marshall Way galleries like Art One and Lisa Sette Gallery say the pop-up galleries are bringing much-needed new energy to the block.

In fact, none of this would be happening right now if it weren't for the owner of one of the oldest and most respected art spaces in town.

Bentley Gallery sits on the northeast corner of Third Avenue and Marshall Way. The space is closed during July, otherwise known as "the off-season" for everything in Phoenix. But that won't stop pedestrians from ogling the giant sandstone Buddha head from the Tang Dynasty (circa 618-907) currently visible through the front window or tugging on the gallery's glass doors.

Owner Bentley Calverley moved to Phoenix in 1982 and moved her art gallery to Scottsdale from Philadelphia in 1989. Over the years, she's shown a wide variety of high-end work, including wood bowls by the famous Moulthrop family, the aortic steel sculptures of local Pete Deise, and ancient Asian artifacts like the Buddha head and Neolithic jade rectangles called cong.

Calverley remembers a time when Scottsdale's ArtWalk was thriving.

"Twenty years ago, on a Thursday night, it wasn't unusual to get 1,200 people down here," she says. "When I came to town, it was a much smaller community with much less to do. Back then, ArtWalk was the thing to do on a Thursday night. There was just the Biltmore and Biltmore Fashion Park, but now you've got Tempe Marketplace, Chandler Fashion Square, and all these other forms of entertainment."

Things have slowed down on Marshall Way in the past few years. "It's a very difficult time economically for a lot of people," Calverley says. "Galleries are shutting down, and artists are not getting representation. We had all these big, empty spaces right across the street."

Many of those spaces are owned by Dewey Schade. Several months ago, Calverley, who owns the Bentley Gallery property, approached him with a proposal: Why not rent those empty spaces to emerging artists for an affordable rate, at least until he could find tenants to pay full rent?

Schade seemed open to the idea, but it was Calverley's willingness to sign the lease for those spaces herself that sealed the deal. "I'm persuasive," she says. "Plus, he had the confidence of dealing with a 20-year tenant."

Calverley says she'd seen pop-up galleries in London but didn't know that's what they were called. "A lot of times, they'd say, 'We're here this week, but we may not be here next week,'" she says. "There's an urgency to it — some of the retail spaces in New York are only renting to artists for a week. That's an effective way to market — 'Get it now because we might not have it tomorrow.'"

Neither Calverley nor the artists in the pop-up galleries would disclose exact rent figures, but there are rental rates available for similar retail spaces on Marshall Way. The empty space at 4222 North Marshall Way, which formerly housed the Cervini Haas Gallery and sits right in the middle of the new pop-ups, rents for approximately $40,989 a year.

A little further down Marshall Way, near Fifth Avenue, there's a slightly larger empty space available for $55,200 a year. Much smaller retail spaces on Fifth Avenue and Craftsman Court in Old Town Scottsdale are listed at $16,200 and $18,000 a year, respectively.

Space in Old Town Scottsdale isn't exactly cheap, and that's why many emerging artists didn't set up shop there. They just couldn't afford it — until now. Thanks to Calverley, local artists once relegated to vendor booths on Roosevelt Row during First Friday art walks in downtown Phoenix can pay rent directly to her and have galleries in Scottsdale.

Calverley asked her preparator, Craig Randich, to find artists who could rent and use the empty spaces. The only stipulation: Galleries had to be open on Thursdays and Saturdays, when Calverley says they get the most foot traffic. (Bentley Gallery, though, does not participate in ArtWalk from June through October.)

Randich, a former member of eye lounge on Roosevelt Row, started sending out e-mail blasts to his contacts in the downtown arts scene. Within a couple of months, a handful of artists — many with roots in downtown Phoenix's popular First Friday art walks — answered the call.

Among them were Emmett Potter and Spencer Hibert of Soyal — two downtown Phoenix guys who'd never expected to open a gallery in Scottsdale. Hibert's own live/work space is the former Kitchenette space off Roosevelt. He shows work there on First Fridays. Potter worked with an art collective at Second Street and Garfield, then later out of a house on Third Avenue and Portland, and most recently, a place at 15th Avenue and Grand. "It had a leaky roof, and it was kind of cramped," Potter says. "At our shows, people would just pile in and walk right out. But here, people can come in and talk about the art and look at it."

It's a bright Thursday afternoon in late May, and local artist Baron Gordon is giving a tour of his favorite spots along Marshall Way. He's wearing dress slacks, a dark blue button-down shirt, and a pair of sunglasses he never removes.

He starts at 5 and 6 Fine Art Space, the pop-up gallery he shares with Jason Rudolph Peña, Dan Diaz, Joshua Rhodes, and Banding Hendrix.

From the street, Rhodes' fluorescent greens and pastel purples shine through the gallery's front windows, each filled with sharp angles and images of strange creatures in a wild juxtaposition of colors.

Dan Diaz's work includes hand-painted Vans shoes and benches made of painted skateboard decks and leather. Gordon's features a foam painting of Angela Davis with a big Afro and a map of the United States-Mexico border with historical anecdotes and anti-SB 1070 statements written all over it.

There's also a wall dedicated to the pop culture portraits of Jason Rudolph Peña, including a screaming green She-Hulk and a portrait of Hellboy in red.

All the artists at 5 and 6 are under 40, and some have shown and sold their art on Roosevelt Row during First Fridays.

In 2008, Gordon ran the Produce gallery at Ninth Avenue and Pierce Street. "When I had Produce, we had a lot of different artists' work, which was great, but I didn't get to show my stuff," Gordon says. "So this is good. 5 and 6 gives us an opportunity to stay focused and create new pieces and be continuous and fresh."

Like the other pop-up galleries on Marshall Way, 5 and 6 opened in May. Gordon says close to 500 people showed up for the opening, and the gallery has sold some art.

As he makes his way across the street, Gordon points out some of the galleries that have been on Marshall Way for years: Calvin Charles, Art One, and Lisa Sette Gallery.

Sette has been on Marshall Way since 1986, and her gallery has featured a variety of renowned international and local artists, including Valley luminaries Enrique Chagoya, Claudio Dicochea, and Angela Ellsworth, who were picked by British curator David Elliot to show their art at the prestigious 17th Biennale of Sydney in Australia this year.

Sette's happy to see pop-up galleries opening in formerly empty spaces. "They add life, from both sides," she says. "Hopefully, people will consider the ArtWalk a viable activity. We don't need it for our gallery's business, but it doesn't hurt."

She also appreciates the diversity of art the new galleries bring to Scottsdale, an area that's often painted as just a hub of Southwest kitsch. There are still plenty of places down the street to buy kachina dolls and dream catchers and paintings of canyons, but that's far from all there is.

"The stereotype of what Scottsdale art is really needs to be busted," Sette says. "Marshall Way totally deserves a new look."

Indeed, a walk down Marshall Way these days reveals a variety of artwork, from big, sparkling fiberglass fish at Soyal to colorful sculptures of strange, snail-like creatures at Art One.

Art One owner Kraig Foote has primarily shown student artwork since he opened in 1993.

"It's all contemporary work — no cowboys or Indians. If you go down the main street here, you don't see the tchotchke work anymore," Foote says. "I love the new galleries opening here . . . We need new blood. I'm so grateful not to see empty spaces, because they hurt us."

As he works his way back toward 5 and 6, Gordon stops to chat with graphic designer and artist Brian Drake, who's preparing for a show at Spec10. Tall and blue-eyed, with a chiseled face and five o'clock shadow, Drake usually looks the part of the suave designer, but right now, he's sweating it out in shorts and a T-shirt, trying to get his paintings hung.

Pop-up gallery artists work hard down here. As Gordon enters Soyal, he high-fives Emmett Potter, who says he spends 50 to 65 hours a week here. But it's paying off. Since Potter and Hibert opened a month ago, they've sold three of Potter's painted bombs, six pieces from artist Grant Wiggins' show, and tons of Hibert's 25-cent plastic Miigii creatures from the custom vending machine inside Soyal.

"We're not walking away rich, but we're actually selling art," Potter says. "I sold one of my painted bombs the other day to a teenage guy for $2,000. I love Scottsdale."

In just two months, three of the pop-up galleries — 5 and 6, Soyal, and Spec10 — had combined art sales in excess of $12,000.

That's almost enough to rent a space on nearby Craftsman Court for a year. Add what ArtWalk patrons spend at nearby restaurants, cafes, and bars, and Old Town doesn't seem so bleak, after all.

After leaving Soyal, Gordon pauses to wave at the police officers on horses and give a quick shout to Craig Randich when he sees him down the street.

"The feel here, during the day, is a cool place to be. In my opinion, it's kind of like a small town, where you know the shop owner on the next block. It's a tight-knit community," Gordon says. "I'm enthusiastic about that, because there's room for growth. There's tons of space still available. If someone has a great idea, they can come in and make something happen. Isn't that what America's about?"

In prosperous times, the arts aren't necessarily seen as a vital part of business. But a 2005 study by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts determined the national arts and culture industry generates more than $166 billion annually.

That study, "Arts & Economic Prosperity III," included revenues for 25 communities, including metropolitan Phoenix, where people spent almost $253 million at art and culture events.

Even now, when Arizona's economy seems so dismal, the arts have a pulse in commerce. According to another advocacy group, Arizona Citizens for the Arts, 50,000 people are currently employed in arts and culture jobs across the state. There are an estimated 4,000 arts-related jobs just in Legislative District 8, which includes Old Town Scottsdale.

The idea to repurpose local unused retail space into working studios and art galleries didn't stop in Scottsdale, either. A huge pop-up gallery recently sprang up in an industrial area of Phoenix.

Sheila Martin-Castillo, who owns a large office complex near 24th Street and University Drive with her husband, Eduardo, said their building was sitting empty for months after DES moved out. At the suggestion of local artists Kathryn Henneman and Kimberly Harris, the Castillos transformed half their building into Gallery 2345. The gallery, which opened May 14, hosts exhibitions twice a month, and artists can use the spaces for $150 a month with no commission.

"It's worked out beautifully," Martin-Castillo says. "We had almost 200 people here two weeks ago. The artists sold several thousand dollars of work at the first show, and I was just amazed. We were absolutely packed."

One thing Martin-Castillo's trying to do is work with more local non-profit organizations at the art openings.

"Selfishly speaking, when you tie arts events in with charities, the organizations and their supporters come to the events, and they mingle and talk about other opportunities," Martin-Castillo says. "The nonprofits can hold their board meetings here. I'd like to get it to where I can subsidize the mortgage to a degree that I'm not looking to the gallery to sustain the whole building. Because right now, it can't."

The artists in the new galleries on Marshall Way aren't making tons of money, either, but they're selling enough art to pay their rent and make a marginal profit. And if the pop-up galleries aren't bringing massive crowds to Old Town Scottsdale yet, they are bringing new art and creating a community where there once were only a handful of galleries and numerous empty storefronts.

When empty storefronts are epidemic, artists have a history of revitalizing areas.

"The history of the art world has always been about revitalizing places no one wants to go," says John Spiak, a curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe. "Times Square was a crime-ridden area once, and then galleries helped changed the face of it. When property values went up, the galleries moved to SoHo. SoHo became prominent, then the arts moved to Chelsea, then to Long Island."

Spiak notes the same thing happened in L.A., where the galleries moved from Pasadena to downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, and now Culver City. "There was nothing in Culver City before," Spiak says. "Galleries have consistently raised property values."

So there's logic in the idea of pop-up galleries. "Move in somewhere that will bring activity, and the rest of the surrounding businesses will do better," Spiak says.

The pop-up gallery trend started in Los Angeles in the 1990s, but really took off in London last summer, when painter Simon Tarrant, who had never shown at a gallery, persuaded the owners of a vacant building on affluent Fulham Road in Chelsea to let him use the space temporarily.

The landlords, Sloane Stanley Real Estate, were having trouble finding a tenant that could pay more than $243,000 in annual rent, so the building stood vacant for more than a year. Tarrant moved in on a six-month lease — with the agreement he'd pay the landlord a small percentage of whatever art he sold — and the space became the Queen's Elm Artists collective.

In the months that followed, pop-up galleries sprouted in numerous empty retail spaces throughout London, and the British government announced a $5 million fund to help local governments in economically challenged areas transform empty storefronts into art studios and showrooms.

Some of these galleries are open for a few months, others for a few weeks. But their presence, however temporary, brings new visitors (and potential renters) to areas that need more commerce and culture. Recessions don't last forever, and neither will pop-up galleries, but that's part of what makes them exciting.

By October of last year, a wave of pop-up galleries had opened in New York City. Barren retail spaces like the old Tower Records store in Manhattan, a 2,500-square foot retail space at the Port Authority terminal, and many storefronts along the Flatbush Avenue Extension in Brooklyn became art galleries.

The success of London and New York's pop-up galleries inspired other cities, like Chicago, where the Chicago Loop Alliance launched a program called Pop-Up Art Loop last November. Under the initiative, owners of empty spaces allow artists to move in on short-term leases, often with a provision that they can kick them out with 10 days' notice. The "for rent" signs remain in the windows, and artists can be usurped by a full-paying tenant at any time. In the meantime, formerly unused spaces house places like the Wabash Gallery and the Chicago Photography Collective.

On the West Coast, pop-up galleries have already seen success in Southern California. During the state's recession in the early '90s, artists did something similar to pop-up galleries. "They found low-rent areas, did projects out of their own homes, and helped to put L.A. on a more major arts map," Spiak says, mentioning spaces like Bliss in Pasadena, POST in downtown L.A., the Dollhouse Gallery in West Los Angeles, and Lemon Sky in Hollywood.

Now, some Southern California cities, particularly Long Beach, are once again looking to give the arts a break. In the last week of May, the city council gave initial approval to several arts initiatives, including possibly eliminating business taxes for artists' live/work spaces.

There is a downside: These spaces are temporary. That means that Baron Gordon, Emmett Potter, Brian Drake, and the other Scottsdale pop-up gallery artists — who have spent months establishing themselves on the art walk and maintaining the spaces — could have to move out quickly. Storefronts aren't very attractive when they're gaping rooms, but now that galleries are there bringing traffic, those spaces could be more enticing to business owners with deeper pockets.

But the proprietors of the pop-up galleries on Marshall Way are talking about having permanent spaces there. That would require them to make enough money to be competitive renters when the economy picks back up — and Gordon and Potter say that's not entirely impossible. They've both sold more art pieces on Marshall Way in two months than they did in a year in downtown Phoenix.

And it's not as though there's a mad rush to rent retail spaces in metropolitan Phoenix, either. There are numerous areas of the Valley that have more empty space than Old Town Scottsdale. All across Phoenix, there are hundreds of thousands of square feet of space that has sat unused for months or even years. Artists would love to turn those echo chambers into art galleries.

"What area couldn't benefit from that?" Spiak says. "There's that area at Central and McDowell, where there's a whole group of buildings across from CVS and the Phoenix Art Museum that are sitting empty. You have Bunky Boutique and other stuff there, and if some galleries opened around them, it would be a great hub area."

"Some of the malls are not doing so great, either, like Superstition Springs and Fiesta Mall," Spiak adds. "There are tons of strip malls built that were never even occupied."

In Mesa alone, there are 14 almost completely vacant strip malls currently listed for sale with commercial real estate company LoopNet, not including the barren Fiesta Village strip mall at Southern Avenue and Alma School Road. There are two new strip malls — Pioneer Plaza, across from the Mormon Temple, and the Shops at Bella Plaza, off Baseline Road and Superstition Springs Boulevard — that have maybe one or two tenants, and a former Walmart at Main Street and Signal Butte Road that Spiak says artists have had their eye on for a while. That building is 88,878 square feet of empty space.

Unfortunately, there are no immediate plans to transform any of those spots into pop-up galleries. Bill Jabjiniak, director of Mesa's Office of Economic Development, said he applauds the landlords who let artists use their spaces for pop-up galleries, but the city's focusing revitalization efforts on the Mesa Arts Center and downtown Main Street, where Second Friday art walks are becoming popular.

Revitalization plans for Mesa's foundering Fiesta Mall were made in 2007, but were put on hold when the economy started to tank. "Those plans are just being implemented. They're in their infancy," Jabjiniak says.

In other words, nothing's really happening there anytime soon.

But Mesa's not the only place in the Valley with surplus space. There's also 120,000 square feet of empty retail space on the west side, off 38th Avenue and Bell Road near Glendale, and a prime spot in Sunny­slope off Central Avenue and Hatcher Road, within walking distance of Sunnyslope High School.

Then there's Mill Avenue in Tempe. The street that housed so many independent businesses and nightclubs through the '90s is now, more a less, a series of gaping, empty spaces interspersed with staples like Monti's Casa Vieja restaurant and chains like P.F. Chang's.

"Frankly, there's some spots down there where there's nothing. It's empty," Baron Gordon says. "That lends an opportunity for artists in the area to say, 'Hey, let's get together and do a revitalization project similar to what's going on at Marshall Way.' I think it's on the way. I think it's a matter of months."

Actually, it is a matter of months. John Spiak is spearheading a project on Mill Avenue called "Open for Business," which would run from October 9 to January 29. The project would allow local artists to show their work in a collective exhibition in businesses along Mill Avenue. Businesses that have signed on include La Bocca, The Shoe Mill, Brand X T-Shirts, Rúla Búla, and Caffe Boa.

Spiak's inspired by what he sees happening on Marshall Way and hopes something similar can happen on Mill. "No one was going down to Scottsdale's Third Thursdays art walks anymore," he says. "[The artists are] giving it a shot in the arm with new visions."

That isn't just beneficial for the artists, but the property owners as well. Sheila Martin-Castillo says sitting on an empty office building in Central Phoenix was "a nightmare," but now that it's Gallery 2345, she sees hundreds of people coming in for art shows.

"There's a lot that can be done if you refuse to be defeated by this horrible economy," she says. "I refuse to be defeated. We need some success stories right now. We need some hope."

By 9 p.m. on the first Thursday in June, the traffic on Marshall Way has slowed to a trickle. Spencer Hibert and Emmett Potter still have the doors to Soyal gallery open, and they're chatting up a trio of well-dressed women.

Hibert, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt bearing a cartoon image of John McEnroe, steps outside for a cigarette. Tall and thin, with shoulder-length blond hair, Hibert is cautious in his optimism. "I just hope we don't get kicked out anytime soon," he says with a nervous laugh.

He's joined shortly by Potter, who reiterates how thankful they are to Bentley Calverley. "None of this would be happening without her," he says. "Bentley doesn't have to do this. There's nothing she can gain. She's doing it because she loves the art and the area."

Calverley continues to champion the cause, frequently attending openings at the pop-up galleries with her friends. When Potter and Hibert sold their first piece out of Soyal, Calverley said they'd made her day.

There's still plenty of room around town, including several spaces on Marshall Way. Many have art visible through the windows behind big yellow "space available" signs. They're there for now, but the future, of course, is uncertain.

See it while you can.

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