Art Detour, the thirty-four-year-old annual studio tour, has shifted course to match Phoenix’s shrinking arts enclave.
PHOENIX—When Colombian native Oscar De las salas arrived in Phoenix in 1999, he went looking for the city’s artists.
“I was at Missouri and Central, wearing a three-piece linen suit and waiting for a bus,” De las salas recalls. “I wanted to understand the city I had moved to, so I knew I had to see the art. That’s what my culture taught me: a city reveals itself through its artists.”
De las salas wound up that day in downtown Scottsdale, looking at cowboy paintings.
“I wrote postcards to my friends saying, ‘I am in the wrong place, the city is a tourist town, what am I doing here?’”
Eventually, De las salas found his way to downtown Phoenix. “I realized I’d just gone to the wrong place to find the artists. Downtown I met artists and curators like Helen Hestenes and Wayne Rainey and saw art that told what Phoenix is about.”
De las salas continued to find his place with the help of Art Detour, an annual guided tour of downtown artist studios and galleries. Once a year he joined other locals who hopped a trolley to the otherwise private places where creatives made work.
“It was really the only time you could do that,” says artist Beatrice Moore, who founded Art Detour in 1989 and its host organization, Artlink, the following year. “The artists were excited to talk about their art and people got to see where we worked and how we did what we did.”
The event grew out of an open tour of the Madison Street Studios that Moore hosted in 1988. “They’d had the tour before, but that year no one wanted to do it,” she remembers. “We’d just moved into a space next door and I thought, I can host this.”
Inspired by the success of the Madison event, Moore resolved to expand on the idea. She started by applying for a grant to help fund what became the first Art Detour. Movimiento Artístico del Rio Salado (or MARS) director Rudy Guglielmo acted as fiscal agent that first year; Mollie Trivers at the Office of Arts and Culture provided guidance; arts maven and Gannett employee Scott Jacobson donated ten billboards to promote the event.
“I just went out and asked people for things,” Moore says. “We got money from [Salt River Project] and [Arizona Public Service] and Grubb and Ellis. The community really stepped up.”
Ironically, the artists were harder to convince that Art Detour could work.
“A lot of them felt they weren’t getting any attention from the media, and that people wouldn’t be interested in what we were doing down there,” Moore says. “But I got Phoenix magazine and Home and Garden and New Times to write about [Art Detour] before it happened, and people did come out.”
That first Art Detour showcased seventeen art spaces, which patrons rode to on trolleys Moore and company had arranged for. She invited local dignitaries and then-mayor Terry Goddard for a private tour, then highjacked the trolley deeper into the warehouse district, where it was rumored a basketball arena was about to be built.
“I pointed out the many interesting vintage warehouses and the potential of preserving and adaptively re-using [them],” Moore later wrote. “We were hoping that educating City leaders would lead to a better outcome for the arena site selection.”
It didn’t. The City demolished the neighborhood and built its arena. The Madison Street artists relocated, and did so again when development of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball stadium chased them away once more. But thanks to the annual Art Detour event, Moore says, the public always knew where to find downtown artists.
“You’d read about it in the paper and you’d get a map and you’d get on a trolley and we’d take you to where the artists were,” Moore says. “But Art Detour isn’t like that anymore, and I don’t really like it.”
Alex and Katia Donay have attended nearly every Art Detour since 1993.
“We were married in March,” Katia says, “so we always make this kind of our anniversary celebration every year. We go to the kick-off party on Friday and then on Saturday we have our list of studios and spaces we’re going to visit. And then we usually go out for dinner that night.”
One year, the Donays went to artist Janet de Berge Lange’s studio, where they met the reclusive Sean O’Donnell. “We had one of his postcards framed on our bedroom wall,” Alex says, “and we asked him all these questions about it and we were like, We can’t believe we are talking to Sean O’Donnell.”
On another Detour Saturday, they purchased a small painting by the late Rose Johnson, who invited the couple to her home studio for a look-see. They’ve met artist Pete Petrisko and painter Jeff Cochran at other Detours.
“We’re into old movies and local art,” Katia says, “so these people are like rock stars to us. We’ll never meet Jean Harlow but we can go to Art Detour and you walk right into someone’s studio and they’re sitting there, talking to you.”
Fearful of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Donays skipped Art Detour the last couple of years. They’re looking forward to this year’s event.
Told that Art Detour now lasts a full month, Alex is confused.
“So, is it like all of the studios are open different days, spread out over all the weekends?” he asks.
Sort of, according to Artlink CEO Catrina Kahler.
“We’re no longer limited to just one weekend or one part of town,” Kahler says of the event’s expansion. “Art Detour is literally the whole month of March. And while some artists do open their studios, others are doing gallery shows or promoting online activities and workshops. Art Detour has grown in all directions.”
It’s a change born of necessity. As more artists are less able to afford studio space in Phoenix’s gentrified urban core, they’re relocating, Kahler says. In short, there just aren’t enough downtown artist studios to fill an Art Detour schedule, as in days of yore.
“The evolution of Phoenix has affected the evolution of Art Detour,” she says. “We’re trying to address these changes by taking the geography out of the conversation. Instead of only presenting the artists who are left downtown, we’re meeting the artists where they are, and helping others to find them there.”
Moore understands that artist studios are far apart these days, that the old arts enclaves have mostly vanished. She admires Kahler and lauds her hard work in keeping Art Detour alive, but she’s not convinced that Art Detour serves the same purpose these days.
“It pulls focus to have art spaces all over the city,” says Moore. “And a lot of the spaces are spaces that are open, anyway. They’re not opening specially for Art Detour. The excitement around doing something unique, of going to artist studios, is gone.”
Moore worries that having too much happening in too many places on too many days will overwhelm Art Detour denizens, who will opt to stay home. De las salas, an arts advocate and this year’s honorary chair of Artlink’s Art d’Core Gala fundraiser, is more hopeful.
“I keep thinking about when I first got here and needed help to find the artists,” he says. “That’s what Art Detour is doing. It’s linking you to the artists who are out there somewhere, waiting to tell you about this city.”