Painted Desert

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Valley News Issue: July 2013
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Is this the visage of a European urban plaza, maybe Paris in the Jazz Age? Or perhaps a tech-savvier Prague in the time of Kafka? Nope. This is the modern cultural dreamscape of Downtown Mesa – one the city hopes to start realizing this year. Cindy Ornstein, arts and cultural director for the City of Mesa, calls the plan “Mesa’s 21st Century Café Society” and sees at the core the magnificent Mesa Arts Center campus, with its breadth of art galleries, creative classes, and performing arts from Ballet Etudes to all-star Jimi Hendrix tributes.

But there are a couple obstacles, namely low funds and high Fahrenheit. Mesa is pulling for a national arts grant to begin executing the project, while simultaneously trying to create programming that will continue to bring people to their arts district, despite the dogged desert heat. They’re the same challenges facing arts districts in Phoenix. While summer marks the tourism and cultural high season for most other cities across the country, it’s the slowest time of the year here – the sweaty interlude when artists and galleries regroup to relaunch when things feel less combustible.

Of course, local art galleries look to do more than just beat the heat – like many other markets, they’re rebounding from the recent economic downturn and battling budget limitations. Gallery owners and arts organizations from Central Phoenix to Mesa are jockeying for grants; planning summer-themed, embrace-the-heat-type exhibits; advertising their air-conditioning and street-side shade trees; and encouraging more community interaction. Some arts districts have even started welcoming that bête noire of creative communities: corporate cash, with its attendant possibilities of infill development and gentrification.

The Downtown Phoenix arts scene has at its core three distinct districts: Roosevelt Row, the Grand Avenue Corridor, and the Garfield District. Roosevelt Row, sometimes referred to as “RoRo,” is the most retail-oriented of the three, with street-facing storefronts and dual-zoned historic houses doubling as galleries and living spaces. The Grand Avenue Corridor sprang up in the city’s old industrial district, a blighted strip of buildings by the railroad tracks that now houses myriad artist studios and a handful of small businesses. The Garfield neighborhood remains the most residential, with a few galleries operating out of historic homes, and serves as a thruway from RoRo to the galleries and restaurants along 16th Street. The visual art in all three areas differs slightly but generally falls in the contemporary/pop art categories.

Another commonality between the Downtown arts districts is the desire to allay fears that the area is unsafe. It’s an image artists have battled since they began moving Downtown in the early 1990s to transform the city center from a crime-ridden armpit into an arts community figurehead. “[The neighborhood] was very rough around the edges,” recalls Greg Esser, a board member of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation and founder of Eye Lounge gallery in Downtown Phoenix. “There were rampant, open-air drug sales [at] all times of the day and night. There was really a tremendous amount of criminal activity, just because this was an area that nobody lived in, nobody was watching, and nobody really cared about.”

As businesses and galleries began moving into the Downtown areas, they slowly transformed the neighborhoods, one grant and gob of elbow grease at a time. On Garfield, Kim Moody and Dana Johnson fixed up their historic home/gallery, the Alwun House, obtained zoning permits to host a variety of arts and culture events, and established the nonprofit Alwun House Foundation. On Roosevelt, gallery owners restored historic homes, beautified the streets with shade trees, and commissioned colorful murals. Artists on Grand Avenue paid for more street lighting, advocated  affordable housing, and pushed for preservation of the historic structures.

Monthly First Friday art walks launched Downtown in 1993 and really picked up steam after the new millennium, drawing crowds in the thousands every month. In 2004, there were more than 200 businesses in the RoRo/CenPho area, including still-standing stalwarts MADE Art Boutique, Modified Arts, and Gallery Celtica. At that point, the First Friday art walks were essentially huge street festivals, packed with people sipping beer from plastic cups and haggling with street vendors over things like spray-graphic visages of Bob Marley on recycled wood. Music emanated from patchouli-scented drum circles and rock bands on makeshift stages. In 2005, Roosevelt Street was reopened to vehicle traffic on First Fridays, which greatly decreased the volume of street vendors and diminished much of the festival atmosphere. But there’s still much to see and do around Roosevelt these days, from watching indie/art house films while drinking local craft beer at FilmBar to learning flamenco at 5th Row Dance Studios to perusing arugula at Bodega 420 –  all part of the district’s desire to cultivate its culture beyond monthly art walks. “Really, Roosevelt Row wants to see this be a 24/7 district, so that we’re not known for one night a month, but any night of the month you can come and experience live music, art, incredible food,” Esser says. “We’ve really grown those opportunities and continue to grow those opportunities, so this is always a place where something’s happening.”

Near the Row now is a new, 1.5-square-mile, world-class biomedical campus, including a University of Arizona College of Medicine outpost and the Translational Genomics Institute (TGen). In 2006, Arizona State University opened a Downtown campus, bringing even more traffic to a now-dense sphere of social activity and shopping. This summer, the Row’s first high-rise, Roosevelt Point – with both a seven-story tower and an eight-story tower – will open at Third Street and Roosevelt. While the idea of high-rise structures on Garfield and Grand have been fiercely warded off by artists who own properties there and want to preserve their historic buildings, Roosevelt welcomes infill development. “[Roosevelt Point] is a tremendous and fantastic new addition... 40 percent of the land in this neighborhood is currently vacant. We want to see it built up to the highest density, bring as many people into the heart of the city as possible,” Greg Esser says, adding that Roosevelt Point will add, “almost overnight,” an additional 600 residents to the district.

The organizers behind Roosevelt Row are also putting the street’s vacant lots to use, installing things like a public art display of reflective deer sculptures and hosting food trucks. They’re also asking for the public’s input with an “Improve This Area” survey ( And while the presence of chains like Starbucks and Circle K in the shadow of a new high-rise makes some residents nervous, Esser says it’s all part of growth. “Gentrification in and of itself isn’t a bad thing,” he says. “It’s actually bringing new residents back into the area and creating an opportunity for more people.”    

Don’t expect to see high-rises going up over on Grand Avenue anytime soon. Zoning in the area allows for max building heights of two stories, and the artists who own the majority of properties on Grand are adamantly opposed to anything higher. About five years ago, a nine-story project was proposed for the corner near the Desert Sun Hotel. Beatrice Moore and her partner, Tony Zahn, who own numerous buildings along Grand – including Kooky Krafts, Bragg’s Pie Factory, and the Trunk Space – teamed up with adjoining neighborhood associations to successfully oppose rezoning for the project. “It would have created a lot of speculation over here,” Moore says. “People would have come in and started buying up lots and sitting on them, anticipating that eventually they’d be able to tear the buildings down and build high-rises on their properties.”

To Moore, preservation trumps profit on Grand. She’d rather see historical buildings restored to their original states and put to new uses, the way Bragg’s Pie Factory hosts a spate of artist studios and the new Bragg’s Factory Diner. “Adaptive reuse is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a good thing. It can also encourage a neighborhood fabric to remain basically intact, which is what’s happened down here,” Moore says. “We don’t have a lot of empty lots down here on Grand. There’s a few, but not a whole lot. Most of the infrastructure is still there. Some of the things are really old.”

While the art in the Garfield neighborhood and RoRo features photography and paintings in contemporary, pop, and surreal styles – along with several graffiti murals by local artists like Thomas “Breeze” Marcus and Lalo Cota – the art along Grand’s a bit more eclectic and craft-oriented, showcasing things like “mutant piñatas” and refuse sculptures. The area is also more heavily Hispanic, and Moore says SB 1070, Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law, affected the art walks there. “I think, actually, the whole immigration thing really hurt Grand a lot. There used to be a lot of families around here that walked because they didn’t have a car. The children were out there, their parents were out there, they were walking to and fro – and then the whole immigration crackdown happened,” she says. “I noticed a real distinct difference in our neighborhood, that you’re just not seeing a lot of people out. They went back to Mexico, or they moved to another state. And so that kind of affected the feeling that there were people out there on the street, walking around.”

Like Roosevelt Row, the Grand Avenue Corridor hosts First Friday art walks, along with new businesses like Jackalope Trading Post and Treehouse Bakery. The Oasis on Grand apartments – a renovated motel across the street from Bikini Lounge – opened in the fall of 2011 and have almost always had 100 percent occupancy. Several blighted buildings on the south end of Grand at Van Buren were recently purchased by a developer who wants to restore them to their historic look, and the neighborhood fear factor has died down. “We got an $80,000 planning grant from the EPA about two years ago, and we have a nice plan now that shows the street and a new streetscape, and we’ve been working with the city to try to just do what we call the ‘low-hanging fruit,’” Moore says. “And those are simple things like get street parking back on Grand, get some twinkle lights across the streets to make people feel safer, and to get some crosswalks. Mostly what we’re talking about is paint, and it’s really not going to cost a lot of money. We’ve been meeting with a number of different people from the city to try and get our little streetscape kick-started so that we can get some of these amenities going here.”

First Fridays still draw a large crowd, but the Downtown Phoenix community has, for many years, shifted their opening night focus to Third Fridays, when “serious” art lovers can walk through the galleries and talk with the artists, maybe even purchase a piece of art. As for the challenges of summer, “We do have air-conditioning,” Greg Esser says. “It’s always a good thing to spend an afternoon in an art gallery that has air-conditioning in the summertime.” And there’s plenty of activities planned for summer along the Row, including a new international artist’s residency program at Third Street and Garfield with an attendant gallery hosting shows every First and Third Friday. “We don’t stop in the summertime, even though some of the traffic does slow down, with the ASU campus being out and some of the visitors being gone,” Esser says. “We used to do a solstice event in the summer, and in some cases, it was just too hot to continue to do. We might go back to developing a summer event, and we don’t know exactly what that’s going to be yet. It will be on or around the solstice, and we’ll be celebrating all of the people that live here year-round and really celebrate the summer heat. There’s really no experience like it anywhere... people pay for Bikram Yoga, so we’ve got ways to take advantage of that.”

Over in the Garfield district, Alwun House forms the heart of a community that also includes the quaint Welcome Diner in a vintage red-and-white trailer, a community garden and urban chicken farm, and a thruway from Roosevelt Row to 16th Street, home of urban art galleries The Hive and Por Vida, and the flagship location of acclaimed Mexican restaurant Barrio Café. Alwun co-owner Kim Moody says Alwun House generally closes during the summer, aside from the occasional fundraiser show “to help with utilities and that low-key level of maintenance.” Right now, they’re working on a Green Art Park in the Garfield neighborhood. The project, which Alwun House has already fed $120,000 into while awaiting approval on a Community Enhancement Grant from the City of Phoenix, will be a shade tree-lined, multi-use park for festivals, food trucks, art vendors, neighborhood yard sales, workshops, and a community garden. Moody expects the park to go beyond a summer project and bring more crowds into the area. “Oh man, it’s gonna be so gorgeous. It’s gonna be amazing, because it’s one of the widest parkways that we’ve got,” he says.    

Most gallery owners in the Downtown district agree it’s the collaborative community spirit that keeps it alive. “You see it in so many different projects that are going on,” Moody says, “in terms of ‘Reinvent Phoenix’ and all this, people trying to reinforce and build and create positive laws and ordinances to enhance that creative niche – cachet – that Phoenix needs.” 

The idea of a 21st-century café society in Mesa, filled with liberal arts colleges, community art events, and digital kiosks, is not so far-fetched, especially if Mesa wins the $575,000 grant it needs from ArtPlace, an organization of banks and philanthropical foundations that funds arts projects across the nation – including a $150,000 grant to the Roosevelt Row Cultural District in 2012, one of 47 grants given that year. Mesa is one of 104 finalists for a 2013 grant; recipients were expected to be announced in early June, after this issue went to press.

There’s already a strong foundation downtown, built around the Mesa Arts Center, which opened in 2005. Second Friday art walks have thrived for years, on the strength of spots like the late Evermore Nevermore pop culture gallery and store, greasy-good go-to Queen’s Pizza, Gotham City Comics, and Mystic Paper craft shop, along with art walk themes like “Dog Days,” “Beach Party,” and “Zombies vs. Robots.” There’s a new brewery called Desert Eagle, which serves micro-batch beers on tap and hosts live rock and blues music. There’s more music on the other side of the street near Mesa Arts Center, at the Nile Theatre, where a younger crowd shows up for everything from techno raves to punk rock concerts. There’s been a lot of ebb and flow over the years, and many independent businesses closed, including Evermore Nevermore, Monsterland Bar & Grill and The Royale Theater. But with Mesa’s arts and culture department making a push for a modern café evoking jazz-era European cities and a Light Rail extension scheduled to open in downtown Mesa in 2015, the future looks pretty bright, even for the summer months.

Mesa arts and culture director Cindy Ornstein admits “summers are a little tougher” for the arts district but that summer concerts at Mesa Arts Center bring people out, along with more arts classes. “We’ve found that over the summer, there’s a really high demand for activities for kids when they’re off school. So one of the things we’ve been concentrating on is expanding our summer camp offerings,” Ornstein says. Programs include a summer drama camp at MAC with the East Valley Children’s Theatre, and a partnership with the ASU College of Technology and Innovation to hold hands-on workshops at the Arizona Museum for Youth. “We’re gonna have tons of activity with young people who are getting to do really exciting things, and coming to downtown and keeping the area more activated during the summer than it otherwise would have been.”

With Mesa Arts Center acting as anchor, the Main Street art walks continue to grow. Ornstein says MAC tries to synchronize activities with Second Friday events. “Our big season kickoff every September is always the second Friday, and we do that on purpose, so that we have a big festival going on when their festival’s going on, and last year, the theme was ‘Fire & Ice,’ and we had 10,000 people on the [MAC] campus here in four hours,” she says. “It was enormous. So really, what we’ve been trying to do is add some programming to create a through-line where the event sort of stretches further down Main, and where we can link into it and support each other.”

Other changes include turning the Arizona Museum for Youth into the IDEA Museum (IDEA stands for imagination, design, experience and art). Expected to open in early 2014, the IDEA museum will offer an integrated learning experience for all ages. “Creativity is not just the bailiwick of the arts,” Ornstein says. “The integration of learning with science, technology and art together is very powerful, and also very interesting to a wide range of ages. So what we’re doing is expanding the integration of the learning across different disciplines.”

The city of Mesa has also implemented a Creative Economy Fund in lieu of city grants for nonprofit arts organizations. Cash arts grants were eliminated a few years ago during the recession, but nonprofit arts groups can apply for reduced or free rent in Mesa Arts Center’s studios and theaters. “It’s really a win-win, because we get to further augment what the community has available to it, and create new partnerships,” Ornstein says. “The arts organizations get to provide programming to the
community and do it at a reduced rate.”

According to Ornstein, these are all steps in answering the question “How do you make arts and culture vital to a community?”

“One of the ways you do that,” Ornstein says, “is by having people understand that arts and culture are sort of essential elements of our cultural heritage, our society, our social fabric, and our understanding of the world around us.”

Building a solid arts scene is like creating a collage – it takes myriad colorful components to create a compelling bigger picture. We asked people from the Valley’s various arts communities what makes a strong arts district.

Kim Moody phm0713 ht2 md(co-owner of Alwun House, Downtown Phoenix): “Affordable housing would be the very first notch in the gear. Definitely then having artists that will collaborate and work together, versus feeling like they’re the only ones in the world that are worth anything. That kind of collaborative, work-together [spirit], it’s definitely the culture of what we have in our creative community now, Downtown.”







phm0713 ht3 mdGreg Esser

(owner of Eye Lounge gallery, Downtown Phoenix): “We’re focused on cultivating a place where artists want to live and work, and sell and show work. But primarily, we’re creating a diverse, walkable urban community that is very accessible, that’s supportive to people in the creative industries, and that really nurtures creativity and collaboration across disciplines... and we have, still, affordable living here. We need more affordable living opportunities for artists in the Downtown area, but the idea that we’re cultivating a place where artists actually want to live is... the hallmark of what this area is, and why it’s been successful.”



phm0713 ht4 md

Cindy Ornstein

(director of the Mesa Department of Arts & Culture): “Quite a few of the things going on [in Mesa] are around finding new and different ways to give the public ownership around the making of art, the planning of art, ownership in the arts community and in art projects and art-making. We really want to combat the idea that arts are for the special few or those people with special training, and really deliver the message that arts experiences are for everyone.”