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First Fridays in Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona.  A city to which people flock to avoid the harsh winters of more northerly climes and bask in its year-round summer.  A city where, come December, radio stations play continuous Christmas music in the glare of the sun and people drive their cars, in patriot blue or red rock brown from mall to shining mall.  A city known more for the Fiesta Bowl Parade than for its art scene, which, apart from the impressive Phoenix Art Museum, is not visible to the naked eye.

Under the microscope however, and away from the strip malls and swimming pools, there is a growing community of cool young artists, breathing life into some of the city’s more downtrodden areas.  Creativity springs from the most uninspired landscapes, including suburban sprawl and urban wasteland and the artistic community has claimed downtown Phoenix as its own.

In the area between Indian School Road and Buchanan, impoverished artists and musicians have gradually bought and rented much of the cheap property for homes, studios and gallery spaces, creating a young and vibrant community, which is rejuvenating the district.  Independent galleries and coffee shops where customers enjoy art with their latte, have sprung up out of the dust and Italian restaurants are opening in 1940’s houses.  Or at least one, The Table, Phoenix’s newest and shiniest eating place, where the daily menu is cooked from fresh ingredients bought locally that morning.  The tiny dining room feels like your Italian Grandmother’s kitchen, were it not for the writers, artists and other interested parties discussing the unfortunate demise of the Fleischer collection of Californian impressionism over their Sicilian swordfish.

The driving force behind all this creativity is Artlink, an organisation run by the artists themselves, which aims to develop links between the artistic and business communities to create a strong Phoenix arts culture for the public to enjoy. It was set up in 1988, as the city was beginning to develop a cultural center after the Bond election, which led to the building of the library, history museum and science center.  It was a time of great enthusiasm for arts and music in the area, when many different spaces for cultural entertainment opened up promoting Artlink to set up the Art Detour, an annual tour of open studios and gallery spaces to publicise the artists’ work.  Phoenician art lovers came out of the woodwork and the event became so popular that in 1992 it was re-organised into the monthly First Fridays.  Interest outstripped expectations and what began with a handful of spaces has now grown to nearly 40.  Over half of these spaces are accessible via the free Shuttle-Link bus, funded by Artlink and a collection of business and other local sponsors, with three different routes, starting at the Central Library, Willow House and the Arizona Centre, or you can join the hordes who walk the area and indulge in some quality people-watching.

The Artwalk has become an institution, with thousands of like-minded people enjoying the best of the downtown arts scene each month.  Writers earnestly scribbling rub shoulders with well-heeled collectors, who jostle with art students at the wine and cheese table.  An off-duty fireman nurses a beer as he examines Alfonso Rosas’ technicolour offerings, in a gallery the size of a large elevator.  Over at New Urban Art, the cobalt-blue exterior contrasts with the moody photography of European cities inside, by Arizona photographer Vivian Spiegelman, who is on hand to discuss her art.  More wine, more cheese and back to Art Awakenings, a gallery with a slightly different set-up to the others.  The studio space on 2nd street, around the corner from the outside church, is run by an organization for artists with mental health problems.  It is a universally acknowledged truth that some artists may have more enthusiasm than talent, but judging by the work on show, the centre is highly successful as not one piece was of the tortured mind or mental scream variety.  It provides space for the artists to work and store their materials and also the community feel of a support network and the viewing public get a satisfying feeling of being behind the scenes as the works are displayed in the studios, a rare glimpse into the artists’ world.  Each space is unique, every rentable corner is snapped up; disused warehouses, ex-bakeries: some of the artists even open up their thriftily stylish homes for perusal, with works in situ and bands playing in the front garden.  Many galleries moonlight during the day as something completely different; hair salons and cafes, or wake up at night as bars with live music.  Music is everywhere, jazz bands play in dimly-lit corners to crowds who appreciate their beats, and a punk band thrashes in a room adjoining a space hung with paintings of the most delicate colours, like Fortuny silk.  Outside, a truck prowls the area at 8 m.p.h.  Two guitarists strum happily in the back and the lead singer walks behind, belting out his number despite having to pick up the mike stand and move on every time a car pulls up behind.  Good evening Phoenix, the Madcaps have arrived.

For those suffering from art fatigue, or once you have had your fill of wine, cheese and black-framed glasses, the area has an interesting selection of trendy dive bars.  The Bikini Lounge is dusty, musty and full of characters – a heady mixture of locals and the artsy crowd and just divey enough to deter anyone else.  Best not to get in the way of the pool table though, these dudes look like they could handle a pool cue.  Just when you are sipping a beer and congratulating yourselves on your find, along comes the ubiquitous arts magazine photographer, to remind us that you are a part of something cool.

The area buzzes, not with a pretentious, ‘look at us, aren’t we unique’ type of vibe, but with the genuine energy brought about by hard work: an invigorating and refreshing experience.  It is an exciting time to visit, there is a sense that something which has been quietly growing in the sun over many years, is blossoming and soon there will be flowers all over town.  You don’t even have to own a black polo neck to join in either.  Enjoy.

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