Victoria Boyce opened her Victoria Boyce Galleries' Tucson satellite two years ago. Her main gallery and home may be in Scottsdale, but Boyce now has an apartment in Tucson and, as she says, "I-10 and I are one." At 2,200 square feet, her Foothills gallery in a bright white shopping plaza full of art galleries is a more modest space than Vanier's, though not small. Both galleries are part of what some people in Tucson's art community only half jokingly call "The Scottsdale Invasion."
In the last two years, three Scottsdale art galleries, as well as a gallery from Sedona and one from Bisbee, have opened galleries in Tucson shopping plazas. Scottsdale may be coming south to Tucson, but it's not coming all the way downtown to open galleries next door to bars and tattoo shops. In fact, downtown has headed north to meet Scottsdale as several of Tucson's commercial galleries have opened their own satellite galleries in the Foothills. While Congress Street residents bemoan the street's empty storefronts and city officials hype Rio Nuevo's grand revitalization plans, a local developer and satellite-gallery owners are laying the foundations to make Tucson "an arts destination." Only their destination won't be the city's historic heart but its sprawling periphery: the Foothills and northwest Tucson.
Several downtown gallery owners say they had been thinking of opening galleries in the Foothills for years, but the reality of art galleries becoming concentrated there began with local restaurateurs Kelley Matthews and Peter Lasher. In 1997, the two embarked on their first development project: an art-gallery shopping plaza to be built at the northeast corner of Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive. Their concept was that by gathering multiple art galleries in a single location they could create "an arts destination" and "an art shopping experience," according to Matthews. They built El Cortijo Art Annex on raw land in front of the Fine Arts Galleries plaza, home to four galleries, including two of Tucson's best-known Western art galleries.
As to why they opened El Cortijo so far north instead of downtown, Matthews says it only made sense from a retailer's point of view: "It's a very compelling location. We've always been interested in the arts in Tucson, and we felt because of the location of Settler's West and Sanders Gallery, which have been there for a long time, that there was an opportunity to create a real destination in the central Foothills for art galleries. ... If you study the demographics of Tucson, it's really the center of the high income, Foothills' demographics. You know, it's right on the major thoroughfare through the Foothills."
Matthews originally talked to downtown gallery owners, including Terry Etherton of Etherton Gallery and Tom Philabaum of Philabaum Gallery, but she didn't get much positive feedback. "A number of the ones I talked to were so committed to being downtown I almost got the feeling that it was a political thing ... to stay downtown and make it work and stick with it, which I certainly respected," Matthews says. Ironically, Etherton opened a satellite gallery a year and a half ago in Joesler Village at Campbell Avenue and River Road, and Philabaum opened a satellite across the street in St. Phillips Plaza last week.
As a consequence, Matthews went to Scottsdale, where galleries were much more receptive. Victoria Boyce Galleries and Wilde Meyer Gallery both wanted to open satellite galleries at El Cortijo. In Tucson, Matthews finally interested gallery owner Hank Rentschler in pre-leasing the center's largest space for two galleries: Nemtoi Glass and a satellite for El Presidio, a gallery that specializes in Western art, Southwestern landscapes and pottery. Two other galleries with spaces in east Tucson and the Foothills (Scotch Mist and Rosequist Galleries) closed their existing galleries and moved to El Cortijo. Faithful to their original art-oriented concept, the developers opened El Cortijo's white stuccoed plaza with its curving Southwestern design in February 2000 with six galleries, three high-end retailers and Soleil, Matthews' and Lasher's own restaurant.
After Matthews persuaded Boyce and Wilde Meyer to come south to Tucson, the immigration from out-of-town began. James Ratliff Gallery of Sedona opened at 3067 N. Campbell Ave. next to Settlers West Contemporary Fine Art & Graphics in the Campbell Mercado. Jane Hamilton Gallery left Bisbee for Joesler Village. So far Vanier is the lone gallery in Casas Adobes Plaza at Oracle and Ina Roads. (Matthews had spoken to Vanier about opening a gallery at El Cortijo, but they were not ready to move then.)
TUCSON HAS ALWAYS HAD galleries scattered throughout the city, but for two decades the heart of Tucson's contemporary art scene has been downtown. So in September 2001, when Terry Etherton opened a satellite gallery in Joesler Village, what mattered was that one of the Arts District's anchors was following the money trail north, even if he hadn't abandoned downtown. Etherton's warm and inviting Foothills gallery with its wood-beam ceilings and old tile floors is part of a building designed by the famous Swiss architect Josias Joesler. The building also houses Michael D. Higgins & Son, which specializes in American Indian art, and the Eric Firestone Gallery, a spinoff from Firestone's Congress Street gallery that sells Arts-and-Crafts furniture and period paintings.
For Etherton, establishing the Foothills gallery was a chance to capture an audience that didn't even know his 20-year-old gallery existed. Now his staff at Joesler Village literally gives out maps and sends people off to see Etherton's main gallery at 135 S. Sixth Ave., a large, loft-style gallery that showcases work by high-profile photographers and mostly local artists. Etherton says that when they arrive, visitors are astonished: "They say: 'We had no idea this stuff was downtown.' That was something I didn't anticipate. That [the Joesler gallery] would be kind of a billboard for this gallery."
Across the street from Joesler Village is St. Phillip's Plaza, where contemporary art in the Foothills began before it was a trend. Eleanor Jeck Gallery, a contemporary art gallery, and Obsidian Gallery, now one of Tucson's finest arts-and-crafts galleries, opened in 1985 when the plaza's maze of high-end retailers, arcades, fountains and restaurants opened. Earlier this year, Jeck decided to take a temporary break from running galleries and closed her space. In what now seems an art-gallery shuffle, Philabaum Gallery, a glass-art gallery, will open in Jeck's space. (Philabaum will keep his glass-blowing studio and a gallery with limited hours open in Armory Park.)
The Scottsdale galleries coming to town have brought a change to big-city art practices in Tucson. Tucson artists were represented in Scottsdale by Vanier Galleries, which shows an eclectic mix of contemporary art. When Vanier opened its Tucson gallery, those artists had to choose between being represented exclusively by Vanier in both of their galleries or staying with their current Tucson gallery and losing their Vanier representation. "We demand exclusives, as galleries should if you're paying the kind of money we do to support the gallery and the artists," Childs says. Vanier does spend thousands regularly on individual artists by buying full-color, full-page ads in national magazines and printing gigantic invitations unmatched by any other local gallery. Childs says they also do exhibition catalogs and pursue museum exhibitions for their artists to further their careers.
Childs says that a few artists stayed with their Tucson galleries, but many did opt for Vanier representation. Davis Dominguez Gallery was hardest hit, initially losing three artists to Vanier. Before she closed her gallery, Jeck lost one artist to Vanier. An artist whose work Etherton exhibited without formal representation is now with Vanier. One of Davis Dominguez's artists and one of Jeck's artists also ended up with Boyce.
Tucsonan Barbara Rogers says that she gave up her representation with Jeck to stay with Vanier because of their financial commitment to her and her sense of partnership with them. Rogers was amazed when she moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 1990 that artists sometimes would exhibit their work in three different places, but she says that had changed even before Scottsdale galleries arrived in Tucson.
How does this sit with Tucson's gallery owners? On the surface, at least, they are all quite professional about it. Mike Dominguez, co-owner of Davis Dominguez Gallery, says that artists changing galleries is commonplace in big cities and that it's "a sign of maturity of the Tucson art market." Jeck says that no gallery owner wants to lose an artist, but she has to think of what's best for the artist. From an artist's point of view, the choice between representation in one city and representation in two cities is obvious, according to Jeck. On the other hand, gallery representation involves more than sales statistics, and one of the Davis Dominguez artists who moved to Vanier recently returned to Davis Dominguez because he was dissatisfied with his relationship with Vanier.
Although it appears from their gallery spaces and staffing that Vanier Galleries has come in with more financial backing than Victoria Boyce Galleries, the one thing they have in common is their price tags. Most of the artworks in both of their March exhibitions were in the $25,000-$35,000 range. Are they selling them? Boyce says that her March exhibition was one of her highest priced and that she sells work ranging from $800 up to $35,000 or so. At Vanier, Childs says that Tucsonans were a little taken aback by the even higher prices of New York artists like Terence La Noue. The gallery opened in November, but Childs feels that Tucsonans are already getting used to the Scottsdale prices. He says Vanier is selling those works and doing well.
Rogers, who recently sold a large diptych at Vanier for $32,000, says that her artworks, like all artists' works, are priced the same wherever they are exhibited. The difference is that at Vanier she has been able to show larger (and so more expensive) artworks than she could at Jeck. The price of an artwork reflects an artist's age, her exhibition record, her reputation, the size of the work, the medium, the reputation of the main gallery that represents her and increases for inflation. Commercial galleries typically receive a 40-50 percent commission on the work that they sell for the artists they represent.
Etherton says there have always been people in Tucson willing to spend that kind of money for Western art. Etherton, whose gallery began as a photography gallery and expanded to include painting and sculpture, says he sells works for $20,000 and more throughout the year. Typically, his big sales are not contemporary paintings from gallery exhibitions but historic photographs that he sells over the phone, at trade shows or through his personal network. (Those kinds of historic photographs are his specialty at the Joesler gallery.) The prices for works by the contemporary, mid-career artists that he sells regularly in his downtown gallery are $1,500-$5,000. Etherton is encouraged to hear that contemporary art is being sold at high prices in Tucson. "That's going to filter down and benefit everybody in one way or another, I think," he says.
Elizabeth Cherry is now the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a nonprofit organization that runs the HazMat galleries in the Warehouse District. Until she closed her gallery, Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, to pursue new challenges, Cherry exhibited big-name national and international conceptual artists with some of the highest priced, contemporary artworks in town, ranging up to $40,000. But, according to Cherry, what she typically sold were $10,000 works, and she didn't sell those in Tucson. Cherry had a comprehensive website and sold a lot of the artwork she represented over the Internet.
Dominguez says the highest priced sale he's made of a contemporary artwork in Tucson was $14,000, and that was a corporate sale. He also says that his gallery doesn't carry "blue chip" artists (big, national and international names). All of which is to say that Tucson's major, contemporary art galleries have not been selling contemporary paintings and sculptures for $25,000 regularly to local clients.
Cherry thinks that Scottsdale galleries bringing their high-priced art to Tucson will be good for art dealers but hard on smaller galleries that are showing more local work. "When you have someone come in who knows what they're doing, it makes everyone have to stand up and take notice. It's how capitalism works," Cherry says. "It's a Catch 22. On the one hand, it's bad for the small galleries that they can't keep up, but on the other hand, I think it's good for the art that they'll have to react to that. They'll start doing something that's a little more serious or a little bit more worldly. It's too bad that Tucson's always been this little artist's haven. A part-time job, be a painter and there you go."
Tucson can become something more than a city with a struggling downtown and some Scottsdale and local galleries scattered around the periphery, thinks Boyce, who for many years owned The Mind's Eye Gallery, one of Scottsdale's most respected arts and crafts galleries. "I personally feel that Tucson is poised right on the brink, if it chooses, to become a winter Santa Fe. I think those people who summer in Santa Fe could easily be drawn to winter in Tucson," she says. The reason, according to Boyce, is that Scottsdale (the historic winter watering hole for art aficionados) has ruined many of the qualities that made it a major destination in Arizona.
According to Boyce, Scottsdale paved over surrounding desert so that the natural environment was no longer readily accessible to visitors or residents. Leisure visitors began staying at large hotels that work to keep them on the hotel property. Boyce says, the homeowner's climate has changed and the Scottsdale population has moved an hour north of downtown Scottsdale and its art-gallery scene. Boyce has actually met some of her old Scottsdale clients in her Tucson gallery because Scottsdale residents are now making recreational day trips to Tucson. Having served on the Scottsdale Tourism Commission from 1994-2000, Boyce should know about such things.
People in Tucson's contemporary art community generally like the idea of a larger art scene, but in terms of aesthetics many are worried about becoming another Santa Fe or another Scottsdale. Etherton is glad he decided to open his gallery at Joesler Village because he doesn't feel he would have fit in at El Cortijo. Even though two-thirds of the galleries are from Tucson, for Etherton they don't feel much different than Scottsdale's "decorator art" galleries. He says, "It's not the kind of stuff I'm interested in, but I hope they do well. If it were up to me, I wish there were hundreds of galleries here as long as they're quality galleries . ... I'd hate to see more Southwest kitsch, sunset, coyote-kerchief kind of things. You know, I'd rather see more things that are a little bit more provocative, a little bit more edgy, a little bit more urban and not so regional."
Tucsonans seem to be more open minded about Vanier Galleries, in part because the director is one of their own. Childs is a local artist and arts consultant/broker as well as a former gallery owner. Trying to make a small gallery survive near Congress Street, as Childs did with his DC Harris Gallery, is akin to a rite of passage in the downtown arts community. Vanier's artist roster also includes eight reputable Tucson artists, which is always a good ice breaker, as long as people don't perceive the gallery as raiding local galleries, and they don't seem to. Vanier also represents several New York artists and Francois Gilot, who was Pablo Picasso's companion. (Boyce represents Arizona and national artists as well as six Tucson artists, but they are not as well known as Vanier's artists.) Vanier's long-term commitments to renovate such a large gallery space in Tucson and to support its artists so strongly were enough to put Vanier on the wait-and-see map. Even so, as Childs says, "People always have a little suspicion of something from up north coming down here."
When it comes to the future of Tucson's art community, Etherton says the city has always had and still has a problem with its identity. According to Etherton, when someone says "Santa Fe," the word conjures up an image, a vision. He says that when visitors come into his gallery, they're amazed to see such exhibitions in Tucson. When he asks them what they expected to see, they say they didn't know what to expect. "I think Tucson has this idea that it has this great progressive kind of liberal place that's great for artists, but you can't put [your finger on] that. I mean what is that? Where is that?" Etherton doesn't want to see Tucson doing more regional art, but he does think that a cohesive sense that everyone is doing something serious would be good. For now, he thinks that quality businesses are being scattered all over town in pockets like Joesler Village.
As for downtown revitalization, Etherton says he's an eternal optimist, but the words sound like lip service to the cause. He is keeping his main downtown gallery because it is a large, lovely space with a good restaurant downstairs. Besides, everyone knows where he is, and most are still willing to make the trek downtown for Etherton's exhibitions. The other downtown art businesses that moved north also have kept their downtown spaces, more for practicality than love of downtown or political commitment to it. The feeling that the mayor and city council don't care about Congress Street and its surrounding area as well as a sense that nothing is going to improve any time soon has disillusioned both the owners of commercial galleries and the directors of nonprofit galleries downtown. Things have changed since 1997 when Matthews went shopping for galleries to move to El Cortijo.
While larger commercial galleries have forged northward to expand their revenue base, smaller galleries are going under or struggling financially to survive in downtown. The 20-year-old Central Arts Collective closed its gallery space in December because of financial problems. GOCAIA (Gallery of Contemporary and Indigenous Art) cut back from two storefront spaces to one, reduced hours and laid off both part-time employees. At the end of February, the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery was $7,000 in debt and its future was uncertain. (In a surprisingly short period of time, the 22-year-old cooperative gallery has pulled itself into the black through its members' aggressive fund-raising efforts.)
Last month, the Tucson Arts District Partnership listed approximately 35 art exhibition spaces (dedicated galleries, plus businesses that display art) in the greater downtown area, which includes the Warehouse District and Armory Park. David Aguirre, Warehouse District advocate and director of the Sixth Street Arts Studio, says that 265 artists' studios fill the area. At the same time, there were approximately 20 empty storefronts on Congress Street between Fourth and Church Avenues, although it was hard to tell what was behind some of the papered-over windows.
Barbara Jo McLaughlin, the former executive director of Dinnerware, says the city doesn't have an Arts District anymore because downtown is full of bars, transients and tattoo parlors. As a consequence, people are afraid to come downtown. She says the Rio Nuevo urban revitalization project is starting so far from Congress Street that it will be a decade or more before it makes a difference. "In the meantime, downtown is falling apart," McLaughlin says, "It's got slum landlords that are literally letting their buildings fall apart, so they hopefully will get bulldozed and make the landlords a ton of money, and, in the meantime, they don't care. There's nothing really being done right now to help the businesses that are struggling there. ... There's just nothing being done to help anyone to survive down there until Rio Nuevo happens. It's a big, exciting project, but if there's nothing left downtown to revive, and the buildings are falling apart, then what?" McLaughlin left Dinnerware in February because the gallery could no longer pay her salary.
Davis Dominguez Gallery is an exception although it is in the Warehouse District rather than on Congress Street. In late 1998, before everyone else began moving north, Davis Dominguez took a big chance and moved south. They left a small gallery in the Casas Adobes Office Park, literally just two blocks south and across the street from where Vanier settled in November 2001. Davis Dominguez moved into a large, beautifully renovated space in the old Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Co. Building at 154 E. Sixth St. Dominguez says they moved because they wanted more space and because people thought they were out of the loop up on the northwest side of town.
Davis Dominguez is now thriving, and Dominguez attributes it in large measure to the fact that the gallery is right on the path between the Tucson Museum of Art and the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Candice Davis says that their visitors literally turn up with TMA admission stickers still on their lapels. She also says that people should remember there are expensive neighborhoods like Sam Hughes and El Encanto near downtown. Even so, Dominguez feels lucky that they are in the Warehouse District on the other side of the tracks from downtown because it is getting "too rough," as he puts it.
Boyce says that what is happening up in the Foothills happened in part because of what didn't happen downtown, namely that nothing was done to encourage residences near downtown. "I can compare this to Scottsdale where the population moved north. When the population moves north, you're going to have to make a decision. Are you going to ask them to commute an hour down to where you are, or are you going to go to where they are? Logically, what's happening now is galleries are coming where the population has gone to, where it's easy for people to get to and [where] they can see getting to."
The Arts District holds twice monthly Thursday Night ArtWalks where people can park and walk around to downtown galleries that keep special hours for the occasion. After the Campbell Avenue and River Road construction is completed, the Foothills' galleries could theoretically hold "ArtDrives," so that people could drive up (or down) Campbell Avenue, stopping at four shopping plazas to see almost 20 art galleries. With this concept, Americans addicted to driving wouldn't have to walk, and they could take breaks to dine and spend money at trendy shops willing to keep special hours.
The "ArtDrive" might be a hard sell to residents of central Tucson, many of whom think the world ends at Grant Road. There would have to be more galleries and more galleries showing cutting-edge art to pull the downtown art crowd north, but it is possible. Tucsonans actually drive to Scottsdale periodically to go to their Thursday night Artwalks and mosey around their 80-plus galleries--on foot.
Central Tucson residents driving north to visit Foothills galleries regularly would be a boon to those galleries since their owners set up shop expecting business from nearby neighborhoods and resorts. El Cortijo Art Annex, Joesler Village and St. Phillips Plaza galleries wanted to bring art to the people, which sounds like a misnomer, but it's true in its way. They're just bringing art to the people with the disposable income to buy it, and that is nothing new in the big-city world of art.