Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, known as MOCA Tucson, supports regional and local artists through grants, community events, peer connections, and more. Here’s why artists and curators say that matters.
TUCSON—Born and raised in Tucson, artist Elizabeth “Lizz” Denneau has a deep understanding of both the city’s arts ecosystem and the wider community that informs her creative practice.
“It’s especially important that our contemporary art museum in Tucson promote, support, and sustain local artists,” she says. “Museums should be incubators, not just arbitrators of archives.”
Denneau is one of many artists who’ve worked with the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson in recent years, providing arts education, speaking on an artist panel presented with Southwest Contemporary in November 2023, and more.
When Denneau and fellow artists started the Southwest Black Arts Collective, their first grant came from MOCA Tucson. The nonprofit—co-founded with Alanna Airitam and Elizabeth Burden and launched in 2022—seeks to help emerging and established Black artists with spaces to connect and exhibit their work.
“I appreciate the museum’s focus on local and regional talent and artistry, especially with the new leadership,” explains Denneau.
In recent years, there’s been a fresh energy and emphasis on working with local Tucson artists, partially due to new leadership at MOCA Tucson, which was originally established by artists in 1997. Julio César Morales currently serves as executive director and co-chief curator, Laura Copelin as the museum’s deputy director and co-chief curator, and Alexis Wilkinson as assistant curator, who also works with MOCA’s many programs supporting local artists. Both Morales, who previously served as curator for the ASU Art Museum in Tempe, Arizona, and Copelin, who came to MOCA Tucson from the Ballroom Marfa arts space in Texas, were appointed to their current positions in 2022.
“We want Tucson to be a vibrant place for artists to come and work and live. There are a lot of facets to the way we create that arts ecology,” says Copelin, who cites performances by local musicians in conjunction with Raven Chacon’s While Hissing exhibition, and readings by local poets held during Cecilia Vecuña’s exhibition Sonoran Quipu.
“We like mixing artists of all phases of their careers together, and making sure artists from other places get to work with local artists,” adds Copelin, who has been with the museum since 2020.
Denneau says that’s exactly what happened when MOCA Tucson made sure several Black artists in the community connected with Keioui Keijaun Thomas, a Black trans artist based in New York whose solo show Magma & Pearls: Oceans Rise and Fall Like Meteorites opened at the museum in October 2023. (The show is scheduled to continue through February 18, 2024.)
“For a curator to take that level of care to help create a beloved community is a radical act,” Denneau says of Wilkinson, who organized the exhibition.
On February 2, 2024, the museum opens another Wilkinson-curated exhibition that will feature glass works by Tucson-based Sara Hubbs and textile pieces by Brooklyn-based Sarah Zapata. Hubbs remembers moving back to Tucson from New York City several years ago when she often attended artist talks and other MOCA Tucson events.
“At first, my engagement with the museum was social,” Hubbs recalls. “I’ve learned so much from these things because their programming is so broad and they bring together so many different types of art.”
Now, as she’s getting ready to show her work at the museum, she’s thinking about the role MOCA Tucson plays in the careers of regional artists.
“We don’t always get those opportunities to work with curators, especially in a museum setting,” says Hubbs. “Local artists really need those opportunities for growth and feedback, and being part of these conversations is very validating.”
One of the museum’s most visible programs is its Night Bloom grant supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which provides $5,000 to $7,500 in project-based support. Projects realized with Night Bloom funding include Snakebite Creation Space, the women’s photography and cinematography collective BorderLens SW, and many more.
Applications for the 2024 Night Bloom grant cycle will open this spring, according to Wilkinson, who notes that the museum also employs several artists and hires artists for programming during its free Third Thursdays.
“We have incredible artists here in town, and we’re always excited when we can foster catalysts of exchange between artists and community members,” Wilkinson says.
Later this year, the museum will roll out new plans focused on creating connections within the Borderlands, according to Morales.
“We’ll be putting together more collaborations and residencies that will be cross-border, with artists and other institutions,” he says. Specific plans include residencies involving artists based in Tucson and artists based in Nogales, which is located about seventy miles south of Tucson in Sonora, Mexico. Morales notes that Nogales is home to an art museum, Museo de Arte de Nogales, as well as some small art galleries.
“We have a lot of talent in the Southwest,” says Morales. “We’re trying to be a landing pad for local artists so they decide to stay in Arizona instead of moving away for better opportunities.”