Snakebite Creation Space’s Geneva Foster Gluck and Racheal Rios invite artists to install exhibitions that push their practices in new directions while challenging the constraints of a typical gallery show.
TUCSON, AZ—A big sunbleached-pink building with crimson doors, nestled among concrete and glass government architecture and vacant lots, hugs the south side of East Toole Avenue in downtown Tucson. Inside a massive north-facing window, one can see Geneva Foster Gluck and Racheal Rios sitting on the floor of Snakebite Creation Space. A few traces remain of the gallery’s December 2023 Gift Shop show and bake sale, which featured artwork, objects, and crafts for sale to fundraise for the space.
It’s been a circuitous route for Gluck and Rios to arrive at this juncture.
In the 1990s, Gluck and Rios admired each other from afar while running in the overlapping circles of Tucson’s art spaces, coffee shops, and music venues. Decades later, they’d form a creative partnership, which would eventually turn into Snakebite. The year-and-a-half-old space is committed to amplifying artists who are otherwise unsupported by the mainstream gallery system—in a building with its own story—in a neighborhood with a track record of displacing artists.
Back in the day, Rios worked at Cafe Quebec, which Gluck frequented, so the two would see each other at the cafe, at the DPC (also known as the Downtown Performance Center), and other now-closed gathering places “where the misfits hung out,” Rios recalls. At one time, they were both affiliated with the same performance collective, but Gluck and Rios wouldn’t directly collaborate until reconnecting many years later.
Between their salad days and meeting back up in 2019, Gluck and Rios passed through many life and artistic practice phases. Both artists left and returned to Tucson at different times. Rios became a parent, painted murals, and developed her performance practice. Gluck lived and worked in London but eventually found her way back to Tucson after the 2012 Summer Olympics forced her from her warehouse performance space.
Over the years, Gluck and Rios continued to support each other’s endeavors when their paths crossed here and there. Simultaneously, Tucson’s cultural landscape also went through many shifts.
The 174 East Toole building, which now houses Snakebite Creation Space, was built in 1945 by the Salvation Army and later purchased by the Arizona Department of Transportation, along with thirty-six other properties, between 1986 and 1991 for a planned but never realized project. In 1992, Pleasure World Bookstore rented the building from ADOT to some resistance. Within the next decade, the industrial buildings in this section of downtown would become known as a locus for artists eventually dubbed as the Warehouse Arts District.
In 2001, the building now commonly referred to as “Pleasure World Studios” became MOCA Tucson’s second exhibition space to complement its larger gallery across the street at 191 East Toole, which opened in 1998. It would function in various capacities, including as an artist-in-residence workspace, for half a decade. MOCA’s mission statement remains—partially removed but still legible—on the interior hallway between Snakebite and the other studios at 174 East Toole.
In 2010, ADOT auctioned 174 East Toole alongside nine other properties, several of which were purchased by private developer Steven Fenton. The area has gone through a major transformation in the last thirteen years, namely the forced relocation of many artist studios, performance spaces, and organizations such as BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage) and the Gloo Factory as a result of the ADOT auction and Downtown Links, a pedestrian-, bicycle-, and motorist-friendly transportation project that’s in the works in downtown Tucson.1
When Gluck returned to Tucson after years of professional performance and production in London and beyond, she was “trying to cultivate community, but nothing felt right” and struggled to find footing in Tucson’s much-changed creative scene. Rios had long admired Gluck’s “artistic integrity,” and they shared a mutual appreciation for each other’s aesthetic and work ethic. Rios believes “the universe sent Geneva in my direction” at the perfect time, and the two began making “disruptive dance” performance interventions together.
The Snakebite Creation Space co-founders didn’t necessarily set out to start a gallery when they started making performance art together, though their individual experiences and skills as artists, acquired in the thirty-ish years since they originally met, have situated them as excellent place-making collaborators.
“Racheal had been talking about doing a gallery space to showcase artists,” says Gluck, and they discussed the possibility of a shared non-traditional space that could operate as a gallery and performance incubator. “When this space became available, we knew,” she says. “This is the space.”
Snakebite was conceived as a “creation space” rather than a more traditionally structured gallery. Gluck and Rios see themselves as “production support” as opposed to curators in the methods with which they make space, time, and peer mentorship available to artists.
They’re interested in showing work “that is simply unsupported elsewhere.” Snakebite also hosts programming that fosters community such as Snakebite Summer School. The summer 2023 series of workshops and collaborations, funded by a Night Bloom grant from MOCA, invited regional artists to teach and skillshare at Snakebite.
The space is one long room, with a large window facing north through which the entire gallery may be seen as if “through the viewing chamber,” as Gluck puts it. Artists are invited to consider the particulars of the architecture in conceiving their exhibitions.
“We want artists to engage with the idea of being able to have a complete space and being in charge of how the audience gets to interact with their work in the space,” says Rios.
Snakebite launched in September 2022 with an exhibition by Chip Thomas, who completely transformed the room into his street-art-meets-desert aesthetic usually only seen in the vastness of the Navajo Nation where he had, until recently retiring, been working since 1987. Crisis! featured video, photographs, wheatpaste, and fabric, and an opening reception performance by dancer, performance artist, and choreographer Sonni Ryan Pinto (Hopi, Omaha, Northern Ute).
Other artists who’ve exhibited at Snakebite include Tucson artist Shannon Smith, whose Safe Place invited visitors into an intimate, participatory self-portrait sculptural performance in November 2022, and Ryan Dobrowski, a painter whose installation Trashy Wonderland included drawings and sculptures made from a few hundred pieces of trash he collected from the Santa Cruz River bed. The space has also showcased Mona Chambers’ See the Bees series of all-ages educational art and science programming that culminated in a data visualization-driven sculptural installation. Morgan Leigh created an immersive experience—the artist lined the walls and floors with memory foam artworks and installation, and invited visitors to sit, lie, and play in the space amongst her works—which she changed from “Side 1” to “Side 2” in the middle of the month.
Snakebite has a full calendar for 2024. Exhibitions are scheduled to include three installations by local, emerging female artists for whom large-scale installation will be new to their practice, two exhibitions featuring Mexico/U.S. Borderlands artists, and more Summer School programming in July and August. Rios and Gluck also have new neighbors on the east side of the building: The Projects, a studio and residency collaboration co-founded by Alanna Aritram, Elizabeth Burden, Lizz Denneau, and Amber Doe (Denneau and Doe exhibited at Snakebite in 2023 and 2022, respectively). Snakebite and The Projects will join forces for a show featuring Tucson High School artists later this spring.
Artist-run spaces and non-institutional means of cultural production are essential. Yet, as real estate prices continue rising, compensation for cultural laborers remains low or nonexistent. Arts funding has become increasingly rare and affordable exhibition spaces are limited. Artists can be shuffled around at the whims of developers, only allowed to remain in spaces as long as intermediary artwashing is useful while an area is busy becoming something else.
Gluck and Rios believe the best way to ensure that space for artistic production outside the traditional gallery system remains accessible is for artists to support other artists, even when there’s nothing for sale. “When it’s not based upon selling… it’s about showing up,” Rios says.
As curators, production support, organizers, and directors of Snakebite Creation Space, Gluck and Rios don’t pay themselves for their artistic labor. “We are super thankful for the grants we have received… which have allowed us to go forward into 2024, but I wish we could commission projects and pay artists. That would just be the dream,” says Gluck.
When Snakebite artists do have artworks for sale—even though many of the shows are performative or installation-based—the space retains a sales commission below market rate. That way, Snakebite can contribute to their expenses while keeping the art affordable and at a low overall cost to artists to put on their own shows.
As it exists now, Snakebite results from two artists shifting their artistic practice towards uplifting other artists, sometimes at the sacrifice of their own work. While part of the original plan for Snakebite was to have the space available so that Gluck and Rios could focus on their artistic goals alongside amplifying others, neither artist has leaned into using the space for their work as much as they initially expected.
Looking back on the last year and a half, Gluck says, “In retrospect, we maybe could have supported ourselves more.” Rios chimes in “… but it feels so good to elevate other artists!”
An opening reception for Snakebite’s next exhibition Performing Objects is scheduled on Saturday, February 3, 2024, 6-8 pm. The group show featuring Ruxandra Guidi, Magda Mankel, and Jisun Myung considers “the relationships between performance, in its many forms, and the objects, documents, and artifacts that accompany performative acts.”