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 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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea