Phoenix is home to approximately 1.5 million people, but its metro area has the population density of gas.
That may be a bit of a hyperbole, but in all actuality, Phoenix is constructed more like a plate than a glass, and the effects of this spill out over into several streams of life for Phoenicians. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix metro has a population density of 3,165 people per square mile, which is comparable with Salem, Ore. – not exactly a city known for its density.
Specifically affected by the density of Phoenix is the art scene. Whereas many notorious art cities like Chicago and Berlin have large urban densities to support their respective burgeoning art scenes, Phoenix does not have that to fall back on.
Currently, there seems to be a discrepancy in Phoenix between artists within the community.
Local artist Tara Logsdon characterizes the situation as being a conflict between what she calls “microwave” artists and “oven” artists; there is a new wave of artists in Phoenix who are looking for vapid success and who plan on moving on to another city, while another set of artists who have been developing slowly over time want to stay in the community.
Logsdon, who has been a Phoenix resident since 2002, is one artist who archetypes the latter, and she is all about redemption. Logsdon sifts through local thrift shops on a hunt to find damaged teddy bears that she can refurbish, re-image and then put up for adoption.
The “oven” artists, Logsdon explained, are “people who are really working hard on their art … and don’t ever leave their house.” Because of the socially introverted tendencies of dedicated artists, they tend to have less exposure than the “kids that are partying and doing art in between getting drunk.”
Moreover, Logsdon sees a void in Phoenix for artists to showcase their work.
“A lot of artists show in Scottsdale (instead of Phoenix) because the galleries are actually legitimate and represent them as artists,” Logsdon said.
Also affecting the scale of Phoenix’s artistic reach is the low level of diversity compared to nationally recognized art cities like New York or Los Angeles. Without diversity, there is less novelty – the very heartbeat of a creative muse.
Phoenix T-shirt designer and long-time resident Ruben Gonzales aimed to bring a more diverse style to Phoenix. He recently designed a controversial and popular shirt that read “Equality or Die,” which he felt championed more than just equality for one specific group, but rights for everyone, regardless of creed, gender, race or religion.
Gonzales believes in Phoenix’s capabilities and sees it as a unique place for people to make art, though the cultural state of the city is adolescent.
“Phoenix will always be a big kid,” Gonzales said. “It might not ever get it right. We don’t have to be an established city like New York or Chicago. In Arizona, you don’t have to follow anyone’s trend; you can make your own. You don’t have to break the bank. It’s affordable. You can go to L.A. or San Francisco – learn, and come back. The city has this childhood arc and knows it doesn’t want to grow, but it has to.”
Adding to the somewhat polarizing environment that artists may experience in central Arizona, Phoenix’s political landscape is significantly less liberalcompared to artistic and cultural capitals of the country.
The state is known for draconian laws, like the “show-me-your-papers” immigration bill, Senate Bill 1070, passed by Jan Brewer and championed by Joe Arpaio, America’s toughest and most controversial sheriff, whose offices have been found engaging in racial profiling. In fact, artists from other parts of the country actually boycotted Phoenix after the passage of the bill and musicians refused to perform here.
Extrapolating on the issues keeping Phoenix in a state of arrested development, especially those of a political nature, local Phoenix activist Stacey Champion argues that people in Phoenix need to take an active role in making change through the polls.
Champion is largely involved in the political, social and artistic landscape of Phoenix, as she is a member of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, creator of Rogue Green, which provides sustainability junkies with opportunities to network, and she produced “The Vagina Monologues,” a play based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with over 200 women which champions women’s rights and ownership of their own bodies.
Champion urges people to get to the ballot box if they want to be in control of Phoenix’s fate as an artistic hub.
“Everyone can start by actually voting, being involved and being aware, and knowing who the people are that are making the big decisions from the city council to staff to mayor leadership,” Champion said. “While cheerleading is important, it’s also important to recognize and call out the bullsh-t, because that’s how you’re going to make change.”
For Champion, there seems to be the insistence that changing the system happens not by throwing rocks at the building from the outside, but by being involved with who builds the building in the first place.
Another prolific member of the community that’s committed to staying in Phoenix is ASU alumna Rachel Bess, who graduated with a B.F.A. in painting from Barrett, the Honors College in 2001. Bess has been doing art in Phoenix since college and has been featured in Java, 944, Desert Living, Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Magazine and publications and galleries around the country.
She remembers distinctly when First Friday initially began on Roosevelt Row.
“We would buy 36 beers and stick them in a cooler in a gallery, and they would last the whole night,” Bess said. “We would think that you’d have a good show if 50 people came.”
With regards to Phoenix’s trajectory, Bess believes turning Phoenix into another Portland shouldn’t be the ultimate goal.
“Phoenix is Phoenix,” Bess said. “It has its advantages and disadvantages, and I would hate to see it try to emulate another city, except you would always like to see the arts and culture be supported.”
Fortunately for Phoenix, there are people like Logsdon, Gonzales, Bess and Champion who are working hard to make Phoenix a hub for art and culture.
Additionally, a woman like Kimber Lanning exemplifies what is needed in Phoenix: an emphasis on community space.
Owner of Stinkweeds Record Exchange and Modified Arts gallery, Lanning has her feet in the two seas of change that could develop Phoenix exponentially. Lanning also is the creator of Local First, an organization that seeks to connect people in Phoenix with family-owned businesses.
This organization started because Lanning was inspired by Chicago.
“I started Local First, because we had too many bright young people leaving the city and going somewhere else,” Lanning said. “People told me in different ways that they love Chicago because of the local businesses.”
Lanning believes that people can move to Arizona without truly connecting to the area; she wanted to change that by creating a networking database for local businesses and their owners.
“The reality is that there is a lot more here you just have to look for it.” Lanning said. “We are a city in transit.”
Phoenix is transitioning and, at the end of the day, people are going to have to get used to the growing pains, the hiccups and the mishaps that Phoenix will inevitably have.
But with great change comes great change, and the potential for gargantuan growth in Phoenix’s art scene is unparalleled in other cities.
Above all, the burden is on the artist, the student and the parent not to complain about how much Phoenix sucks.
“(They) want to be in a city where they can make a change, and some people want to be in a city where the change has already occurred,” Lanning said. “… where they can just drink their lattes and ride their bikes and everything is beautiful.”
But that’s not the reality of the situation, because there is work to be done to beautify Phoenix.
So get to work.
Reach the reporter at Demetrius.Burns@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @dgburns20