Roosevelt Row arts district in Phoenix is different (read: more corporate) these days. How are all of the speedy commercial and residential developments impacting local artists?
PHOENIX—Artwork abounds in the Roosevelt Row arts district, where monthly First Friday art walks sometimes draw thousands of people to the downtown Phoenix hub anchored by a strip of Roosevelt Street between Central Avenue and Seventh Street.
Murals grace mid-rise apartment buildings, restaurants, and the perimeter of a new utility power station. Paintings fill the walls of a nearby boutique hotel. And a building in the city’s burgeoning bioscience core shows pieces rooted in collaborations between local artists and researchers.
Collectively, they give the impression that artists must be thriving here. But the reality is more complicated, according to several artists who’ve spent years making and showing their work in the area.
“It’s an odd dichotomy between development and the arts,” explains artist Brian Boner, whose murals with sunflowers and flocks of birds grace several buildings in Roosevelt Row. “This is where artists lived and created the area that’s become so desirable, but artists can’t afford to live here now.”
Longtime artists recount several waves of development in the region, but some of the most visible changes in Roosevelt Row happened during just the last decade, as high-density housing and mixed-use projects displaced galleries and other creative spaces.
Even so, Boner sees opportunity in the area, in part because his high-visibility murals have introduced his work to a much wider audience.
“The art I’ve done in Roosevelt Row has led to several commissions, including murals for private residencies and projects in other cities,” he explains.
Christine Cassano, an artist who recently moved from metro Phoenix to Santa Fe, New Mexico, says she’s particularly concerned about development pushing out Roosevelt Row galleries, in part because galleries closing in the past led to fewer collectors coming to the area in search of art.
“Having developers issue calls for art isn’t the same as having artists represented by galleries who invest in their voices,” she says.
Although some creative spaces have shuttered or downsized, others have opened or relocated to Roosevelt Row or its surroundings.
A mixed-use development called Park Central provides gallery space for the nonprofit Artlink, and the Altura apartment tower offers space for the female-owned, Indigenous-led Cahokia SocialTech + ArtSpace. Bentley Gallery just relocated to a six-story shipping container project. And Xico, which focuses on Latino and Indigenous artists, moved its gallery from South Phoenix to Roosevelt Row.
Now, as a Chicago-based developer is planning to build a restaurant on a Roosevelt Row green space that’s been a site for numerous murals, performances, and art installations in recent years, artist Pete Petrisko is continuing to characterize the area as an “eats district” rather than an “arts district.”
“There’s still a lot of art in Roosevelt Row,” explains Jose Benavides, who recalls the early days when fellow artists would transform storage trucks into galleries and park on open lots on First Fridays that felt grittier and more rogue. “Now it’s very clean and sanitized, and it feels a lot more corporatized.”
“Everyone has their own perspective,” according to Janel Garza, an artist who moved downtown in 2012 and currently has a studio in the nearby Grand Avenue arts district.
“I’ve heard some people complain that the same artists always get work in Roosevelt Row,” Garza says. There’s no formal process for assessing whether that’s the case, yet it’s easy enough to see that several creatives have multiple murals in this part of the city.
Garza suspects that some developers want artists to deliver particular aesthetics because they’re popular in the area—or they want artists to make work that’s “safe and commercially appealing.” In other words: art-washing.
So, what’s the big takeaway here?
“Roosevelt Row didn’t go away because the developers moved in,” says Cassano. “But development isn’t what makes a thriving arts scene.”