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So Long, Sarah

A conversation with outgoing Tucson Arts District Partnership director Sarah Clements

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When Sarah Clements became the Tucson Arts District Partnership's first executive director in 1990, the fledgling organization faced a daunting task. The district, which encompassed all of greater downtown, had only about 25 artist studios and a similar number of galleries within its borders. The City of Tucson was the sole financial source of funds, contributing $287,500.

When Clements steps down from her position at the end of this month to do something new, including possibly pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Arizona, she will leave behind a much different Arts District. Today an estimated 300 studios lie within its boundaries. While city funding has shrunk to $207,000 annually, the total budget for the Partnership has grown to $430,000 through grants, donations and fund raising efforts.

The impact of the Arts District Partnership on Tucson has gained it national attention, if not local acclaim. So even though downtown is presently in its worst shape ever, the success of the Arts District has been one bright star over the last decade.

To review her 11 years with the Partnership, the Weekly sat down with Clements recently for a chat.

Is the idea of a downtown arts district still realistic?

I think as a concept the arts district is very viable. As a concept that can unite and help to promote downtown and activity there, I think it is the only thing that has been able to do that. The Arts District as a focal point is still very, very viable and, in fact, I believe needs to be, at this particular point in time, more strongly supported.

How would you characterize the relationship between City Hall and the Partnership over the last few years?

Unfortunately, very antagonistic and unsupportive. I think there are some people in City Hall who would like to do away with this organization because we are fairly independent. We might be a fly in the ointment, which was never our goal, but that may be the view of some people.

If the city stops funding the Partnership, will the organization go away?

I won't be here to make that decision, but can the organization exist? Yes. But this needs to be a partnership with the city. We were set up to provide something of benefit to the community, which I believe we do. We entered this [in 1990] with the notion that the city would be both a financial and support partner. Throughout the years that partnership has changed [and has never been as low as now].

Will downtown improve with the way things are going now?

That is the million-dollar question, isn't it? My opinion is that ideally the city government's job is to provide infrastructure, leadership and support services for the development of anything, including the downtown. In this ideal world, much more attention would be paid to really assessing what's working and looking at where the opportunities are and then providing some real incentives for development and infill. In my opinion that is a better role for a municipality to play than government-as-developer.

What is your view of the Rio Nuevo project?

The notion of the Rio Nuevo project seems to have moved [away] from a district that was initiated because of the opportunity to draw Tax Increment Financing funds into this community and stimulate the development of public facilities that would then engender the development of private-sector projects. Somehow it moved from there to "The Plan for All of Downtown." That seems to be how it is being interpreted by people, particularly the city [government].

In my opinion, people in the City Manager's office have lacked the willingness to embrace semi-private or private efforts, particularly when they are community-based in the downtown. Part of the issue is [they] can't control everything an outside group does. I think it is just fear.

I believe the effort to control as many aspects of downtown functions as possible by the City Manager's office has certainly escalated considerably in the last four years. I believe that is a shame. When that happens, ... it may seem a neater way to go [with] one source of everything as opposed to multiple interests and entities, [which] is messy, but that yields a lot more diversity and a lot more community involvement.

What should the goals for the Arts District Partnership be for the next five years?

I believe that this organization needs to become much more involved with downtown land-use planning and influencing it, like we have been able to do in the past with the Warehouse District. The kinds of things we have been able to put together from the position of a non-profit [organization] have added considerable value to downtown as a whole. This organization needs to be more involved in things like gallery recruitment, art space development and artist live/work space development.

Another thing that is very important is to tie everybody together under some kind of a marketing and public outreach effort that melds all this together rather than separates it. Linkage between the downtown core and the Rio Nuevo project is extremely critical. The area needs to be melded together rather than separated. That is a role the Arts District Partnership can play.

Tucson's downtown has been in much livelier shape in the last 10 years than it is right now. Five years ago it was just a lot more vital. Certainly part of that has to do with the growth of the retail market in the entire community. But I do think there has just been a dwindling of care and feeding by the city [government]. Focus has just slipped away from the core and some of the things that were invested in it and [instead] focused on this new shiny penny [of Rio Nuevo].

If the development at Rio Nuevo isn't really well linked with the Fox [Theater] and the Rialto [Theater] and all the stuff in-between, and I don't know how it can be, then it will be a stand-alone development by the freeway. What happens then with the rest of downtown remains to be seen. If there is a willingness to continue to invest in the city center area, then the linkage [with Rio Nuevo] will be made from there. I believe, [however,] that as the city's funding has gone down, there has been a lessening of the city's sense that [downtown] is of value.

There seems to be this prevalent thought out there, I hear it from mayor and council, city staff, downtown business people, that the arts and business are somehow mutually exclusive concepts. That couldn't be further from the truth. The lack of ability to recognize the similarities [between artists and small-business people] has put downtown redevelopment at a disadvantage.

I say promote downtown to the adventurous instead of trying to make it like everyplace else by promoting the ordinary, and by that, maybe even mediocrity.

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