Issues & Experts: Discovering the lost artistic luster of Old Town Scottsdale

The Scottsdale Arts District, a tight-knit community embedded within Old Town, will continue to trek into the future through a group effort of many parties involved, officials say.

Scottsdale Gallery Association and shop owner French Thompson, Scottsdale Arts CEO Dr. Gerd Wuestemann and Experience Scottsdale President and CEO Rachel Sacco converged at Scottsdale Community College on March 6 for a breakfast panel to discuss the local arts scene and economic impact of artistic expression.

The Scottsdale Issues & Experts Forum, which is hosted by the Scottsdale Independent and sponsored by the Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow. The event was moderated by Managing Editor, Terrance Thornton.

The event allowed all three panelists to opine on the local arts district — and where they see the area going in the future — from their perspectives.

For Mr. Thompson, who owns a business in Old Town, he saw a major disruption in Scottsdale’s art gallery offerings due to the Great Recession.

“When the recession hit we lost 60 art galleries; we only have 30 members basically in the Gallery Association. So we lost two-thirds of our membership,” Mr. Thompson said. “The arts district has changed. Marshall Way, which ended up for a long period of time being very contemporary art, there’s more hair salons and salons over there then there are art galleries now.”

Mr. Thompson also points to the local landlords who are filling their properties with a variety of businesses — not just art galleries.

“I personally am in a building right now where the landlord says, ‘I don’t want to rent to any more art galleries.’ I don’t have any control over that,” he said, noting his new neighbors are comprised of eateries and boutique shops.

“None of those things were part of the arts district originally; we were almost all exclusively art galleries. When one business in my block would leave, another business would be there before anyone even knew the space was empty. The whole entire art market across the United States has changed.”

Ms. Sacco, who is charged with attracting tourism to the city, says the arts and culture community in the city is a staple to Experience Scottsdale marketing campaigns.

She attributed Chicago and New York marketing campaigns featuring Sonoran Desert artwork with cultivating an estimated 40 million advertising impressions. Through efforts at Scottsdale’s tourism bureau, the story of local artwork can be understood through newspaper and magazine articles, social media and other means, Ms. Sacco says.

“Last fiscal year, over 1,000 of those types of articles appeared as a result of those types of articles, and they generated an equivalent of about $36 million, which is over twice our budget. This is such an important tool,” Ms. Sacco said in her opening remarks at the event.

“One-third of all the articles, just in the first six months of this year, that have been written by journalists, include coverage of arts and cultural content. That’s how important the arts and culture is to us, and that’s why virtually every journalist that comes here has a chance to touch and feel something about art and culture in Scottsdale.”

Dr. Wuestemann is approaching his 1-year anniversary with Scottsdale Arts, the largest arts nonprofit in the state.

Scottsdale Arts is an umbrella organization encompassing Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale Public Art, and Scottsdale Arts Education & Outreach. All four of these entities serve the community in different forms, whether in a concert, a live show, an art installation or a local school program.

“Scottsdale Arts employees roughly 1,200 artists over the course of the year, often that’s a contract for just one event, a series of events or a class,” Dr. Wuestemann said.

“That means 1,200 artists in our community, local artists, have a chance to build a career and make a living. That’s a critical piece to building cultural infrastructure. If your local artists can’t be recognized, can’t work or don’t feel like they can succeed in their own communities, we’re really in serious trouble.”

Following the panelists’ introductions and presentations, Mr. Thornton offered up a round of moderated questions. Read below for personal answers, in part, from each of the arts and culture leaders.

Q: Over the years, the idea of Scottsdale being an arts destination as ebbed and flowed, meaning some might say other communities in the southwest might be considered cultural tourist destinations. What is being done to preserve and enhance our artistic cache?

Mr. Thompson: “We’re doing an awful lot of things. I think the first is working with the city to get a little more exposure — as I said earlier, though, there’s an awful lot of things we don’t have control over. And so, all of us are banding together to work with the galleries that are existing now. I would really like to be able to see some type of regulation on what type of businesses are able to go down there, in order to keep it as an arts district.”

French Thompson, president of Scottsdale Gallery Association. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Ms. Sacco: “I think the success is collaboration, continued collaboration and continued use of creativity to figure out what else can be done? I just showed you how virtually from our standpoint at Experience Scottsdale, every one of our deployments, every department has a story about art and culture, but the stories we tell aren’t fiction stories. The only stories we can tell are actually happening here, so we depend on all of the partners here in this room. We depend on you to help us create new stories. It’s so exciting to me, when we do get to collaborate, French and a lot of his gallery compadres, we get together — and with the city as well — and we try to figure out how can we do this better? How can we use our resources to make sure that we are continuing to have that shine and luster that arts and culture brings?”

Dr. Wuestemann: “I think when I look around the Valley, and I go to Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, and Peoria even and see the beautiful small venue they built there in a downtown that isn’t much of a downtown, it gives me pause for thought. I think we have to recognize that we have not done our homework in the last few decades — we have stopped re-investing in ourselves, and it’s beginning to show. We’re living on borrowed time. It is time for us to take inventory and take a very hard look at where we are, and say ‘we have to grow again’ because like it or not everything around us has grown and will continue to grow … I think the key components to get us back on track are investment and engagement. We have to invest in our future, we have to aspire to be a great cultural destination again.”

Q: Is Old Town Scottsdale losing its artistic luster?

Dr. Wuestemann: I don’t think it’s losing its artistic luster, I think we sometimes get lost in the shuffle. There are a lot of artistic voices out there. I think there’s a place for all of it. Scottsdale is very proud of its western heritage and destination, as it should be. I think the western spirit that is still here gives us our charm, anywhere you work in art and culture, you need to think about what gives us a sense of place? Because I think cultural expression more than anything defines us a people. In downtown Scottsdale you know exactly where you are — that’s a huge advantage we have … The way an artist looks at the desert now, compared to 50 years ago, is changing. I think we should embrace all of that. In that regard, I think Old Town is as relevant as ever, but, I think we need to open our minds to the idea of Old Town evolving and growing as well. I think when we do it right, we can do it without losing our charm and character.”

Rachel Sacco, president and CEO of Experience Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Ms. Sacco: “I think one of the best mantras I heard is ‘you honor your past but you move into the future in a way that allows for honoring the past, but also makes way for what should come.’ I think there’s a continuum there that makes sense. We have to start where we are. As Gerd said, and I agree with you so much, we need to re-invest in making Scottsdale what it is, but what the next reiteration of it is, but keeping that charm. We need to invest in people who can be open when our visitors and residents are here — I know that’s a big issue no one wants to talk about; we talk about it — making sure that we are welcoming, we’re inviting. We need to activate. What makes Scottsdale, Scottsdale?”

Mr. Thompson: “This is an interesting question to ask a goldsmith; you know, I have people come in my store all the time, and they have jewelry they’ve been wearing. They say, can you clean it for me, or whatever it is they want? I take it back to the backroom and put it on my polishing machine, I steam clean it, and all of a sudden luster is back. So, I’m an optimist. Yes, we’ve lost our luster, but it can be worked on, improved and brought back and made even better.”

Q: As consumer behavior shifts, as the assault on traditional retail continues to unfold, how is the Gallery district evolving into the 21st Century?

Mr. Thompson: “All of the galleries are being engaged with social media; they’re being engaged with the internet. I know one of the galleries I’m close with, they said they’re making more sales through the internet than they are with walk-in. When people can come down here, and be able to see what we have, they can then go home and use social media and methods of engaging in retail. I know the buying habits have changed — I’d really like to see more engagement of people coming down, but I know my website is a very strong tool for us to use. I know the other galleries use those; it is one of those things where there is going to be a backlash over a period of time where people get tired of buying stuff off the interest and then sending it back, because it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. So, it’s a constant engagement of what technology is.”

Ms. Sacco: I think the biggest tool we have for the 21st Century and beyond, is our brand. We have a globally recognized luxury brand — that is what we need to continue working on. That brand comes with a lot of hard work, it’s a compilation of research and study; who do we want to attract here? And what are the messages they will resonate with?

Gerd Wuestemann, president and CEO of Scottsdale Arts. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Dr. Wuestemann: I buy my dog food via Amazon as a subscription, so it comes to my door once a month — it’s transactional, it works for me for dog food. I can not fathom how somebody buys art online, I don’t get it. But it is what people do. Buying online is a transactional experience, a transactional moment. What sets us apart, what activates galleries in Old Town, what makes us successful, is turning it into an experience. Because that is the thing that can’t be replaced online. Experiences are two-fold, it means there is a unique thing there that attracts you, and the second ingredient you need to have an experience is other people. The more we can activate the entire Old Town area and particularly the Gallery district, the more people have reason to go there, and the more of an experience to have when they’re there will translate into sales in the future.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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