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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Dinner … where?

    David Aguirre and Molly McClintock
    David Aguirre and Molly McClintock

    The late American philosopher Harry Broudy might as well have been commenting on today’s art scene when he said, “”What a society deems important is enshrined in its art.””

    But what happens when a society’s art disappears? If we don’t pay attention in the next few weeks, Tucsonans might have an opportunity to experience this firsthand.

    One of downtown’s most important galleries is going under siege and may not make it through the end of the month. The Steinfeld warehouse, a 100-year-old Tucson landmark, is home to Chax Press, a print publication studio, and The Alamo, a handmade furniture studio. It is also home to Dinnerware Contemporary Arts, 101 W. Sixth St., as well as multiple artist studios. One week before Thanksgiving, all its occupants received an eviction notice from the Arizona

    Department of Transportation, which owns the building.

    While the struggle of this building may seem like an isolated incident, there are some who say it is connected to a larger idea: government versus the art community. But the bottom line is artists in the Steinfeld Gallery do not want to become wandering vagabonds. They need a home.

    A campus perspective

    Joseph LaBate, a photographer and assistant professor at the UA School of Art, also received a lease termination from the transportation department in November. Labate and his wife, painter Laura LaFave, have used the warehouse as a studio since 1999.

    LaBate summed his reaction to the eviction as a “”panic.””

    “”We all thought a day like this might come, but I don’t think anyone ever envisioned the immediacy of it,”” he said.

    LaBate said that the time allowed before the artists had to leave was a bit severe, considering the amount of work and equipment he has in his studio.

    “”They told us we had to be out in a question of weeks,”” LaBate said. “”Even then, if you think of a lifetime of work and trying to find a space, when I think about it, I have an anxiety attack. It’s a huge undertaking. I don’t see the immediacy, why there’s this deadline.””

    Even though he is an established artist in Tucson, having curated both Dinnerware’s national photography exhibit “”Bytes”” and an alumni show of recent UA grads in January, LaBate does not know what he will do when he is removed from his studio.

    “”Downtown influences artists and by moving them somewhere else, they’re not going to get the attention they need,”” said Dallas Reece, a fine arts senior who works at Gallery Centella, 340 S. Convent Ave. “”Its location is in the arts district and it needs to be preserved. It’s a sanctuary for artists and people who love the arts.””

    Reece found out about Dinnerware’s situation after the Tucson Gallery Association e-mailed various galleries and told them the news. Reece decided to send a letter and an e-mail to the governor’s office, asking to let the artists stay.

    “”I couldn’t believe it,”” Reece said. “”It’s so important because it’s so local and run by volunteers. The warehouse complements the art so well.””

    LaBate said the city has responded in a positive way in trying to help the artists find a new space with an equivalent rent and even the possibility of subsidizing rents. But nothing is certain, and as LaBate says, “”Everything at this point is just talk.””

    Dinnerware, he said, is one of the most significant establishments for the Tucson arts scene, and how Tucson reacts to the situation will show the importance of the arts.

    “”For any city, the arts are an important part of that city’s identity,”” he said. “”This will be Tucson’s test in how they treat local artists,”” LaBate said. “”It’s a very community-oriented gallery. The worst thing the city can do is demolish it – or turn it into a fancy restaurant.””

    Reece said she sees an inherent tension between government and respect for the arts.

    “”It’s a problem that could easily be fixed and be preserved,”” she said. “”With everything financial, the arts will get cut first. I don’t want to see the arts being jeopardized anymore.””

    Bobbi Gentry, a studio art senior and intern at Dinnerware, said Dinnerware is only one of a handful of galleries that “”keep(s) up with the rest of the art world.””

    “”I think that Dinnerware shows more edgy, more contemporary stuff than the traditional southwestern-type art,”” Gentry said. “”There’s only a handful (in Tucson) that do that.””

    Gentry was baffled when she found out about the lease termination.

    “”I didn’t realize (the transportation department) had the power to do something like that,”” Gentry said. “”I feel like there’s some ulterior motives.””

    Although Gentry said she is speculating what will happen, the division between the artists’ points of view and the department’s is strikingly clear.

    “”It’s really bad for Dinnerware, but it’s worse for the Alamo and all the other artist studios,”” Gentry said. “”It’ll be easier for Dinnerware to move. Alamo has a lot of equipment, and there’s not many warehouses like the one we’re in now. It’s a neat warehouse.””

    The fine lines

    Dinnerware’s original location in 1979 as an artist’s collective was on Congress Street and has moved to various locations since.

    Dinnerware moved to its current location in the Steinfeld warehouse in 2005. The historic warehouse was purchased in the mid-’80s by the transportation department when it intended on building the Barraza-Aviation Parkway through the warehouse district, said Teresa Welborn, the department’s deputy public involvement director. When road plans changed, the owners of the newly-acquired building decided to rent it out to artists.

    Since the late ’80s, Steinfeld warehouse tenants have not been able to own the property, and instead have had to answer to transportation department officials, making it impossible to ensure permanent status in the building.

    An inspection in October that found stress cracks in the warehouse walls triggered the lease termination. Unless repairs were made, the department said, the tenants would have to move out by Jan. 31.

    “”(The department) inspects its buildings on an annual basis,”” Welborn said. “”Repairs are up to people who lease them.””

    When occupants and supporters of the gallery sent letters to Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office, her office granted the appeal and the eviction date was moved to the last day of March.

    The renters at Dinnerware did not want to give in to the lease termination date. Instead, they brought in an independent structural engineer, Jerry Cannon, to inspect the building. The Cannon Report, as it began to be called, issued on Feb. 6, said there were problems with the building, but the artists did not need to vacate the warehouse while repairs were being made.

    “”When (the department) sells a property, they offer it to local jurisdiction: the city of Tucson,”” Welborn said. “”If the city wants it, we sell it to them. If the city doesn’t want it, it goes to public auction. (The department) does not really need to be owning the building anymore.””

    Lou Ginsberg, the city real estate special projects manager, and Charles Alexander, president of the Warehouse Art Managers Organization, are helping artists in the warehouse.

    Alexander has been involved in the petition to the state to help the artists stay. He is trying to get as many people on the artists’ side as possible, he said.

    “”We’re trying to line up all the friends we can get,”” he said.

    Alexander said the Cannon Report is one tool the tenants can use to stay in the building longer.

    “”The building is basically safe, needs some work but no reason to evacuate people,”” Alexander said. “”We’ve been using that report to make an argument to (the department).””

    The city says it will assess the situation further once there is a definitive status on the repairs in the building, but they have stepped in to help.

    “”We’re committed to help them find another location in the same area,”” said city council member Nina Trasoff. “”It’s important to keep the artists together and create synergy.””

    She also said there are “”so many issues”” and conflicting building reports that until the city knows the status of the building and how much it will cost, they cannot assess the situation.

    The occupants have also asked the city to help in putting together a relocation package of how much it would cost if the artists had to leave.

    Ultimately, it is an issue between the renters and owners, but the city has been supportive of the artists.

    “”It’s difficult to keep an old building like that standing,”” Gentry said. But, she added, “”There’s a lot of people that think it’s worth saving.””

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