Commercial Art Is Keeping Phoenix Artists Afloat -- But At a High Cost

It's not hard to find an open dumpster in this town.

Ask any college kid looking for a few moving boxes or urban forager looking for a meal. But there's something weird about the set of three tan dumpsters in the parking lot of a building on 14th Street and Indian School Road.

They're fitted with padlocks and monitored by surveillance cameras. But inside, you won't find blueprints or old computer equipment or sensitive financial documents. Pry one of those dumpsters open and chances are good that you'll be faced with a pile of last season's hotel art.

Phoenix may be home to a group of largely second-tier fine arts institutions, but it's also the headquarters of one of the country's most established commercial-art manufacturers. It's a high-stakes, high-paying (relatively speaking) business with more than 50 big-name hotel clients around the world (plus office buildings, private homes, convention centers, airports, and hospitals). That's a lot of wall space.

And it's also the dirty (or not-so-dirty) little secret of some of the best artists in town, who work or have worked at Phoenix Art Group to pay the bills and fund their more creative habits.

In the past 40 years, Phoenix Art Group has employed hundreds of members of the art community and produced countless decorative mirrors, stained metal sculptures, and sleepy landscapes. Any artist who's been involved in the local community for the past decade or so either has clocked in at Phoenix Art Group or knows someone who has — but most are hesitant to talk about it.

"You'd really be hard-pressed to find anyone who hadn't heard of Phoenix Art Group in this community," says independent curator and fine art consultant Ted Decker. "But for so long, the name was absolutely scandalous."

Truth is, it's never been easy to survive as an artist in Phoenix. But today, even in tough economic times, galleries and museums continue to open and students enroll in arts degree programs across the country. And because of public involvement, support from local government, and a group of seriously talented people, this city's art scene is the strongest it's been in years.

The artists, however, still struggle to make ends meet.

"The old joke goes something like, 'What do you call an art school graduate?'" says Greg Esser, a longtime Phoenix arts advocate.



Greg Esser is trained as a fine artist (he's a printmaker, sculptor, and intermedia artist) but makes his living these days as director of ASU's Desert Initiative, housed at ASU Art Museum. He's also the co-founder of the Roosevelt Row Arts District, a job that — like many in the arts — doesn't pay the bills. Esser moved to Phoenix in the mid-'90s and has seen, organized, and supported much of the art development in downtown Phoenix.

In short, he says, he's seen the arts district grow out of a crime-ridden abandoned neighborhood on Roosevelt Street. But he also notes there's plenty of room for growth.

"The arts have created a sense of place in Phoenix, and they continue to have a huge impact downtown," Esser says. "But pulling up our boot straps only works well, to a certain degree, without significant financial support."

Local artists open their studios and host gallery exhibitions on the first Friday of every month in downtown Phoenix, the final Friday in Tempe, and just about every Thursday in Scottsdale.

But what you see once or twice a month is hardly a peek into their real existence. Most of these artists take day jobs at restaurants and bars, some work office jobs they'll argue are mildly creative, and a few are lucky to nab positions within the arts community. Even fewer score grants from local and national organizations.

Go to any city around the world, and it's rare that you'll find artists who can support themselves solely on their own artwork. Even those at the top of the Phoenix arts pyramid — those who are highly regarded, collected, and curated into galleries and museums, and show regularly outside of the state — still spend most of their time outside their own studios.

Many choose to teach: Sue Chenoweth leads visual arts classes at Metro Arts; Carolyn Lavender teaches at Phoenix College; and Jon Haddock, Betsy Schneider, Angela Ellsworth, and Mark Klett (to name a few) are faculty members at ASU.

Others land public art gigs or bank on the handful of big-name collectors. (Good luck grabbing work by a promising emerging artist before Ted Decker, or a Hector Ruiz, Randy Slack, or James Angel piece before Treg Bradley.)

The rest rely on each other. Architects and developers at Habitat Metro just redid an old motel on Grand Avenue, Oasis on Grand, to create affordable housing for creatives. Artists Matt Moore and Carrie Marill are rehabbing a building on Third and Roosevelt streets and are collaborating with ASU's Desert Initiative to create housing for visiting international artists.