"It's been nine years," Roberto Bedoya says. "I'm really proud of [Tucson Pima Arts Council], and what it's accomplished. I'm ready to go. I'm just exhausted."
Bedoya's tenure at TPAC was marked by prodigious fundraising, as well as many budget battles with the city and county. Although he lassoed some $600,000 in grants from private foundations, the annual TPAC budget went from $1.2 million when he arrived in Tucson in 2006 down to $750,000 now.
Since the recession, "we lost 57 percent of our public funding," he says. "I won't tell you all the headaches. You have to spend a lot of time talking to public officials. You've got to make your case. It's been very hard."
As the former executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, Bedoya already had a national reputation in arts advocacy when he arrived in Tucson. To make up for the shortfalls in TPAC's budget and to fund initiatives like innovative PLACE projects, Bedoya brought in big outside grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the private Kresge Foundation.
"I was very successful in making partnerships with private funders," he said. "I feel proud of that."
Several interesting projects sprang from those partnerships and fundraising. A $5,000 PLACE grant from TPAC allowed local cumbia act Vox Urbana to interview local immigrants, pay the interviewees for their time and "create a musical project focused on the community of Tucson," says band member Jim Colby. The band formed the real life stories into "cumbia corridos."
The popular PLACE grants have been connecting Tucson artists with local communities for six years. Choreographer Kimi Eisele used hers to educate Tucsonans about water use in the desert and to stage a modern dance concert in the dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz. A PLACE grant also allowed photographer Josh Schachter to teach photography to refugee kids at Catalina High School. The fledgling photogs even organized a critically acclaimed public exhibition of their images about their heart-wrenching search for a new home.
But at this moment, the future of the grants is uncertain. The PLACE grants, along with the New Works grants to individual artists and other lauded TPAC initiatives, were the brainchild of Bedoya. They flourished after he had stepped down from the executive directorship in August 2015 to become director of civic engagement because the newly created position allowed him to specifically pursue more projects like PLACE that would bring art into the neighborhoods.
At the same time as his job change, Debi Chess Mabie, a former Chicago arts leader who had worked as development director at the Loft Cinema and as a host at KUAT's "Arizona Illustrated," was named chief executive officer.
Bedoya made the switch to the new job voluntarily, he says.
"I had a health scare," he says. "In August I said, 'I'm tired. Let's see what we can do. It's time to pull the trigger on my departure.' I believe in Debi's capacities as a leader."
Chess Mabie praised Bedoya's accomplishments.
"It was an honor and a privilege to work with him and to see the respect he garnered," she says. "I learned so much from Roberto. He was so skillful in bringing in national support. I hope to take what he had built here and expand it."
Unfortunately, there is no funding right now for the popular PLACE grants, according to Chess Mabie, "but the New Works grants to individual artists will absolutely continue, as well as general operating support for the arts organizations."
Former Tucsonan Charles Alexander, a poet, publisher of Chax Press and a beneficiary of Bedoya's programs, praised him for bringing an era of professionalism to TPAC.
"He helped define Tucson within the community and nationally as a place for art," Alexander says. "Roberto was always helpful to both organizations and individual artists."
Bedoya funded Creative Capital artist development workshops with NEA and Kresge money over three years.
"They came to do workshops on basic livelihood issues," he says, "how to do PR, working with the Internet, doing community outreach."
Alexander says that the Creative Capital workshops "really helped individual careers." He attended a two-day session to further his own career.
"It turned out to be helpful to me," he says. "They told me directly that I needed to have an academic appointment someplace."
Alexander eventually followed the advice: last year he moved Chax Press to the University of Houston-Victoria.
Bedoya counts the PLACE grants—the acronym stands for People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement—among his greatest successes.
"I designed and implemented that initiative," Bedoya says. "In the work that we supported, artists were working with neighborhoods on community concerns, on history, on beautification. I'm proud of the projects."
He can't pick his favorites, he says, joking that that would be like saying he loved one of his children the best, but he admires Schachter's project for focusing on "refugees trying to find their places in the world." He also loved an oral history project with the Chinese Cultural Center that researched the old Chinese corner grocery stores in the barrio and ended in a joyful reunion of the grocer families and their descendants.
Bedoya is proud too that some of the artists and arts groups that benefited from TPAC programs have gone on to win NEA grants themselves. Choreographer Eisele just won a 2016 NEA grant to expand her dance "How to Duet with a Saguaro" and to stage it at Saguaro National Park. Likewise, local publisher Kore Press won a 2016 grant to promote women writers.
Bedoya said he intends to stay in Tucson and continue his national arts advocacy and writing. A published poet and author of the chapbook The Ballad of Cholo Dandy, Bedoya is well known for his essays on art and community, including "Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging." He's also done arts consulting for the Ford Foundation and other national groups.
"There's nothing urgent about finding my next gig," he said. "I'll be in Nashville in the spring and at a conference at ASU. I have some consulting work lined up. I want to do some deep thinking and find my challenge nationally as well as locally."