Longform

Tip of the ICEHOUSE

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But all of those events are history. Many observers agree that in recent years, the Icehouse's role in the local arts demimonde is not nearly as large -- or anywhere as promising -- as it once was. Scenesters point to a variety of reasons for the facility's diminished reputation in the local arts community, the most conventional wisdom being a tie between poor management and the notion that, like any underground phenomena, alternative art spaces either die natural deaths or morph into more commercial enterprises. Others speculate that through overuse, the site has lost its novelty value, or that smaller exhibits tend to be dwarfed by the venue's structural drama.

Or maybe the answer is a collage of all of the above.

Once the vanguard of the Valley's underground art movement, the Icehouse's profile has sunk so low in recent years that even hard-core arts boosters have a hard time tracking Hestenes' space on their radar.

"I wasn't even sure it was still running," says one local scenester who, like many interviewed for this article, prefers to remain unnamed because, as they say, you never know who you'll run into at the next opening. "I think there are a lot of other people who think the same thing -- if they even think of it at all."

Angela Ellsworth, a Valley performance artist who teaches at Metropolitan Arts Institute, reports that after overhearing several of her students talking about the Icehouse, she asked what art event they'd attended. "They told me they'd been there for a rave," says Ellsworth, alluding to one of the all-night dance parties for which the Icehouse is now almost exclusively known. "They didn't even know it was an arts space."

Had it not been for the life support provided by Hestenes' father's pocketbook, this particular arts space might well have evaporated long ago.

"I'm not very good with business," confesses Helen Hestenes. "I'm much more of a conceptual-type thinker, and the way I do things is really quite different."

One concept that seems to have eluded both Hestenes and Therrien from the git-go is the financial end of supporting an arts space. Like most alternative arts arenas, the Icehouse reportedly was never intended as a money-making venture. And a good thing, too. The installations and performance art on which the space has built its reputation have no commercial value, the venue rarely charges admission and its owners seldom applied for public grants like those that keep other art locations afloat.



Even when the owners did apply for grants, the space didn't fare well -- apparently because of foot-dragging on Therrien's part. In 1991, according to City of Phoenix documents, the city approved $149,000 in funding to Therrien and Hestenes as part of a historic preservation program. Therrien agreed to come up with matching funds within four years. When he didn't, the deal fell apart.

"Considerable effort has been made to work with Mr. Therrien to provide financial assistance for his [Icehouse] rehabilitation project," according to a city summary of the project. "Earlier on, backers beyond the control of the city or Mr. Therrien caused delays. However, with the execution of the contract, there has been a clear understanding of the responsibilities of each party and mutually agreed upon deadlines for performance. There is no justification for further extension."


Sitting in her second-story Icehouse office, Helen Hestenes laughs uneasily when asked how she felt a few years ago when she looked out into the courtyard during the first rent-a-rave and found the space swarming with hundreds of teenagers, many of them pharmaceutically blissed-out, waving glo-sticks at 3 in the morning. It couldn't have been pleasant to spend 10 years working on a dream arts space, only to see it turned into an avant garde rental facility.



"At first, I really hated it," says Hestenes, measuring her words so carefully that she sounds like someone speaking on a cell phone that keeps cutting in and out. "I couldn't stand techno music. But it was something we've had to do to pay the bills."

"Now," she says after a thoughtful pause, "I've come to like techno music and I realize that the younger people who are coming to them are the future of the Icehouse. These events are exposing them to art that they might not normally see. So I've sort of reversed my position -- these parties, I believe, can expand the breadth and appreciation of what we're doing."

But even that unlikely source of support was temporarily extinguished several months ago courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department. Fire safety specialist Leonard Woolum says he was alarmed in September when he learned that Hestenes had rented the Icehouse to New Times for an upcoming rave -- nearly a year after a performance artist requested an inspection in order to get a permit allowing use of indoor pyrotechnics. In denying that permit, Woolum pointed out a number of serious fire-code violations, including insufficient fire escapes, unmarked exits, an inadequate number of fire extinguishers, lack of sprinklers and some ancient wiring dating back to the building's earliest days.

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Dewey Webb