Modified Arts anniversary show is 'powerful statement about the enduring arts in Phoenix'

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2024 - 12:14pm
Updated: Friday, March 15, 2024 - 1:48pm

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Artwork on walls
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"House of Icarus" by Timothy Chapman (acrylic on canvas).

Modified Arts has been sitting on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix since before it was called Roosevelt Row.

Back then, Kimber Lanning said the arts district looked a little different than it does today. Lanning is the founder and curator of Modified Arts, CEO of Local First Arizona and the longtime owner of the record store Stinkweeds.

"It was largely dirt, lots of the buildings that were there, most of them were, were empty. There was a hubcap shop, and a liquor store," Lanning said.

Hard to imagine given the rampant development that's happened in the area since. Today, apartment buildings tower over much of the street. Restaurants, bars and breweries are just about everywhere. And First Fridays, its signature event of several decades, are bigger than ever.

And in the middle of it all sits Modified Arts in a small old brick building that Lanning told me started as another art space.

"There was a, a performance art and bookstore called Metropophobobia. And ironically, I was in an improvisational band that played at Metropophobobia, and then then-director Peter Regan announced he was leaving and moving out of the city. And I thought, I wonder if," Lanning said.

It was that "I wonder if" that started Lanning's journey on Roosevelt Row. And now the former music venue and current art gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary. She joined The Show to talk more about the anniversary.

Full interview

KIMBER LANNING: So simultaneously I had my record store, Stinkweeds in Tempe. We had a stage in the corner and we were doing three to five shows a week at the record store.

LAUREN GILGER: Really? Oh wow, OK.

LANNING: And then also, and people may not remember this, but, you know, Stinkweeds is a place, we don't do displays of, you know, whatever current artists are out there. I mean, musicians that are out there, we always had local art on the walls and it got to be where I was booked out a year and a half on the walls of a record store. So again, you're starting to feel this pressure of need and this void in opportunities for people to develop their careers.

So I think what was incredible about Modified, being in the right place at the right time. At that time, there were what I would call no stepping stones. So you could graduate with a degree in art or you could, you know, be, you grow up in Phoenix and want to pursue theater, film, modern dance, any kind of dance, really painting, visual arts, musicianship. There was really no opportunity for people to build a career.

Woman in glasses wearing black
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Kimber Lanning in Modified Arts' 25th anniversary show in March 2024.

So those smaller venues were non-existent, that were affordable places where you could be a professional and cut your teeth. And Modified just landed at the, we built on the momentum of Stinkweeds. We landed in the middle of a forgotten street. They had plan to raze that whole area. I mean, we had no street lights, we had no street sweepers, no services. I would, things would happen and you would call for help. No one would come. And so it was a forgotten part of the city.

And and I was very fortunate to have other wonderful colleagues join me and we created this momentum. And I'd say, you know, we peaked out when we won top 10 arts districts in the country from USA Today. And, and of course, you know, all the work that happened around First Friday, which is still to this day 30,000 people.

GILGER: Huge, huge, yeah, it's changed so much. So, that's quite a scope of, of a time that you've been there. What brought you to that part of town back in the day?

LANNING: It was really affordability. And with the downtown arts district, there were always things going on downtown, just nothing specific to Roosevelt Street, right? You had, you know, your Crash and your Mars folks, the Grand Avenue folks, they were there doing things. And I landed on Roosevelt Street, and luckily Greg Esser and Cindy Dach about a year, year and a half later opened up Eye Lounge, and we worked really hard together to create a destination, and other galleries, other curators, artists and others joined in that momentum.

GILGER: So for a long time, Modified was known most as a music venue, like you said, you were kind of overbooked at Stinkweeds and there were some, I mean, just legends that have played at Modified over the years. I remember this as a, as like a high school student going to some of those shows, probably not the best ones, but you know. Tell us about some of your favorites over the years.

LANNING: Well, there's so many to choose from but certainly Arcade Fire. Godspeed You! Black Emperor was one of my favorite shows. I think there were more people in the band than in the audience. We just so many, I wouldn't even know where to start, but those would just be a few highlights from my perspective. Jimmy Eat World, obviously over the years was just fantastic. They played our, the night we stopped doing shows.

Artwork on walls
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
(Top) "Shadow" by Jeff Falk (mixed media collage) and "Given, Denote, Prove" by Jeff Falk (mixed media collage).

GILGER: And it's been largely a visual arts gallery since. Tell us about that transition and some of the, I guess the momentum you've been able to build in the visual arts world since.

LANNING: Well, when we stopped doing music, obviously, there were a good number of people who were heartbroken by that. And it, and it was in a way, it was a death to a lot of people because, you know, as you mentioned, you even saw some shows there back in the day. I still have people come up to me on a regular basis and talk about their memories and shows there.

But we already had a ton of momentum in the visual arts world. And so when we became just a gallery, there was this loss, but there was also a real sense that there was something to be gained by the visual artists who had more freedom, right? For example, we were never able to do sculpture or three dimensional work when we had shows coming and going, right? If it wasn't safe and secure on the wall, we weren't able to do it. And so that really opened up a lot of doors, I think, from just a visual gallery perspective.

GILGER: So we're talking right now because this is the 25th anniversary of this venue. This place that's been there for so long and helped shape that street, this arts community, downtown Phoenix probably in lots of ways. What do you think about when, when you get asked the legacy question?

LANNING: Well, I just think about fortune. I think that I was in the right place at the right time and of course, have a lot of drive, right? It took a lot of energy, but at the end of the day, it's good fortune to have been surrounded by wonderful people who shared a common vision and to a part of it. Not many people get the opportunity to truly be transformative in a city this size, and the arts community did that. And I was very lucky to be a part of that.

Outside brick and metal facade of building
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Modified Arts gallery in downtown Phoenix.

GILGER: What do you think about where it is today? I mean, this is many galleries fewer than it used to be on that strip of town.

LANNING: There are, you know, it's interesting, there's a lot of growth. At the same time, Cahokia [PHX] arts gallery, opened up which is an Indigenous gallery, right around the corner. We have Bentley that just moved into the neighborhood after many, many years in the warehouse district. Of course, Eve Lounge is still there. So we do have quite a lot of art galleries still in the area.

The look is totally different. You know, we used to be able to activate the dirt lots. I know Greg Esser spearheaded when he did the, the Sunflower exhibition, which really worked to demonstrate that if the city would invest small dollars in activating dead streets, that people would be more likely to walk them right to traverse them. So we miss those opportunities because it is so built out now.

And the other thing is, it's just less affordable, it's much less affordable for artists to live there. And, and that's a painful reality, that many of the people that we are showing their work can no longer afford to live in that area. And I would say if I wasn't fortunate enough to have been able to purchase that building way back before it was of value, I wouldn't be able to afford to be there either.

GILGER: I think that's always, when I'm walking down that street now on Roosevelt Row, like how much it has changed. And I wonder if you think of it as it's a mix of right, of good and bad, but also sort of inevitable, right? As the city has grown, has it been shaped in the way you would have hoped it would have been as we've grown?

LANNING: I think that it's a series of wins and losses. So Modified was really my entrée and understanding city planning, development, zoning. And from there, I spring boarded into serving for seven years on the development advisory board for the city of Phoenix, which directly advises council on matters related to mostly building code and, and other growth and development opportunities or hazards. And so I learned a lot about how to build great cities, and I, I do feel that we had wins and we had losses, right?

We have, we overhauled the adaptive reuse program for the city of Phoenix, which made it easier to open up a new business in an old building. And that was essential to creating a thriving downtown. A lot of people just think it miraculously happened, but it was a combination of a lot of things, including changing the process and making it easier to open up a new business down there. So in that regard, we got a lot of it right. But I do think that the city has allowed too many developers to do poorly designed developments. You know, we, we shouldn't have big empty gyms on the ground floor of the most walkable street in Phoenix. That is a miss.

Close-up of texture on art
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"Sonoran Reliquary (Playing Both Sides)" by Greg Esser (mixed media).

GILGER: That's really interesting. So, looking forward, right. Like, and including what you've done with Modified and keeping that building original historic and, and surrounded now by all of this other development. What would you hope Roosevelt looks like in another 10, 20, 25 years?

LANNING: Well, I think there's a real opportunity to focus on creative professionals. I do think that there is no cluster in Phoenix of architects, graphic designers, interior designers, digital media companies. I mean, the list goes on and on, and I do think that there's an opportunity to open up a creative office and and living space in, in that core that, that, which we've never really seen before that we've never intentionally tried to attract that into the region. So I think that would be an opportunity, you know, I'd be remiss if I didn't say I truly do miss the energy though around the grassroots arts experience that was, was once there.

And part of that was, you know, the older building stock and the, the character that was there that has been replaced by, you know, what they call 4/1 apartments over not so activated ground floors. And that, that is not how you build a great city. And and so I will still use my voice and whatever opportunity I have to continue to usher in the right types of human scale developments that are, that are welcoming, inclusive, creative. Those would be my priorities.

Mixed media art
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"Sonoran Reliquary (Playing Both Sides)" by Greg Esser (mixed media).

GILGER: OK. So in celebration of this 25th anniversary, if you have a show at Modified right now, featuring 25 artists, 25 artists I'm sure were hard to choose. Tell us about this.

LANNING: So James Angel stepped up and he said, what are you going to do for the 25th anniversary? And I was like, I don't know, you know, I hadn't really, I didn't have anything planned and, and so he stepped up and said, would you be interested if I pulled together 25 artists to do a celebratory show? And I'm so grateful that he did it. It's been heartwarming to me to have so many artists.

What, what, what isn't maybe obvious to the average viewer is that there are a solid three generations of artists in Phoenix represented in that one show. There are people who were showing art in downtown before long before I got there, Jeff Falk and Annie Lopez, and there are people who are celebrating and doing their thesis exhibition right now, Miguel Monzon would be an example of that. And everything in between. And so I just think that's a, that's a powerful statement about the enduring arts in Phoenix.

And I think that it's been heartwarming to me to have all these folks come back to the show and to look at the work that was produced for the show. It's, it's one of the best things we've done in quite some time.

GILGER: All right, Kimber Lanning, founder and curator of Modified Arts joining us. Kimber, thank you so much for coming in. I really appreciate it.

LANNING: Thanks for having me.

Close-up of pine cone in painting
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"Mountain Sunset" by Timothy Chapman (acrylic on canvas).

Pine cone and sunset in painting
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
"Mountain Sunset" by Timothy Chapman (acrylic on canvas).

Four canvases on wall
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Art pieces at Modified Arts' 25th anniversary show in downtown Phoenix in March 2024.

Painting of building
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Close-up of "The Local German" by David Dauncey (acrylic on paper).

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to an editing error, this transcript has been updated to correct the spelling of Cindy Dach's name and Metropophobobia.

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