Lenny

The Sedona, Arizona Gallery Art Scene

By the time that this posts, I will be airborne heading West to Sedona, AZ, and I thought that it may be a cool idea to rehash some of my older thoughts on the area for all the newbies to the blog.

While there’s no doubt on the planet that Sedona, Arizona is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, as I discovered while visiting there the last two years, it is also one of the key spiritual magnets to a variety of religions and beliefs, including the significant number of people attracted to Sedona as a result of its “energy Vortexes.”

Let there be no doubt that this is an area of profound beauty and full of a palpable sense of energy and power. I loved it and will be back many times, as there are dozens and dozens of trails and vistas to explore. This visit may get interesting as far as hiking, as I am nursing a really sore Achilles tendon (too much basketball).

On my last trip in 2008, I focused some time and comments on the Sedona art scene, a “scene” with some national footprint, regardless of where you stand on the planetary scale of the art world. in fact, within a few minutes of anyone discussing that they’re going to Sedona, someone will immediately pop in and describe the city’s great art scene.

Last year I approached those views with the prejudiced eyes of the artsy Easterner, accustomed to white cube galleries, minimally presented with austere framing, white matting, and where even title and price labels are often eschewed in preference of a discrete price list on the gallerist’s white or light wood postmodern design table.

Let start with Sedona art galleries, which seems to have shrunk a little in membership since last year - probably as a result of the economy.

But first, extrapolating from to the city’s website, the city probably has around 12,000 people, about 90% of them non-Hispanic whites, and last year with a median household income roughly $100,000 less than Potomac, Maryland and paradoxically (also last year) with a median house price about $100,000 more than Potomac’s pricey homes. I’ve been watching those house prices dive bomb over the last year, but they’re still up there.

But this dollar discordance is the first of many paradoxes about this gorgeous place.

Depending on who you believe, Sodona also gets between four and five million visitors a year.

The Sedona Visitors Guide tells these millions of visitors that Sedona “not too long ago had 300 residents, now has 300 artists and more than 40 galleries.” We also learn from the guide that Sedona averages one gallery per 300 residents, and for every dollar spent on art, the art buyers spend $12 on other Sedona stuff.

I often wonder how the granularity on these statistics take place.

The guide also claimed last year that statistics show that approximately 33% of the city’s visitors are attracted there by the art, and that these art aficionados thus spend between $200,000 to one million dollars in various Sedona businesses each day. We thus can extrapolate that around $16,666 to $83,333 dollars are spent each day on art in this small town.

One issue appears to be clear: it’s the tourists who buy art, not so much the locals (does that sound familiar?). This makes sense, after all, how much art can 12,000 residents buy from 40 galleries?

“Locals don’t buy any art,” told me last year a former Sedona gallerist, who prior to opening a gallery in Sedona had been a dealer in Chicago. “There are a lot of retired people here [the median age is around 55] and although there are some very large multi-million dollar homes, there are also a lot of modular homes [a fancy way to described a souped-up trailer].”

To the prejudiced and minimalist Easterner eye, the riot of color, subjects and presentation that characterizes most Southwestern art is an assault to long-held visual sensibilities created by the black and white world of the East Coast and Left Coast artworlds and its European and Latin American brethren.

I am shocked to discover that perhaps there’s something of an elitist in all of us, as the preconditioning of being an artist, an art critic and an art dealer raised in all those aspects, and mostly along the Eastern states, prejudices my eyes to what I’ve referred previously as “coyote art.”

My better half, who many years ago interned in Santa Fe with the legendary Gerald Peters Gallery (and Peters is credited by many as energizing the interest in Southwestern art and placing Santa Fe and the Southwest in general on the art scene), tried over the last couple of years to educate me somewhat as to the different sensibilities between what she labels “an Easterner, with an East Coast vision of what a gallery should look like, looking at a Southwestern space.”

It will take time, but then again, at one point in his life Duncan Phillips hated Impressionism and then eventually was seduced by it and became the American champion for it.

On the other hand, Wisconsin farm girl Georgia O’Keefe, even in her Southwest years always kept her austere black and white world where colors were generally reserved for her paintings.

So for the last two years I have proceeded with as open as a mind I can have, maybe somewhere between Phillips’ eventual enthusiasm and O’Keefe’s steadfast minimalism in personal tastes.

I am curious to see what changes the economic downturn has wrought but there were a lot of spaces in and around Sedona that sell artwork. I’m not really sure if there really are 40 galleries, unless one includes a lot of spaces that sell a lot of Native American and Mexican crafts.

Sedona itself is sort of divided into two areas, and as one comes to it from Highway 179, Uptown Sedona is to the right and the other Sedona to the left. Most art spaces are either located on 179 itself or Uptown Sedona.

The first set of galleries one comes across on 179 are located on a shopping area to the right as one enters the city, with a spectacular view (from the shops) of the Sedona rocks and the city itself.

And when you drive up Highway 179 into Sedona, one of the first galleries that you come across is the huge Exposures Gallery, which is located on the right side of 179 as one approaches the city.

exposures gallery in sedona, arizona

Over 20,000 square feet, not including the outside sculpture gardens (I assume) make this the largest art gallery in the state, and probably one of the largest in the nation.

There’s no gallery in the world, in the many, many galleries in nearly all continents that I have visited, that I can compare to this place.

Exposures is a perfect example of what makes most Southwestern art galleries so different from most other fine art galleries in the world; galleries which follow the white cube example of white walls and minimalist hanging styles, coupled with total lack of information about prices, etc.

Not so in the Southwest gallery model, and Exposures is a perfect example of this model for Southwest galleries.

Upon entering the huge spaces, the East Coast gallery sensibility is immediately assaulted by a riot of colors and by a fear of empty space that yields a huge gallery space filled to the brim with art, photography, sculpture, crafts and jewelry.

This is 21st century salon style presentation married to the joy of colors that is the Southwest.

There are probably a few thousand pieces of art hanging and displayed in this gargantuan space. In fact, so much artwork, and so much variety, that the snobbery of the art world would immediately tend to dismiss this gallery as another “art store” filled with “wall decor.”

Not so fast.

There are plenty of art galleries in Sedona that offer wall decor, and the same in the Southwest, and for that matter all over the nation.

Don’t be fooled by the sheer scale and invasion of the senses that Exposure offers. This is a very successful galleries which offers some very good artists, some so so artists and some mediocre artists. In other words, just like any other reputable art gallery, but definitely not a cheesy art store. This is a very good Southwestern gallery working flawlessly on that model.

Exposures’ success is clearly evident not only in its size, but in the small army of people that it employs, as well as its history, which essentially repeats the usual gallery story: art-loving couple moves to Sedona, open a small gallery; they do well and open a huge one.

And because Sedona’s art buying market is comprised mostly of visitors, this gallery has to operate on the model of exhibiting everything that it has to offer all at once.

It works for them.

So once we get past the fact that this overcrowded gallery space has found its formula for success, and we begin to look at the artwork itself, as I stated before, we find the same mix of great, good, average and mediocre that one finds in any gallery in the world because art truly is in the eyes of the beholder — or in this case the husband and wife team that picks the artists that they choose to represent and sell.

And sell they do…

On exhibit are works by more than 100 artists; yep, 100… and prices, I was informed, range from $29 to $290,000.

The catchy price range seems to have done wonders for both the artists and the owners.

Not everything is about money and sales; but money and sales make most artists, and definitely most gallery owners happy.

About the artwork itself…

Nearly all of it shares a flawless technical skill and delivery that would make most postmodernists elitists raise their noses a few inches higher. As an admirer of technical skill, I have learned to respect technical skill, but also have learned to then look past it and see content, ideas, context and intelligence in the work.

But before I get to the few artists that stood out for me last year, I must note that the one thing that, in spite of over 100 artists, the gallery lacked was monochromatic or black and white works in this wildly colored universe of art. It could really use a few drawings here and there to break up the dominance of color and painting. But I am biased.

As far as I could see there were only two artists working in drawing. Of the two, the two delicate small graphite drawings by Charles Frizzell stood out like little orphans in an ocean of color.

The charcoal and watercolor pieces by an artist named Yuroz also could mostly be qualified as drawing, but the works themselves were rather forgettable, as Yuroz seems to be channelling several of Picasso’s periods — including a rather mediocre stab at cubism — in his paintings and drawings. There is too much Picasso in Yuroz, but there is also too much of Yuroz in Exposures, which in economic terms means that someone must be buying lots of his work. I didn’t like any of it.

Let me tell you what I did like.

There was some very good photography by Scott Peck, and yet I personally test all flower photography to the spectacular work of Andrzej Pluta, or Joyce Tenneson, or Amy Lamb. In fact if Peck’s work is doing well in Exposures, then the art dealer in me is sure that Tenneson, Pluta and Lamb would do even better at Exposures.

Upon entering any business in Arizona that sells imagery, one is bound to find photographs of the desert rocks and formations. By the time that you visit a dozen galleries, one is sick and tired of desert photography.

And yet, one of the most memorable artists in Exposures is a photographer named Martii, whose spectacular desert shots, coupled with superb presentations, make his or her photography one of the best finds in the gallery. And in writing this, I think that another photographer whose work would do well here, would be the split reverse image digitally manipulated split desert photographs by John DeFabbio, who works out of the Washington, DC area. For years DeFabbio has been trekking around the world photographing nearly everything that he sees, then digitally mirroring each half of the image to discover amazing new images in the manipulated work.

But back to Exposures.

The best work in this amazing gallery when I visited last year were beautiful abstract pieces by a Brooklyn-born artist named Eric Lee, one of the rare non-representational artists in the space. Lee creates wonderful reverse paintings in glass that are standouts of skill and delivery. They are fresh and beautiful and add a calming effect to the gallery’s riot of color.

There are two galleries in Sedona claiming to have been voted the best gallery in Sedona. I’m not sure who the voters were, but of the two, Exposures is by far the best and certainly one of the most amazing art spaces in the entire Southwest.

And now I have used the example of Sedona’s huge Exposure Gallery to discuss what I call the Southwest gallery model — a gallery packed to the gills with art in a riot of color and fear of empty space — as opposed to the more standard gallery model of a minimalist white cube for a gallery.

There are a lot of art venues in the Sedona area, nearly all of them, with one notable exception, follow this Southwest model. Most of the better spaces are listed in the Sedona Art Gallery Association website.

Of these, last year Kinion Fine Arts seemed to offer a blend of the two gallery models. In 2008 they had recently moved from the Hozho Center (located at 431 Hwy 179 and home to several galleries) to uptown Sedona, relocating the gallery to a former bank building, safe room and all. The Kinions have divided the gallery into two rooms; at the entrance the Southwest model is in place, but the bank’s vault is used for solo shows apparently hung in the cleaner, less cluttered style of the white cube. They’re also one of the few art spaces in town where not everything is Southwest art centric.

A new gallery just up a few steps from Kinion Fine Arts, located at Hyatt Pinion Point, is the very beautiful space of the Vickers Collection (there are three of these galleries in total and the one in Sedona is called VC Fine Arts), opened just a year ago and by far the only gallery in the area that fits the cleaner white cube model.

Vickers uses the white cube model, and also offers the most diverse set of artists, not just a heavy-handed focus on Southwest art (as most Sedona galleries do, driven by the tourist art market).

It will be interesting to see if Vickers can survive as the sole Sedona gallery (at least that I’ve seen) that offers a diverse set of artwork; the type of art that could easily be seen in New York, or Philly or DC. I’ll let you know later this week after I drop in again.

At VC I quite liked the bronze sculptures of Bill Starke, a refreshing change of pace from all the bronzes of horses, bears, javalinas, Indians, deer and cowboys that inundate most of this beautiful town’s galleries.

I also liked Chris Nelson’s smart and intelligent reverse paintings on plexi, which upon further examination are more than just paintings, since the artist also routes the verso of the plexi so that the textured reverse plexi interacts with the acrylic paint to actually create grooves and channels that on the front of the work create smart landscapes. As interesting as this work is, this artist has to be careful that he doesn’t fall into a repetitive pattern in his work.

Since I have been in the advice-giving mood, an artist that would be a perfect fir and would actually sell like gangbusters all throughout the Southwest are the amazing storm paintings of the Washington DC area’s Amy Marx, who recently had her first solo in New York and whose breath-taking, hyper realism captures massive storms and weather patterns like no artist that I have ever seen.

Another East Coast artist who would be an instant hit in the Southwest is Alexandria’s Susan Makara, whose beautiful stacked stones series sell as soon as she is finished with them from her studio in Alexandria’s Torpedo factory.

Still in uptown, the Sedona Art Center rounds up a very good artists’ run membership gallery of local artists.

There are also quite a few galleries located in a faux Mexican village called Tlaquepaque; after two trips to Sedona, I still can’t pronounce it. From there you can cross Oak Creek by foot and visit a whole bunch more galleries on Hwy 179, although the ongoing construction on 179 seemed to be really hurting the gallery business on that road.

Last year I also drove up to Jerome and was very pleased with their galleries.

Jerome, Arizona sits straddling the side of a mountain about a mile high from sea level and less than 30 miles from its more famous cousin Sedona.

“America’s most vertical city” — I am told — is home to about 400 people, but once boasted 16,000 inhabitants and a brothel madam who was Arizona’s richest woman.

Although I think that the whores are long gone, today the town still manages to attract a few million tourists a year, not only for the spectacular views that it affords from nearly every vantage point in this tiny and beautiful town, but also because of a budding gallery scene that although seemimgly having fairly established roots, it only seems to be blossoming out recently with a significant number of art galleries and venues and a rather successful monthly art walk on the first Saturday of the month. With 30 galleries and artists’ studios participating in the art walk, it reflects the huge impact of the fine arts in a town of 400.

Most of Jerome’s art galleries seem to fit the Southwest style of galleries that I discussed earlier in reference to Sedona. However, and very surprising to me, Jerome’s art spaces seem more individual and original — in most cases — than Sedona’s cookie-cutter model of galleries.

There are several cooperatives that I observed, most noticeably the Jerome Artists Cooperative, where the hilarious (and smart) watercolors of Dave Wilder were on exhibit on that day that I visited in 2008. Full of irony and delivered with superb technical expertise, Wilder flexes well-developed observational skills that challenge the genre of “cowboy art” in a new refreshing manner.

Big Hat by Dave Wilder

The Spirit Art Gallery, although an independent commercial art gallery, seems to be run like a coop as well, with work by 30 artists on display at once, with some very good talent among them.

My Mind’s Art Gallery, which features the work of its owner, Ukrainian painter Joanna Bregon, a surrealist artist who has found a home in this unusual little town, also stands out from the cookie cutter cluttered gallery model.

It was refreshing to see diversity in art and rugged individuality in each art space, regardless of how one feels about the quality of the art itself, in some cases.

And then, while walking through the various galleries and talking to some of the owners and artists, it dawned on me that the Jerome galleries and shops is what I had expected to see in Sedona: unique, one-of-a-kind shops, art venues and art galleries.

I also discovered that nearly everyone that I talked to in this tiny town seemed to know everyone else, and also seemed to have a grudge against either the land developers and the expansion of homes in nearby areas (and competition for water) and/or against the Jerome city fathers for a variety of reasons, most dealing with construction issues.

Finally I trekked down to the town’s former High School, an ancient multi-story set of buildings that has been converted into artists’ studios and workshops - 20 of them.

There the work of Michael MacDonald and Derryl Day really stood out, especially some of Day’s older portraiture works, which were exquisite color pencil pieces full of personality and grace, as well as tremendous technical skill. But the key here, with an exception here and there, is that these were all artists in the overall, rounded, sense of the adjective — not just “Southwest art” artists; it was refreshing and interesting.

As small as Jerome is, it’s clear that the town’s colorful past, coupled with its amazing location and vistas, and more recently married to a creative artistic community and over-protective city fathers, all act as an irresistible magnet to the hordes of tourists that visit it every year.

It’s also clear that there’s something special about this place; it can be felt in the air, in its people and in its streets, and the dealer in me wonders if this special spot would not be an ideal place for some sort of very specific and focused art fair - a mini model of my “new art fair model.”

Sedona and Jerome are like kissing cousins of the Arizona tourist draw. I think that together, they can also become complimentary partners for an art draw of its own.

As the above words are being published, I am airborne and heading West to Arizona, eager to see what changes have taken place, and what new spaces may have emerged, and in the coyote-eat-coyote world of art, which gallery has closed.

Stay tuned… more later.

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2 Comments »

  1. March 19, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    Donna Said,

    Be sure to stop by and see what’s new in Jerome!
    Donna

  2. September 1, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    Ghermine Said,

    This post is a thoughtful and informative analysis of the Sedona Art Scene.

    BTW, The Sedona Arts Center sells more art by local artists than any other sellers and has a fabulous Plein Air Festival the last week of October.

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