PHOENIX — As the “best of” lists for 2022 were rolling out recently, USA Today announced its reader choices for top 10 arts districts in the country, with four districts in the Southwest making the cut. Roosevelt Row, near downtown Phoenix, took the number eight spot, although artists and culture workers in the area don’t necessarily view art as a central focus these days, due in part to an influx of residential towers, university students, eateries, and entertainment venues. 

Artist Annie Lopez, whose works including cyanotype prints on tamale paper channel her experiences as a fourth-generation Phoenician living in the Southwest, has been exhibiting in that area since 1983, when she was part of the Movimento Artístico de Río Salado (M.A.R.S.) artist collective in Phoenix. 

“My dream arts district has museums, galleries, libraries, and performance spaces,” Lopez told Hyperallergic. “Artists can live there, opportunities exist for emerging and established artists, and there’s a diversity of programming instead of a flavor of the month approach.” (It’s a reference to the tendency of some spaces to only show particular works if it’s Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month.) 

Like many artists, Lopez has witnessed dramatic changes in Roosevelt Row, where development has pushed out several art spaces during the last decade. “It’s become more of a manufactured arts district,” she says. “I don’t go down there as much anymore.”

Years ago, monthly First Friday art walks showcased exhibitions in the area. Today, they draw thousands of people for A.R.T.S. Markets that continue through the weekend, where coordinator Joe Mehl says typical offerings include art, food, home goods, jewelry, clothing, and more. 

“UNCONTAINED” work in progress by muralist Cora Quiroz in Phoenix (image courtesy Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation)

The acronym references adaptive reuse of temporary space, not art. Likewise, a recently unveiled logo for the district emphasizes the white tent landscape of the market rather than galleries, and a video on the district website puts the entertainment vibe front and center. “Since a lot of the art galleries aren’t there anymore, it’s more like a street festival now,” said Mehl.

In Phoenix, the concept of what makes a good arts district was further complicated by a recent eblast from the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation (CDC), a nonprofit founded and operated by local artists with a mission statement that includes advancing arts-focused initiatives and cultivating creative space. 

As metropolitan Phoenix prepared for Super Bowl LVII to roll into town, the CDC opted to focus its communication on making the arts district “clean and safe.” The eblast invited artists to submit qualifications for various urban art projects, including one designed to beautify Roosevelt Row trash receptacles. 

Even so, CDC executive director Adan Madrigal told Hyperallergic the key component for building a successful arts district is centering local artists. “A great arts district needs diverse and eclectic artists working in visual arts and other fields like music, film, and culinary arts,” he said. 

There’s no single factor that makes a perfect arts district, according to Christine Costello, who heads the Colorado Creative Districts program out of the state’s office of economic development and international trade. 

Thirty districts are currently part of the program, including one USA Today reader pick: Art District on Santa Fe in Denver, which got the number five nod. “The best arts districts recognize the cultural aspects of an area and seek to preserve and celebrate them first,” Costello said. 

Peter Deise, “The Churchill,” Roosevelt Row, Phoenix (photo Lynn Trimble/Hyperallergic)

That’s what’s happening in South Phoenix, where an arts landscape anchored in part by the Sagrado Galleria is centering cultures rooted in the Southwest — without using the “arts district” moniker. “Sagrado reminds me a little bit of M.A.R.S.,” said Lopez. “The neighborhood comes in to see the shows and it exposes people to arts and culture they wouldn’t see otherwise.” 

Along Grand Avenue in Phoenix, where longtime artist and property owner Beatrice Moore prefers not to use the term “arts district,” the unique flavor includes outdoor artworks like yarn bombings and hanging gardens. According to Moore, zoning laws and a focus on historic preservation help to keep major developments at bay.

Unlike Colorado, Arizona doesn’t have a statewide arts district program where meeting specific qualifications can mean a formal arts district designation and grant dollars. “The city is there to support and provide whatever resources it can but not necessarily to build the arts districts,” according to Gail Brown of Santa Fe, who convened gatherings of various art district leaders during her time as executive director for the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. 

In Roosevelt Row, CDC leadership has another strategy in mind. Madrigal said they’re planning to seek business improvement district (or BID) status, which would mean that a portion of property taxes could be used in the BID area for things like security, sanitation, and marketing. An earlier BID effort failed, but Madrigal thinks the rise in development will lead to a different outcome this time around.

Exhibition with crowd at Cahokia, Roosevelt Row, Phoenix (image courtesy Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation)

Meanwhile, the question of what makes a great art district remains. Mitch Menchaca, executive director for the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, told Hyperallergic that Roosevelt Row has become more of an entertainment district during the last five to 10 years, in part because of a growing Arizona State University community downtown. “Students want amenities,” he explained. 

“The bars, restaurants, and university have perhaps eclipsed the arts, so art isn’t the hub there now but the arts helped to shape it,” reflects Manchaca. “There needs to be a conversation about how arts can be maintained.” 

Artist John Randall Nelson has a couple of points of reference, in terms of trying to characterize an ideal arts district. He’s an alumnus of the Eye Lounge artist collective based in Roosevelt Row and he’s represented by Gebert Contemporary gallery in the Old Town arts district in Scottsdale, where art walks take a more leisurely turn. 

Nelson favors a “combination of museums, cafes, galleries, music venues, restaurants, and artist studios” — along with dealers, gallerists, and art collectors. “It’s a community of art enthusiasts that makes it all congeal.”

John Randall Nelson (photo courtesy John Randall Nelson)

Lynn Trimble is an award-winning writer based in Arizona who specializes in arts reporting and arts criticism for regional and national publications.