[This is the first submission in a quarterly written journal by Phoenix-based Gallerist and Writer Robrt Pela]
Saturday, 9:00 a.m.
I’m making crumpets because E., an artist representative, is coming for coffee. He wants to talk about why none of the several newspaper and magazine articles about my last show, in which one of his artists was featured, published an image of his artist’s sculpture.
When I opened a contemporary art gallery in downtown Phoenix earlier this year, I figured the main difference between running someone else’s gallery—which I’d been doing for three years—and my own would be more time spent with accountants and less time with artists.
I was mistaken.
Not that I was looking forward to seeing fewer local artists; it’s just that—perhaps because I’ve spent the last three decades covering our downtown art scene for the local weekly—I’ve ended up spending as much time consoling artists about their careers as I have hanging their work.
I tried to explain to E. that journalists don’t typically choose the images that illustrate their stories; art directors do—and so he shouldn’t take it personally when a photograph of his client’s assemblage made from old Christmas sweaters and plastic Dairy Queen spoons doesn’t get published.
E., who it turns out is lactose-intolerant, didn’t touch the crumpets.
Breakfast with J., who wants to discuss why, after more than three decades as a local artist, she isn’t famous yet. I suggest she abandon performance art—which may, I suggest, have seen better days—and instead consider showing her gorgeous silver-point drawings, which I’ve seen during a recent studio visit.
“Oh, I never show my works on paper,” she replies. “That would be capitalist and consumerist.”
And just like that, it’s 1968 all over again.
Brought the crumpets along, hoping J. would take them, but she doesn’t eat gluten.
Lunch with L., a fellow gallery owner who’s heard that I sold seven pieces from my last exhibit and that 500 people came through on opening night. I try to downplay everything, for fear of appearing smug.
“Not at all,” I tell him, as we work our way through truck-sized spinach salads. “It was more like 300 people.”
“And you sold seven things?”
“Eight,” I mutter into my iced tea.
L. wants to know how he can do this, too. I talk about identifying and nurturing your collector base; working with artists to refine their price point for a downtown market; signing artists with name value; promoting shows with both old-school printed material and social media outlets.
“All that stuff takes too much time,” L. tells me. “I’ve got this gal who knows a painter whose stuff is pretty good. I’m showing his work next month.”
“Oh,” I reply. “Um, what’s the painter’s name?”
“I don’t remember,” L. says, his mouth full of spinach. “But he agreed to hang his own show, so, you know. It’s all good.”
I try to think of something kind to say.
“Hey, how about a crumpet?” I ask, offering the bagful I’ve brought along.
“What’s a crumpet?” L. asks.
I visit one of the Grand Avenue galleries, where two artists I’ve shown before are exhibiting this month. D., the owner, is there.
“How was your First Friday?” I ask, referring to the monthly gallery crawl around which the downtown Phoenix art scene has been built.
“Oh, we were mobbed,” D. tells me. “Nobody bought anything, but we had a huge crowd.”
While we talk, D. is adhering price stickers to a pile of little ceramic dishes. “We’ve got a new line,” he says, holding up one of the dishes. “We’re selling incense burners.”
D. narrows his eyes at me. “And I don’t care what the art community thinks about it,” he hisses. “I’ve got bills to pay, and something around here has got to start selling.”
I pretend to get a cell phone call and excuse myself, pantomiming and shrugging as I back out the door.
“Hey, wait!” D. calls after me, waving the paper bag of crumpets at me. “You forgot these!”
I run for the parking lot.
I am sitting on a folding chair in the studio of S., a local painter of some renown. I do a lot of studio visits, but this one’s special: S. never invites anyone in to look at her work.
“I’ve had too many lousy experiences in Phoenix,” she tells me, while I gaze at her gorgeous, oddball oil and watercolor paintings of mundane objects. “And my stuff isn’t southwestern enough for the Scottsdale galleries. So I’ve just stopped showing here.”
I want to tell her that everything has changed; that the new galleries are all staffed with experienced curators who majored in art history and museum studies, that their shows are all well-hung and beautifully lit and efficiently promoted, and she should reconsider keeping all her lovely paintings hidden away like this.
But I can’t. I’ve spent the day with gallery owners and artists and reps who are more engaged, it seems, in blaming Phoenix—its unrefined art-buying crowd; its unsophisticated media; its amateur-hour gallery owners—than in making a difference in its downtown arts scene.
Instead, I just leave, thanking S. for her time, and head off to my last meeting of the day: an appointment at one of the better-known downtown galleries, whose latest exhibit has been up all month. The new curator of this space, I’ve heard, is doing a great job. I’ve also heard he’s a teenager who’s studying accounting at a local junior college. This is his first curating job. I’m not hopeful.
I’m in a sour mood as I pull into the deserted parking lot. Why the hell isn’t anyone doing their job? I’m grousing to myself about local galleries. What will it take for us to pull our heads out of our collective asses here? Why is any of us even bothering to run galleries down here, anyway?
And then I step into the gallery, and my shitty attitude is instantly gone. I’m surrounded by seven-foot-tall collages depicting the same pair of scissors, over and over again, each at a slightly different angle, each a different shade of blue. The work is hung perfectly, framed neatly on moveable walls that are expertly lit, with crisp, white text cards describing each collage.
The young curator joins me and speaks quietly and intelligently about the work, which I’m awed by. He knows where the artist was born and where he studied; why he’s making giant pairs of scissors, and who is currently buying work from this super-talented artist, who’s also a painter. He tells me, when I ask him, why he chose to show this work, and what he intended in hanging it this way.
And I stand there, in a downtown Phoenix art gallery, surrounded by colossal scissors, and I think, This is why we do this. This is why we even bother to try.
Robrt Pela is an arts writer for Phoenix New Times and a correspondent for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He owns R. Pela Contemporary Art in Phoenix, Arizona and divides his time among homes in Phoenix; Niles, Ohio, and Bargemon, France.