To sum up, before I get started: Things change. You can never go back to ‘the way things were.’
I’m a little disillusioned with First Fridays & the art walk, the “Phoestival,” et cetera myself, right now. Let me state that here, and perhaps expound on it later. I have been considering halting my participation in the event.
I received a very inflammatory email yesterday from someone I’ve never met or heard of before, but whom I now half want to murder (and half want to attempt a rational discussion with him, first). My first thought upon receipt of the email was that -damnit- I’d missed yet another Downtown Artist Task Force meeting! Yet again, because no one told me when it was until after it had happened! Then I read the long, rambling email from Kim Moody, co-founder of Alwun House, and I found more and better reasons to get angry.
Now, of note, I’d never heard of Kim Moody prior to receipt of this bizarre email. I don’t know how I got on his (long) list of “downtown participants” (most of whom have @phoenix.gov addresses). In fact, for a couple of hours today I thought Kim was a woman. No idea. Kim is, apparently, a co-founder of the Alwun House. According to several Alwun House PR pieces I found today, Alwun House says it was Phoenix’s first art gallery. It’s apparently been there for 38 years (something like 23 of them unlawfully, by their own account), and was a founding member of Artlink (the organization that started the First Fridays art walk in Phoenix, 22 years ago). I’ve been a Phoenix-area resident for 24 of my 31 years, I’ve attended ASU’s College of Fine Arts (briefly, I admit, in 2002), I’ve been creating art and visiting galleries and museums, and I’ve been attending the First Friday art walk pretty regularly since I returned to the valley (from N. Arizona) in mid-2004, and I never heard of the Alwun house until after I’d stopped attending the art walk as a visitor. I didn’t hear about them until after I was already a “street vendor” with the Roosevelt Row street closure. So I’ve never even seen the place. I never noticed it on the Artlink maps, the ~4 years I was attending First Fridays. They weren’t even a blip, to me, then.
But now they’re all over my radar.
Because they’re being ridiculous. The most obvious part of their ridiculousness was evidenced in an attachment to the unsolicited email from Kim Moody, a copy of an op-ed piece he wrote 5 years ago about how horrible it was that the government actually expected people to obey the law. The attitude of the piece was that the presence of police, fire marshals, health inspectors, zoning and tax enforcement officials at the art walk -actually doing their jobs and educating participants about what they needed to do to come into compliance with the law- was an assault, comparing it to the then-recent bombing of Baghdad and to the less-recent massacre of Irish civil-rights protestors. I cannot accept such attitudes any more than I can accept the ridiculous statements of those who protest traffic law enforcement.
I try to do things honestly and lawfully, myself. Not just by obeying traffic laws as well as I am able, but others as well. So, for example, despite the fact that I was creating arts and crafts and wanted to display and sell them during the art walks, from 2004 to early 2008 I refrained. I was (and still am) nowhere near being able to afford to rent a gallery myself, or to rent/buy a home in the area for that matter. But setting up in empty lots and on sidewalks is unlawful, and I’m still not convinced even attempting to get my work into galleries is a good idea, so there was no option for me at that time. Then, as soon as there was a lawful option (the Roosevelt Row street closure), I was there. I already had my Transaction Privilege Tax Licenses from both the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona, and before I showed up in April ’08 to show my art at the Phoenix First Fridays Art Walk for the first time I seemed to have read more state statutes and local ordinances about what was going on (and what was prohibited/allowed) than anyone else there (including city employees, that night).
The event has changed a great deal since that night, but the reason for the street closure is related to my own participation in it – what had been going on before, for years, was unlawful and increasingly unsafe. People were setting up on sidewalks, empty lots, and alleyways to show and to sell, and the crowds on Roosevelt spilled out into the road every month – mostly around these unofficial “vendors” and mostly at the intersections at 3rd Street. The police “cracked down,” as it were, on these unlawful participants -after multiple warnings- and Roosevelt Row stepped in to try to keep a vital and vibrant part of what First Fridays had become from being destroyed (and from potentially taking the rest of the event with it). They did what was required to allow the unofficial “vendors” who had been participating in Phoenix’s First Fridays event for years to do so lawfully. The local artists and craftspeople and the t-shirt vendors and the sunglass resellers and the sno-cone guys who had all been participating illegally were now given the opportunity to keep doing what they’d been doing for years, except now in compliance with the law. I thought it was (and is) a wonderful compromise between community, culture, and law enforcement.
I am a creator. I create art; I paint, I sculpt, I write… And I make most of what I create available for sale to people who like it. The only storefront I can afford is my websites and, once a month for a few hours, a 10’x10′ space at the art walk. I’m not motivated by money, by sales, by fame, any of that. I am a creator – I will always be a creator – I will always create new works. I would like to share them with the people who like them, and with the people who love them. If doing so can help cover the cost of their creation, all the better. But money isn’t the thing. Creativity is. If money was the thing, or fame, I’m sure I’d be in several galleries by now and struggling to keep up with demand. I care about art. About creation. About freedom. I love that I, a totally independent creator, am able to participate in an event like the Phoenix First Fridays Art Walk without having to deal with commercialism (ie: renting “gallery” space from someplace like Red Dog) or politics/snobbery/art-scene (ie: getting my art accepted by a “reputable” or “collective” / “community” gallery).
On the other hand, the current incarnation of First Fridays in Phoenix has very little to do with fine art. Or so it seems. I suspect that the number of people who currently attend the event to see and/or purchase art and/or visit the galleries is higher than it has been in years. It only seems different because of the 20,000 to 25,000 other people who are also attending the event… proportionally, it seems like almost no one attending the “art walk” is there for the art. A lot of them are coming just because it’s fun. People come out to people-watch, and people come out to be seen. People come out to eat and drink and be merry. People come out to see what the local creators are creating. People come out for lots of different reasons; there are more reasons to come out on a First Friday than ever before, and it’s changed the atmosphere of the event.
Another factor is something that is affecting people regardless of their field; the economy is in a severe recession (or worse, we’ll see) and consumer spending is down across the board. Because of the problems in the larger economy, even though it shows signs of improvement, people still aren’t spending money like they used to. This includes art consumption. So, more people are attending the art walk who aren’t looking for art at all, and everyone in attendance is less likely to spend money, and it’s no wonder galleries aren’t doing so well these days. Aren’t doing as well as they used to, during First Fridays.
I’m not doing very well there, myself. Even at the start of the street closures, when I began selling my art at the art walk, I’d already reduced the prices on all my art. Last year I cut prices by another 40%, to try to increase sales… to try to make sales, at all. Sales didn’t go up. Aside from a couple of impulse purchases (and mini-paintings), most my sales are to people who have bought my art before, to people who aren’t swayed by price as much as by their love for a particular piece. I raised my prices back to my old “normal” range (circa 2003) at the end of last year and … sales are flat. Price inflexibility? The whole thing is bizarre. I began doing mini-paintings (8×10″ & smaller) specifically for the art walk, so I would have pieces I could price $10-$20 (pocket money) without resorting to the vulgarity of selling prints. Their sales are brisk compared to my larger pieces, and I still don’t cover the cost of showing there, most months… which means that no matter the cause (a shift in audience, the bad economy, I’m a crappy artist, whatever), it doesn’t make much sense to continue participating… financially.
But I’m not motivated by money, so why am I showing? Why am I participating? This is something I’ve begun asking myself lately, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I like the event. I liked what it was, years ago. I liked what it grew to be. I liked it enough to participate -as much as I was able to, within the law and within my budget- for the last two years. I like that Phoenix has a monthly cultural event that consistently draws tens of thousands of citizens of all walks to gather together downtown – apart from sports. I like that close to a hundred local creators who wouldn’t otherwise be able to show or sell their creations locally are given this opportunity to share their work with Phoenix, and I appreciate that another forty or fifty local businesses, non-profits, and food vendors also find value in participating in the event every month – helping make it all financially possible. If I weren’t showing, I’d still be attending. But I’m showing. Why am I showing? Is it worth $50/month to me to just have my work visible to local crowds? Am I just paying a fee to be seen? Am I doing it because of some twisted belief in commercial participation, that one needs to have one’s life’s work translated into currency for validity? If so, I’ll almost certainly stop. Am I doing it because it’s important for me to do my part to support this event, this community, and to help maintain its grounding in the arts?
I think part of that is why I’ve been attending the Roosevelt Row Vendor Committee meetings every month I could since they began, and have tried to do my part to help in other ways, showing up when help was needed. I think that the idea of wanting to see this continue to succeed is why I agreed to take on a job I loathe to do, when others were unable to do it after literally a year. Not because I want to do it, not because I’m seeking reward or recognition, but because it seems as though if I don’t do it, it won’t be done.
I think this is part of why I’m writing this post at all; I support the existence of the event, and want to see it succeed -not just for street vendors, or for the public who comes out every month, but also for the galleries and the artists- and there are people attacking it. Every time I see their inflammatory statements, I feel called to defend it with reality. To explain what they aren’t seeing. To try to bring light to what they seem only to wish to destroy. Is it worth it? Is it worth my time and effort to go through point by point and refute Kim Moody’s email? To provide facts and logic to replace his speculations, accusations, and outright lies? I doubt it. It would be like Jon Stewart’s daily attempts to refute Glenn Beck (et al) with facts, logic, and common sense; Beck won’t change his tune, and the people who listen to him will only continue to believe & repeat the propaganda. It reminds me of an episode of South Park.
Personally, I may just need a break. I may just need to form a plan. Take some time off from showing and take a look as an interested viewer, instead. Go see what’s going on over on Grand for the first time in years. Maybe make it over to the Alwun House (and try to stay my hand from burning the place down to shut up its owners). Maybe see if I can’t come up with a reason to be participating in the art walk. Right now it’s merely … what I do.