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VOICES: Learn from Phoenix's example: Downtowns benefit from art and artists



I grew up in an old icehouse on Jackson Street in Phoenix that my parents had turned into a place where artists can exhibit experimental artwork. My parents, both working artists, have renovated the Icehouse consistently for 20 years, excavating the inside to expose cork walls, taking off the roof to fit my dad's art installation, and bringing the building up to city and fire codes.

I recently spent two weeks back at the Icehouse for an exhibition. One night, a friend and I were sitting outside when a young guy with a buzz cut and jail-issued jeans walked past. He was with a man who looked like his dad, and I assumed they were leaving the jail, located nearby. The young guy stopped for a moment and asked, "Hey, what is this place?" We told him that we'd been installing an art exhibit, and he looked inside for a long time. His eyes visibly lit up. "Hey! Come on!" the older guy said, pulling him away. In my mind, I saw this young guy leaving the dark, collapsed lung of the jail and walking into a creative refuge.

I now live in downtown Tucson. I skateboard across downtown everyday, through all the construction and past the empty shop fronts. In my short time here, I've seen galleries come and go, and I can't help but worry that what is happening in Phoenix—the evacuation of artists from the center of the city—will happen here in Tucson. Art should be more prevalent downtown, a place with lots of diversity, to validate peoples' differences. Tucson's downtown should be a place where we are allowed to think and question. But our focus on industry is squeezing artists out of the area.

Galleries all over downtown are losing their spaces to private developers. Dinnerware Artspace, along with fellow galleries Central Arts Gallery and Eric Firestone Gallery, were given notice in early November to move by March 31, 2010. (The owner, Scott Stiteler, has announced plans to put in a restaurant.) According to Dinnerware Artspace director David Aguirre, the loss of Dinnerware's location threatens downtown's cultural map.

"I think that giving up the last of the art galleries on Congress (Street) in favor of a bar scene is not what downtown Tucson is about. It's not just art galleries; it's an arts and culture scene. In its place will be a scene that only adores money. Tucson is better than that," he said.

Nearby on Toole Avenue, another art district is in danger of disappearing. In November, the Solar Culture Gallery warehouse was purchased by Fenton Investment Company in a state auction; others have since been sold.

A statement released prior to the auction quoted Steve Fenton, president of the private firm, as having a desire to work with the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO) to incorporate artists into his plans. However, in a follow-up interview on Dec. 17, Fenton distanced himself from those claims, stating, "That is not my press release." He said there was no agreement in place with WAMO. Fenton, however, said he would like to keep artists in the buildings, if possible.

The constant shifting around and loss of art spaces devalues the arts and puts Tucson's cultural scene at risk. A lot of the displaced downtown artists have found refuge where they can continue making their art. Aguirre, for example, has moved to the Citizens Warehouse at 44 W. Sixth St. But changes in downtown's structure could prevent artists from coming back. It is a common mistake that cities make: Artists move into bad neighborhoods, work to fix them up and then get priced out when developers are interested in the area.

The situation at the Icehouse in Phoenix demonstrates one direction that a city can go in if the arts aren't supported. My parents' neighborhood, which was once a vibrant warehouse-arts district, has been nearly erased by the city of Phoenix and Maricopa County. Where old buildings housing artists and galleries once stood, there are now two jails, a morgue and an eight-story parking garage. The Icehouse is isolated, a small white speck surrounded by gray.

I have seen artists forced into conflict over land and physical space my whole life. Memories, emotions, expression, ideas—they are tied up in these buildings. They give people a place to stop, reflect and experience things beyond their normal routines.

When the wrecking balls are aimed at art spaces, what other elements of our community and ourselves will come down?

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