Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Art Spaces of Tommorrow? (Mesa rising) Part One



"In every artist's life, it is inexorable that environment play a determining part"
- Eric Walrond

Hello Blogiteers!

I'm feeling pretty good these days. My blood sugar is slowly getting under control, I'm putting back on the weight I lost during my brief sojourn at John C. Lincoln Hospital, and I finally got to see "White House Down" via my newest and bestest buddy Netflix. It rocks, by the way. Just suspend your common sense regarding how the terrorists gain control of the White House, and you'll be perfectly entertained.

Ten words: presidential limo gun battle, on the White House front lawn.
Life in a word, is just kick-ass.

And speaking of the subject of kicking ass, my last humble rant generated a slew of emails, most of them centering on my take in regards to art galleries versus art-spaces. As I expected, there were a few angry missives criticizing my devotion to fervent capitalism, but I still maintain that in order to be seen as a world-class art destination, it's absolutely crucial that we present ourselves as total professionals when it comes to the marketing and fostering of our base talent.

But there was also the following comment left on my personal FB page, and it's remarks like this that inspire me to keep writing:

"Thank you for your words about art spaces and selling art. I've had some negative experiences, alongside some really positive ones. Sadly I let the negative ones carry more weight and Ive been treading water on my art lately. But after reading a bit of your blog I want to get back to some of my work."

Years from now when this guy rules the art world, I'm gonna ask him for a favor. A big one. Most likely involving Milla Jovovich and a tub chock-full of marshmallow fluff. And people say it doesn't pay to network? Pshaw, says I.

Back to the issue at hand.

To quote myself: "Picasso wasn't discovered in a coffeehouse." If we want to run with the big dogs, we need to get our lazy asses off the porch and actually get our shit together instead of endlessly talking about it. I've often (and publicly) stated the need for a subsidized mentor gallery program within the PAS, and if we're ever going to make Phoenix a serious contender along the lines of cities such as New York and Los Angeles, it's definitely one of the numerous things we need to implement, and that right quick.

If we want our metaphorical art-forest to continue to grow and prosper, then the need to make sure that for every tree that's cut down, two saplings take it's place is not only logical, it's essential.

All hail artsy HYDRA, as it were. Sadly, when it comes to the PAS, it seemingly feels that for every Eric Cox and Christine Cassaro we're lucky to have, there's six Peter Buggs, and they just keep reproducing like rabbits mainlining Viagra.

The inevitable poseurs and wannabes aside, we still have a long way to go before anybody of note sees this burg as an art mecca worth investing in. It's not for lack of talent or passion, but the lack in marketing and leadership that continually sinks our ship before it evens get to unfurl it's sails.

As time goes on, I'm becoming less interested in the nuts [Joe Brklacich] and dolts [Peter Bugg] that comprise the inner workings of the PAS, and instead have been trying to visualize the long-term subsequent end goal- Phoenix becoming the go-to spot for serious art patrons. While that may seem overly optimistic and perhaps even a little naive in relation to the reality we find ourselves currently in, I do believe it is possible.

Still have doubts? Keep this in mind: Ben Affleck can't act his way out of a brown paper bag, and now he's freaking Batman. If the universe can let that happen, surely we can make our little art-scene commercially viable. And personally, I feel the universe owes us a big one, especially after letting that monstrosity of casting become a tangible fact.

I'd never thought I'd say this, but I really miss George Clooney.

My fellow artist and respected colleague Pete Petrisko recently opined over coffee that it was time for me to take on a more expansive worldview and concentrate my snark-fueled energy at those who are really to blame for the lack of the PAS's progress- in other words, bigger and badder targets, and I'm inclined to agree.

Don't get me wrong, I've always found it highly cathartic to metaphorically flay alive those who's ignorance goes right to the bone, but I also think it's time I take this knack for creative writing and kick it up a notch. I'm not going to be one of those people who name drop, as I've always perceived it to be both tacky and somewhat embarrassingly self-serving, but in the last eight months I've had no less than four professional writers (and one highly respected magazine editor) inform me that they think my writing is, and I quote: "solid and damn good".

Let me tell you, nothing makes me feel pretty inside like sincere compliments. In fact, I'm going to be applying for a Warhol Grant in relation to creative writing later this year, and if I don't get it... well, there's always that management position at Cracker Barrel to fall back on, I guess.

Priorities over personalities is the tack I'd like to take over the course of 2015, as I'm getting slightly topped off having to deal with the seemingly never-ending barrage of human speed-bumps that infest the PAS, much akin to an artsy version of Lyme disease. And in retrospect, I feel I've done a lot for starting the discussion of what course the PAS should take for the future.

That's me... your basic conversation yeast.

But I'm also the guy who bitch-slapped the Phoenix New Times and it's Mangling Editor Amy Silverman so hard and so publicly that they actually started covering the PAS almost like a real newspaper. Granted, their writing and coverage is still uniformly terrible, but at least they're doing something, even if it's only partially beneficial in the end.

Throw in my recent shaming of the equally unimpressive* (and wholly unethical*) art entity SMoCA, for their past rewarding of shameless outright plagiarism, and one could easily surmise that getting in my crosshairs is not the wisest decision that one could make. Especially if you're unprincipled or by the dint of your actions, you impede logical progress.
*[Allegedly.]

If truth be known, I loathe roadblocks, and when I encounter one, I tend to do one of the following: go around, go under, or more typically- go right through the middle of that f**ker like a chest-burster straight out of Alien. Truly diplomatic subtlety has never been my modus operandi, and I see no real need to start now. If there's a crisis that arises, you don't stick your head in the sand, you grab that sucker by it's greasy little throat and make it your... well, I'll let you chose your own metaphor.

People who tend to sugarcoat obvious (and solvable) problems have always been one of my major pet peeves, as there's only two ways you can go when faced with an issue- the right way or the path so well traveled by the PAS, that I'm surprised that we haven't trademarked it yet.

Living in the 5th largest city in America would make one naturally think that we're at least on par with other cities where community infrastructure is concerned, and for the most part, you'd be right.

We have a rapidly expanding transit system, new businesses are springing up like dandelions, and our convention center can hold an entire Comicon's worth of Princess Leias and Thors, with room to spare. And let's not forget all of the public art, whether it's the Calle 16 project, Third Street's murals, or that god-awful sky-condom mesh monstrosity that's hanging in Downtown.

Which, by the way- I would love to see aflame, if it wasn't for all the public money that's already been wasted on it. Where are all the truly dedicated arsonists when you really need them?

Due to my hatred, I'm even open to suggesting the idea of giving Peter Bugg a shot at creating something new to hang there, but as we saw with his obviously plagiarized* [and sadly winning] entry at SMoCA's Good n' Plenty grant awards, I'd have to believe that he'd just take the original sculpture, turn it upside down, add glitter, and call it a day.*[Allegedly]

Sorry. That was just a tad bit rude and highly inaccurate. Peter would never use glitter, as it tends to possess more substance than his entire body of work thus far. Gah. I'm trying to take the high road, honestly I am, but the snark wants what the snark wants.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the subject of art, most people tend to regard it as more of a want, rather than as a "need", a position that I'm obviously biased in regards to. If I were to engage in a debate with someone who was advocating this POV, I'd start by illustrating the financial impact that a successful art community can bring to the table, such as increased tax revenues, along with the sometimes overlooked benefit of the revitalization of previously depressed neighborhoods.

Think about Roosevelt Street some twenty odd years ago, and I'd have to strongly suggest you think harder about whether it's truly a "need" or not. Without foresight, would anybody have built those overpriced condos there at that time? Definitely not.

But all of this boils down to a pointless exercise in theoretical academia unless there's a structured framework already set in place to support the development of an economically viable arts district.

To construct a successful arts community, you also need the built-in convenience found in most major American cities, and that's where Phoenix is constantly dropping the ball. Deaf to the sound of opportunity knocking. Missing the boat. Arriving a day late and several dollars short, for lack of a better analogy.

Along with the myriad of previously discussed concerns, the PAS also suffers from another uniquely urban malady, that being the issue of sprawl. If you've ever been out on a First Friday, you're acutely aware that seeing all that's to be seen is quite the Herculean task.

Forget the lack of convenient parking, the human lemmings gumming up the sidewalks, and the ongoing issue of half-ass presentation combined with limited hours that are to be found in most of our art galleries, and you could easily argue that one of the major thorns in the art community's side in regards to progress is that it's footprint is huge- not in presence, but in distance.

For those of you who are familiar with the layout of the PAS, think about walking from Modified to the Icehouse. In July. See the inherent issue? For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, it would be the artsy equivalent of the Bataan death march... with hipsters. I get chills just thinking about it.

Unlike many metropolises, Phoenix is not, nor has it ever really been, a walkable city. There are some limited areas where this is not entirely true, but as a rule, you really do need a car if you're ever going to get anywhere in this town within what passes as a reasonable time. Call me crazy, but if you're going to support the arts, then you need to be able to easily support all the areas, not just the one over-gentrified street.

While I'll acknowledge that Roosevelt has become a central location for the PAS, I'll also state that I find it as edgy as a glass of warm milk. I'm a traditionalist. I like my art and my artists the same way I like my great white sharks- hungry and slightly dangerous to the status quo.

I'll take gritty (IE: Grand Avenue) over white-bread any day of the week, and I've always felt that you can be both professional and cutting-edge without having to placate the white and uptight patron brigade. Gritty doesn't mean that you have to phone-in your approach, in my view it means that you're willing to take chances others would take a pass on, either out of fear or ignorance.

Come to think of it, they're two sides of the same coin, but I digress. While RoRo and Grand are part of the PAS for all practical intent and purposes, they may as well be on separate planets given their unique nature and amount of space between them. Keep in mind that between these two art anchors are several various galleries, art-spaces, and artist studios, the majority of whom are off the beaten path, and you'll see why I say that ours is a highly fragmented art scene, in terms of both leadership and location.

To be frank, it's exceedingly detrimental to establishing a solid base of patrons who actually buy art, rather than photographing it with their I-phones. In addition, it's also a tough haul for the artists as well, since unless you're lucky enough to have enough room in your house/apartment /garage/cardboard box for a dedicated studio, you'll have to rent a space- and in Phoenix that usually means a small (overpriced) rat-hole, typically situated in an area that could be charitably described at best as a demilitarized zone.

Speaking from a wealth of precedent experience, most of what passes for studio space in this city could be considered an exercise in personal suffering that would make the most ardent of Catholics weep. My old space had no air conditioning, save for a 30 year old swamp cooler, one window facing away from any natural light, and was home to an ever-changing roster of field mice, assorted weird spiders, and roaches that I swear on all that's holy, would just laugh in my face whenever I pulled out a can of RAID.

Good times. The rent for this slice of Lucifer's paradise at the time was $425.00- which even then, was way steep. But I was an artist, and an artist had to have a separate studio space, and who was I to go against tradition? An idiot, that's who. But then as now, the options open to artists seeking an artistic creation space were limited.


If you look at successful art markets around the country, the trait they all seem to share is that the artists and the spaces that show their work are integrated into a concentrated area, which makes perfect sense in regards to both business and convenience.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has no such cohesion when it comes to it's art community, and that lack of planning is proving to be quite the hindrance for serious patrons and artists alike.

Some measures towards this problem have been taken- the Oasis project on Grand for instance, which provides low-cost housing for artists, and also possesses an on-site gallery to showcase the work of said Creatives that live there. However at this time, it's still overshadowed by the entity that is the RoRo District, so at best, it's a baby-step in the right direction.

I'm not smack-talking the Oasis, mind you- I for one, think it's a great concept. It's close to downtown, the views of the city are terrific, depending on what side you live on, and it's three minutes away from Grand Avenue Pizza, and that's always good.

But at this particular moment in time, it's a wolf without a corresponding pack, and if this model were pushed even further and harder throughout the PAS, I think there'd be a definite upsweep in revenue and exposure for our art scene overall, and I can't see anyone having an issue with that.

Except of course, for our local contingent of art-hipsters, who most likely, will kvetch endlessly about how much cooler Phoenix was before it "sold out" and went all commercial.

Now in order for this to work, we definitely need to pattern ourselves on a system that seemingly has all the kinks worked out. We could look to the successful platforms that are already established in art centers such as LA or NYC, but pick only those parts that would work for us. However, as much as I would love to see this city become an art destination, I also want to make sure that we don't become a weak-ass clone of either one of those cities.

Granted, I'm not really certain what Phoenix's true artistic identity is, but it sure as hell isn't the detached coolness of New York or the toxic plasticity of LA. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be to guarantee our long-term success, and in fact- there's a project that's currently under development that Phoenix could emulate, and the beauty of it is that it's literally in our own back yard.

So where is this small, yet brilliant, beacon of artistic development? Mesa.

(crickets chirp.... a lone tumbleweed rolls by... somewhere, in the twilight distance, a dog barks.)

Yes. I said MESA, the ancestral home (as the joke goes) of Mormons, meth, and morons. I see by your slack-jawed expressions that some form of explanation is required- fair enough.

I live to bring enlightenment, if not clarity, to the masses as you know.

However, my explanation is also going to be a tad bit awkward, especially when you take into account that Phoenix should be the one setting this particular bar rather than a city I've always compared to my Oma's 1957 Hoover vacuum- grey-colored, completely industrial, and sucking like Ben Affleck in Daredevil.

Sorry. I still can't believe that they gave him yet another super hero to completely screw up. Is it too much to ask that Hollywood stops screwing around with the things I love? What's next? Jonah Hill as Wolverine?

And don't even get me started on the new Star Wars movie- if JJ Abrams f**ks that up, I swear on my light-saber collection that I'll take a cue from Jabba and toss him in the Saarlac Pit.

Oh yeah... I went there.
Moving on....

As I was just saying, it seems that Phoenix's ugly stepsister is apparently making some serious moves in regards to upping it's artistic game by developing a true artistic presence, and as usual, we're the ones who once again, are lagging a step (if not two) behind. I wouldn't dare speak for you, but I for one, am getting really sick and tired of watching the other kids get the Evel Knievel Action Set while we're stuck with a metaphorical lime-green sweater that we're supposed to grow into.

Seriously. We're the cute one- why can't we have the nice things too? If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say part of the issue would be the puzzling attitude that Phoenix is somehow not deserving of such artistic amenities- an ignorant stance that personally, I find highly infuriating.

Let me clarify this point.

Some time ago, I made the unfortunate decision to attend a presentation at the Mesa Arts Center, an absolutely gorgeous building, in Mesa's quickly burgeoning Arts District. The speaker that night was promoting a self-help program (of sorts) aimed at artists who wanted to achieve a stable financial base in regards to the selling and promotion of their art- for the working artist, as it were.

As someone who is all about the Capitalism, I can get one hundred percent behind the concept of educating Creatives in regards to how the big scary machine works- forewarned is forearmed, after all. But as a rule, I've always believed that most self-help books and the like are typically nothing more than repackaged self-indulgent twaddle.

If you can get something beneficial out of these types of programs, that's great, but you shouldn't have to pay for information that with the merest of research you could glean for free at your local library.

That's just my humble opinion, but if you're one of those people who wants the legwork done for them, then feel free to open your checkbook and have at it. I, on the other hand, have always believed that personal growth requires both inner focus and even perhaps a little private discomfort to be truly transformative in the end.

As I sat there listening to this person's saga about how they got to where they were now, two things became highly apparent- first, they weren't an Artist in the traditional sense, their foundation was in the marketing and sale of art (which had been lucrative) and second, they were just a slight bit out of touch with their target audience, a fact which became even more crystalline as they described how exactly their self-help program came to be.

Most Artists aren't in this gig for the money, shockingly enough. We usually have to chase it down like Cujo going after a bus full of pre-schoolers, and that's on a good day. The option to relax and engage our sense of inner contemplation is usually not in the cards, typically due to lack of money and/or time. How to pay the electric bill gets my contemplation more than my career, for instance.

Being a professional Artist myself, I'm painfully well acquainted with being under the thumb of both of these constraints, so when I'm in the presence of someone who waxes poetic about how they got their head together by taking a year off and going to Europe to sit in the ruins of an ancient keep, while pondering the meaning of it all, I tend to get somewhat... let's call it touchy, and leave it at that.

Most artists can barely afford to sit in their own house, much less a 16th century fixer-upper, but I digress. All their hard-earned success aside, it's easy to talk about getting one's career and life on track when you're blessed with an abundant bank account and sitting in a castle- just saying.

But the best was yet to come.

After the talk and subsequent "buy my stuff" sales pitch, the remaining crowd gathered outside by the cash bar, where I demurred the opportunity to buy a three dollar can of warm soda, and as our host walked by, I managed to grab a few minutes of conversation with them. After a little shop talk, the discussion eventually turned, as it always does when my dialogue involves art, to the ongoing problems with the PAS and the difficulty of advocating for it outside it's defined borders.

Certainly, this highly successful former Scottsdale art sales pro and self-help entrepreneur would have some sage advice for me, a lone artist hoping to make a difference, right? As I made the case for the ol' 602, she rather directly states that "Phoenix is a lost cause" and that I should "just get off the sinking ship while I still could.", finishing up with the implication [I'm paraphrasing here] that all my efforts were tantamount to spitting in the wind.

Sigh... one day, please remind me to definitely sit down with my sense of optimism and talk some sense into that naive little bitch, cause if that doesn't work, I may just have to fire her altogether. If there's a sure fire way to get on my dark side almost immediately, it's to suggest that something I'm truly passionate about has no inherent value, especially when I know it's not true.

This outlook doesn't apply to the "Xanadu" movie or any of ABBA's albums of course, as after all- while I may be fervent about them, I'm also not completely crazy. I don't think for a New York second that the PAS is a lost cause.

And to be brutally honest... if it is, then it definitely needs all the help it can get.

In my humble opinion, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Well those... and any that involve the overthrowing of our Evil Lizard Overlords. All half-joking talk of freedom aside, I found their short-sighted point of view to be highly insulting, and despite the fact that my first instinct was to unsheathe my razored tongue and metaphorically peel them like a sentient potato, I did not.

I do have some social graces after all, and besides- I like that place and don't want to be banned for life over what at best, could be considered a matter of difference in perspective. I've never truly understood why certain people are so willing to write this city off without a second thought before getting all the relevant information first.

I'd be the last person to say that we're running on all eight cylinders, but I'd also take the position that given the right mixture of leadership and marketing, this city could be one of the heavyweights, hands down. And a true believer in the dogma of self-empowerment would see that potential and want to support the effort to make it so, not deride it from their ivory tower.



That's just a personal thought, mind you. Take it for what it is.
Now, before I get back to talking about Mesa's artistic leap forward, I think it's time for a break.

And when we come back... I venture into the wilds of Mesa for some artistic research, learn about the difficulties of navigating state bureaucracy, and discuss having to pick my 3 favorite symbolic children in order to apply for a Warhol Grant.

Good times.

"Culture is the Arts elevated to a set of beliefs."- Thomas Wolfe.