The biggest controversy at this year's Art Detour the weekend when artists in downtown Phoenix open their studios and galleries to the public began before the event ever started.
Jon Gipe, an accomplished artist (he once worked as New Times' staff photographer) e-mailed John Spiak, a curator at Arizona State University Art Museum, upset that five15, an artist collective/gallery on Roosevelt Street, was holding a "$99 Only" show.
"I can't believe what Art Detour has turned into. It seems absurd that artists would be selling work for $99," Gipe wrote. "It doesn't make sense that artists would want to create a market where their work is so undervalued."
Gipe agreed to let Spiak post his concerns on a local listserv, and throughout the week, a debate continued online, but also in galleries, shops, and studios regarding Gipe's gripe. Some dismiss the complaint as another sign of our city's naiveté: Spiak and others point out that $99 shows are common in other places, a good way to expose would-be collectors to art. Others agree with Gipe that artists need to aim higher or risk never making a living. And still others say, "Gee, maybe $99 is too much to ask in some cases, when it comes to what's shown downtown."
The artists at five15 are arguably among the best in a mixed bag, in a scene that allows anyone to call himself an artist and stick a price tag on his work. Not many ever sell anything, a harsh reality that's set in as the downtown art scene particularly on First Fridays has turned into a people-watching carnival more than an art-buying opportunity.
Cindy Dach, owner of MADE art boutique and a co-founder of eye lounge, another artist collective on Roosevelt, says the topic's hardly new.
"It's an age-old question," she says of the "$99 Only" show. "I loved the title. I thought it was tongue in cheek. What if they had called it a 'young collectors show'? Would anyone have cared [about the price point] then?"
The "$99 Only" show was a fund raiser for the gallery, and members of the collective say it was simply a fun, campy way to draw people in and actually sell art during the scene's biggest weekend of the year.
In fact, by the end of the weekend, five15 had sold much of the work on display 12 pieces (including three still not paid for, but promised).
Mary Shindell, a member of five15 and a successful artist (her paintings and drawings sell for thousands of dollars, and she shows in galleries in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) says the point of the exhibit was to make art accessible. She doesn't feel undervalued for selling a small piece for $99 instead.
"For me, it was a drawing problem how do you make something that you can afford to sell for $99 that will be quality?" she asks. "We are trying to develop a culture of people who are not afraid to come into a gallery."
Disposable Hero, another five15 artist, was especially irritated by the criticism of the collective's idea.
"You have to ask the question, how many artists involved in Roosevelt Row do art full-time?" he asks. "I guarantee the percentage is very small. Maybe it's people who aren't selling art who are upset about it. I just sold a piece to a girl, and she specifically said, 'If it had been any more, I can't afford it.' That's one more person who has a piece of my art and is aware of what's going on here. That girl was maybe 22 that's a young age to be purchasing art."
Gipe concedes that he does see the other side, though he still worries about the implications of the price point.
"Who am I to say I know anything? Except I know their art is worth more than $99, and they're giving it away," he says. "They're not going to sell anything that's priced right because collectors don't go down there."
Precisely, say Spiak and others. The lack of serious collectors and gallerists downtown is one reason most artists can't make a living in Phoenix.
People like Shindell and painter Carrie Marill (who counts Todd Oldham on her list of collectors) make good money by selling their work in other cities, but struggle to fetch the same price for their art here.
"I think people here feel they have to underprice it because it's not moving," Marill says. "I have to be careful with that as well. I don't want to piss collectors off."
According to Spiak, an aggressive gallery culture is the first thing Phoenix needs to move forward.
"Why isn't there a true, true gallery downtown? That's my biggest question," he says. "I've been here 13 years, trying to court a gallery downtown. Barlow and Starker was the best gallery that ever existed in Phoenix in my opinion. They could do things on a whim, on a test basis they would do something knowing it could fail."
And what happened to that gallery? The owners moved to New York several years ago.
"How do we keep something like that here? If there's not the right person in this community, where is that place we can take that person from? Have them move their studio here," Spiak says. "The tax revenue a gallery brings in is amazing."
Getting there without also earning a reputation for howling coyotes and overpriced mediocrity, like Scottsdale (notable exceptions: Lisa Sette, Bentley Gallery, and a few others) is the challenge.
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Gregory Sale, director of visual art for the Arizona Commission on the Arts and an artist himself, says part of the problem is artists aren't trained to market themselves the way a gallery would.
"There's a lot of learning and strategies that as a group we are just not savvy [about] yet," he says. "Here in Phoenix, which is not really recognized as one of the major cultural hubs, you've got more of a challenge when it comes to the market and how you respond to the market."
Wayne Michael Reich is one of the few downtown artists, he says, who does make a living though a modest one solely through selling his art. Like a lot of artists, he didn't have a specific problem with the five15 show, except that it might make it tougher for him to do his job.
"If you're trying to sell something for $450, now they're [customers are] going to go buy four pieces during Art Detour," he says. "The problem is Phoenix doesn't know how to stick in its heels and demand to be paid what you're worth. It doesn't really inspire you to continue with your craft."