A handful of DIY, artist-led endeavors in the Southwest demonstrate how artists don’t just DIY—they do it for and with each other.
Relative to artists, the term “do-it-yourself” is somewhat of a misnomer. These DIYers are most often deeply tied to their community’s needs and shared resources, whether as non-profits, for-profits, collectives, co-ops, pop-ups, alliances, art walks, murals, garage galleries, apartment venues, warehouses, backyards, or basements (the list goes on).
And while the story of artist-led endeavors is vast, complicated, and relatively risky at times, we take a look at a handful of variable yet connected efforts that demonstrate how artists don’t just do it themselves—they do it for and with each other.
Consider, for example, the Tannex, a DIY arthouse-type music venue and performance space in Albuquerque started by Joe Cardillo, Marya Errin Jones, and Andrew Lyman in 2013. At the time, Lyman was running a project space called the Tan, located in the historic neighborhood of Barelas in a small strip of storefront spaces that, over the years, had been passed on from artist to artist. The annex, a small industrial garage, became the default location for spillover crowds and afterhours hangouts.
The three began presenting shows in that small garage as the Tannex. When Lyman and Cardillo moved onto other projects and geographies, Jones, who has been a theater artist since the turn of the century, embraced an essential internal mission of putting women and people of color on every bill.
“I wanted to create a space where I could book the kinds of shows that I wanted to see. A space where I wasn’t singled out—stared at or treated like a threat or prey or that I didn’t belong,” she said. “I needed a place to go where I could be myself. If I needed that, I was sure other people also needed that kind of place to go.”
As a result, the makeup of the audience changed, and people were informed by the space. For approximately eight years, the Tannex hosted artists who often worked outside the conventional definitions of performance as well as event series like Black Jeopardy! and Tannex Radio. Jones is also the founder of the Albuquerque Zine Library, which holds approximately 600 zines, and ABQ Zine Fest, the city’s first and only annual zine fair, now in its tenth year.
Shortly before this article went to press, Jones was forced to close the Tannex, formerly located at 1417 4th Street SW, when the real estate development company Homewise bought the building.
What’s next on the horizon for Jones and her DIY spirit? She will curate a series of events at Sanitary Tortilla Factory, which houses an exhibition space and studios, run by artist sheri crider.
As an artist-builder-contractor, crider has a unique perspective on real-estate ownership, development, and occupancy. After nearly a decade of running an exhibition space known as SCA Contemporary Art in a building owned by absentee landlords, she moved and transformed the empty M & J’s Sanitary Tortilla Factory in downtown Albuquerque into Sanitary Tortilla Factory (401 2nd Street SW). It includes fifteen below-market-value studios, a 1,200-square-foot exhibition space, shared fabrication space, and a biannual artist residency.
Maintaining the name to recognize and honor the building’s history in the community, the mission of Sanitary Tortilla Factory involves “actively seeking to expand the critical capacity of art-making while strategically undermining structural inequity with equity-based curating and programming.”
Elsewhere in New Mexico, artists are working toward equitable representation and access to resources outside the confines of brick and mortar. Maida, an online collective of Indigenous and Indo-Hispano artists, started by Maida Branch, “supports the growth of Indigenous artists and preservation of their homelands through sustainable business practices.”
Earthseed Black Arts Alliance, a Black-led organization, focuses on “centering and amplifying Black voices in northern New Mexico as well as collaborating with Indigenous artists, artists of color, and the city’s artist community as a whole.” The collective is composed of founding members Raashan Ahmad, Nikesha Breeze, and Tigre Mashaal-Lively. Activities include site-specific performances, a summer camp, an online video series and associated lesson plans, and more.
In August 2020, Earthseed came out of “the turmoil, violence, and pain happening that year, especially for the Black community, throughout the country,” they said. “For us as artists in northern New Mexico, feeling lost and alone without a visible and vibrant Black community, we turned that pain into a desire to uplift and claim more space for increased representation of and advocacy for Black artists here, dispelling the myth that we don’t exist or there aren’t enough of us.”
At the time of publication, Mashaal-Lively recently experienced violence due to the burning and ultimate destruction of their twenty-one-foot sculpture The Solacii, “a queer and Afrofuturist expression of comfort and solace” that had been located outside of form & concept gallery in Santa Fe.
Looking west to Arizona, Border Arts Corridor is making substantial impacts on the perception and activation of physical, conceptual, and political boundaries. Led by artist M. Jenea Sanchez, founder and artistic director, and her husband, BAC got its start as a community-hub coffee shop and through a series of small outdoor art experiences in downtown Douglas, Arizona. They soon expanded to organize a binational artwalk, one of which was included as part of the community engagement aspects of Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence, the largest binational land art installation ever exhibited on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Today, BAC serves the communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta, Sonora, and functions as a fully fledged 501(c)(3), having acquired its non-profit status, as well as the historic Grand Theatre, from the Douglas Arts and Humanities Association. BAC works with arts and culture groups like the Arizona Commission on the Arts through which they facilitate the AZ ArtWorker program, hosting artists such as Ana Teresa Fernández and Margarita Cabrera. The organization is also a key partner in the Binational Arts Residency which aims to connect communities across the Sonoran Desert through the arts.
The spirit of reflecting community also plays out in downtown Phoenix where the artist-run Eye Lounge is committed to fostering emerging and established visual artists. Begun twenty-one years ago by artists Greg Esser and Cindy Dach, the ever-changing makeup of the collective is meant to mirror who and what is active in the area. Eye Lounge (419 East Roosevelt Street) supports eleven artist-members by way of community, mentorship, curatorial experience, solo exhibitions, and sales, and in return the collective is supported by donations, grants, sales commissions, and member dues.
Pointing to Eye Lounge’s collective model, artist Kat Davis said, “It has given me a place to focus on what I want my practice to look like and connects me to other artists at different moments in their careers. That meaningful connection means that we can exchange advice, have critiques, and give each other feedback.”
Icosa, a complementary non-profit model, is a collective in Austin, Texas that offers members a two-person exhibition every year and a quarter, priding itself on professionalism. Although some of the members are represented by galleries, Icosa supports those artists in taking chances they may not be able to afford in commercial spaces.
Founded in 2015 and sharing space with Pump Projects, Icosa moved its physical space two years later due to—you may have guessed it—real-estate development. They are currently housed in the Canopy arts complex (916 Springdale Road) in east Austin where they recently signed a lease for another five years.
Artist Sara Vanderbeek, a founding member of Icosa, started her Austin exhibition project Dorf in 2018 with her husband in the couple’s two-car garage. Dorf’s curatorial model includes a special focus on emerging and underrepresented artists but also intergenerational pairings.
“We’re inspired by other artist-run spaces and wanted to subvert outdated gallery models,” Vanderbeek explained. “We are re-envisioning what a creative space in the 21st century can look like and manifesting that: a space that is more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and affordable.” She recognizes that’s a tall order, but as a gallery situated in a true neighborhood, Dorf actively offers increased accessibility and less intimidation.
Additionally, the gallery’s financial model includes a 70/20/10 split of any income: 70 percent for the artist’s commission, 20 percent for Dorf’s cut, and a 10 percent donation to organizations doing work that relates to the exhibition, for example Planned Parenthood and Refugee Services of Texas. And almost all of Dorf’s events double as voter registration sites.
In Texas, doubling down on his own DIY efforts, artist Gabriel Martinez has been responding to needs in his community for the past nine years by running Alabama Song, which “exploits two of Houston’s specialties: irregular zoning and hospitality.” After completing his Core Residency Program fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Martinez says he felt there was a need for a space that championed dialogue among artists and created a gravitational pull that would help build the scene.
He wanted to create a venue where other artists could test something, experiment, and “mess up” without regard for commercial viability, difficult subject matter, or ephemerality. Over the years, programming has happened in close collaboration with performance artist Autumn Knight, improvisational and experimental musician David Dove and others from Nameless Sound, multidisciplinary artist Regina Agu, and esteemed writer-poet Nick Flynn.
“We are re-envisioning what a creative space in the 21st century can look like and manifesting that: a space that is more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and affordable.” —Sara Vanderbeek, artist and founder of Dorf
Events fill the otherwise empty front space of a large house and Martinez lives in the back portion. The venue (2521 Oakdale Street) is generous and generative, and reflects the history of apartment galleries in Houston and across the country—Martinez has run similarly informed spaces in other cities including Washington D.C. and Brooklyn.
“Maintaining a space that is open, that isn’t quite so governed or rigidly programmed, is so important. It flies in the face of the bureaucracy that precludes the unexpected from happening,” said Martinez.
The unexpected was something that literary artist Sommer Browning wanted to help foster as well, which she does by bringing multidisciplinary communities of artists together at Georgia, a gallery that she opened, with the help of some friends, in her Denver garage in 2017. With Georgia’s “artist-run for artists” model, each exhibition coincides with other events and activities such as poetry readings, screenings, or music performances. (Disclosure: Browning is a Southwest Contemporary contributor.)
Denver is home to numerous artist-run spaces that facilitate connection and community building, including multi-studio venues such as Tank Studios, Art Gym, and The Temple, as well as exhibition spaces like Dateline and the artist-and-art-historian-run gallery Friend of a Friend. Browning became interested in what would happen when she opened up not only her garage but also her home.
Friends, artists, and strangers alike come to Georgia for the exhibitions and end up hanging out in Browning’s house, most often in her kitchen, inherently creating personal connections. Such interactions, further contextualized by artists taking creative risks on site, are refreshingly disarming, not only for Browning but also for visitors who may have arrived with specific expectations about what an art gallery should be.
While community support for artist-run galleries continues—albeit more tenuously mid-pandemic—questions about sustainability are not moot. Each of the artists running these DIY spaces can see, if not already feel, the impacts of economic and political shifts. And although artists are resilient and radically inventive, they, like all of us, are not immune to such pressures. The challenge is for us to recognize, value, and protect what they do for themselves and others.