He's been devoting his time, money and heart and soul to the Tucson arts scene for decades. On the eve of the launch of his latest community art project, we thought it was about time to celebrate the man himself: David Aguirre. By Joan Calcagno. Cover photo by Craig Bellman
It may come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about David Aguirre that he got his start as an air traffic controller in the Navy. This artist-turned-art-instigator, a man with his finger in so many pies in Tucson's arts scene that it's hard to keep track of him, is about as far from the military as you can imagine. But then again, military living can be pretty bare-bones, and that is certainly part of David’s frugal lifestyle.
His first digs in Tucson were in the basement of the Steinfeld Warehouse, where he camped out on a dirt floor. Even today, he practically camps, living in a tiny space with no cooking facilities. And as David points out, air traffic control was not that different than the decades of constant activity necessary to survive as an artist and keep artist organizations and spaces afloat. “I’m still running traffic patterns above an airport, with all the surprises,” he quipped when we sat down at Steinfeld Warehouse Community Arts Center to discuss, among other things, a new mobile art gallery, Planet Rabbit.
He has a long history with the warehouse. He lived in the basement when he arrived here in 1987; he had a ceramic studio there in the early to mid-90s; and he’s back as Executive Director of Dinnerware Artspace (everyone calls it Dinnerware), which now has its home base at the warehouse.
David learned a long time ago that the best way to get things done is to just do it - create something that people are in awe of, and do it with others. His philosophy is: when you see something that needs to be done, get the idea out there and see what materializes (or doesn’t). He’s clear that when you bring people together, you have to embrace the creative process, which he describes as “a true artist approach - not knowing the outcome and being okay with that.” He adds: “Top-down doesn’t work.”
Indeed, when talking about all his involvements, David names numerous others as instrumental collaborators and connectors. To mention some would risk not mentioning them all, and mentioning any would make this story twice as long. So we’re focusing on David here.
He struggled to find himself after growing up in San Antonio, Texas. He left for the Navy in 1976, right out of high school and much to the consternation of his parents. “I wanted to get away and to travel," he says. Then in 1980 he went back to school - the University of Texas, San Antonio - on the GI bill. In college he floundered around. After trying “everything else”, he followed an adviser's suggestion that he try a ceramics class. It wasn’t long before the epiphany hit: “Oh s**t. I’m going to be an artist”. The creative dam burst, and he has been promoting art ever since, starting with his own.
It was in college that he started making what later became his signature ceramic figures, mostly small-ish pieces with human bodies and animal heads – “playing with the human-spirit-nature connection.”
He graduated in 1983 with a BA in Fine Art and left for the Sun Valley Idaho Center for the Arts, on a one-year scholarship. Although he felt out of place among “the beautiful people “ – movie stars and famous artists who congregate there – he met some of them and realized “they are all like me, just normal people doing their thing”, which was hugely encouraging. He experimented, eventually discarding the wheel and focusing on hand-built figures.
Then he was off to Madison, Wisconsin for three years of grad school, again on a scholarship. Without the need to have a job for the first time, he leapt into his ceramic work.
Ready to get out of the cold and recalling a fascination with Tucson and its Native American cultural roots from childhood car trips to Disneyland, he arrived here in 1987 with no money and no job. He quickly got involved in the Tucson arts scene, starting with an invitation to be on the Arts District Partnership board. He survived by selling his ceramic sculptures. He “cranked it out”, traveling all over the west and mid-west, participating in shows and small events, stopping en route at friends’ places to make more stock. Always the entrepreneur, he made a lot of small pieces to sell for $50 “just to get the work out there”.
In the early 1990s, he got more involved volunteering with Tucson art organizations. He traveled less and shipped his pieces to galleries more. Thinking “someone’s got to do it”, he was often the only artist on committees primarily made up of lawyers and business people and usually, he says, talking in acronyms he didn’t understand. This was a whole new world for him.
His transition from making objects to art-promotion-as-art really started then. Along with other artists, David had his studio in the Steinfeld Warehouse. Across the street was the boarded-up Citizen’s Warehouse. David got a group of artists together with the Arizona Department of Transportation, who owned the building at the time, to lease the building and create studios. He later took a huge financial gamble, assumed the lease himself, and dove into a massive upgrade.
Transforming the building into usable spaces became his art, he says. He transferred his creativity into learning all kinds of things related to construction and renovation – like design drawings, plumbing, code compliance, and insurance. The warehouse became an example of things happening with the arts in Tucson and for David it was a big boost of encouragement. When the relationship with Bicycle Inter-Community Art & Salvage (BICAS), one of the sub-leasees, got tricky, the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO) proposed taking over and David stepped back. The warehouse is still going, with 28 artists and BICAS as tenants.
Stepping up is how David also became the Executive Director of Dinnerware in 2009. He’s been involved with Dinnerware off-and-on since the early 1990s, when it was an artist cooperative. He volunteered, helping with the annual art auctions and then with building improvements after Dinnerware purchased its space on Congress Street in about 1993.
In the early 2000's Dinnerware was experiencing financial challenges and had to relinquish its building and move. The board asked David to help as an adviser and eventually, to be on the board. With public funding and grant money dropping off, and artist member dues making it harder to attract younger artists, David proposed a new structure: move from an artist-member model to an interactive model, with community-based art events.
So, rather than the traditional 30-day exhibits, Dinnerware started doing events, sometimes with a small admission fee. This spread out the fundraising, with everyone contributing a small amount to raise money. And they started to take advantage of social media. Dinnerware has been operating that way ever since. In 2009, faced with the possibility of closing shop, David was asked to take up the Director position, and, as he had done before, he said “OK. I’ll do it” and he ratcheted up the activities.
Titus Castanza, a long-time Dinnerware volunteer and board member for six years, and with a painting studio at the Citizen’s Warehouse, says David’s gift is getting artists together, creating ideas and letting them run with it. “It blows my mind. He’ll have some crazy idea that seems like it will never work and then it does!” says Titus.
Some of those "crazy ideas" that David has helped happen since he became director, along with painting exhibits like Pollos de Pueblos, are local designers’ fashion shows and exchanges; Let Them Eat Cupcakes (an interactive performance art and installation piece reflecting thoughts about hunger and the scale of hunger in the United States); Ignite Tucson (fifteen visionaries provide a five-minute, twenty-image presentation on an interesting, innovative topic); Night of a Thousand Drawings (anyone could donate a small piece; they were displayed, for sale, clothesline style); SlideShark (artists and DJs collaborated to make, and then present, short iMovies), and Eat Dinner-Fund an Artist (the public was invited to a $20 dinner, six or so artists made five-minute presentations about their work, everyone voted and the winner went home with $500.)
And while he was doing all that, he got people together to start three other galleries, including Central Arts, which had been dormant when David put out a call and 60 artists showed up. “I told them ‘you are it’. We’re gonna do it.” Once the structure was set up, they did their own shows and ran on their own energy, and still do.
In the Fall of 2011, the Food Truck Roundups started. With David at the helm, there are three or four round-ups a week with about nine trucks participating. The Facebook page has almost 20,000 followers, up 2,000 just in the course of us putting this story together.
Why does he do it? The answer is surprisingly simple: It needed to be done and there was no one else to do it. “I’m often the last one standing,” he says. Others eventually have other commitments. “I have the time others don’t. I don’t have any kids or a mortgage. So I do it.” It is apparent that he has made life choices that have allowed him to be, and remain, available. “I guess the projects are my kids. I’m kind of an adoption agency. I make these things and then try to get them adopted. Just like with my ceramic sculpture pieces in the past.”
David has always been frugal, especially with minimizing living expenses. In grad school he started in an apartment, then moved into his artist studio. In Sun Valley he lived in an attic space that no one knew about. And there was the Steinfeld Warehouse basement when he got to Tucson. Now he lives at Shane House, which was a closed-up boarding house before the Tucson Arts Coalition (the same folks who saved the Temple of Music and Art from destruction) purchased it from the city in 1990 and restored it.
He exchanges a room and a salary for the endless tasks necessary to maintaining the building and managing the tenants in 13 small apartments rented mostly to younger artists and musicians who need a lot of flexibility. His tiny living space at Shane House has no cooking facilities. ”I only sleep there.” That's why you can often see him out and about eating or socializing downtown (the Food Trucks, in particular, provide regular meals).
Also, having a number of income streams helps with the ebb and flow. Twenty percent of food truck round-up proceeds, paid on the honor system after each round-up, go to Dinnerware to sustain the events and to David so he can focus time and energy on keeping things happening. "I help support the food truck owners and it helps me make a living and keeps the arts alive," he says.
When you are out there trying to make things happen for the arts for as long as David has been, it’s not surprising to hear that he has his detractors as well as his cheerleaders. Kerfuffles of the past can still follow him, but he says he can’t let negativity keep him from moving forward; he has to balance the criticism with compliments, trying to be open and respond as best he can.
The primary cheerleaders right now are food truck owners who can concentrate on their craft while David takes care of the logistics and promotion of round-ups. Ray Duke, owner of Kadooks food truck, says the roundups have been a “game-changer" for food trucks in Tucson. Without the round-ups he would have to be seeking out events himself or “parking and hoping”, which is not very profitable. He doesn’t mind paying the 20% commission. ”David provides a service and makes it possible to make the money," he says.
But what do food trucks have to do with the arts? David views them in the same category. “I realized that the food truck chefs are culinary artists. And like many artists, they really wanted to focus on their craft and leave the promotional side to someone else,” he says.
And now comes Planet Rabbit. David had seen a a mobile art gallery in Santa Fe, talked with the people running it and thought “I’m going to do that too”. There was some money saved in the Dinnerware account from the food truck share and when he saw a step-van for sale, he bought it.
Through an exchange with a Shane House artist/welder, the van is getting built-out and modified. They extended the roof to create a high ceiling, and stripped the exterior to its beautiful aluminum finish.
Launching this month, it will serve as a mobile art gallery with two-dimensional contemporary art, hung salon-style. Planet Rabbit will be stationed at the Food Truck Round-ups, which picks up on the idea of taking a little bit of downtown out to the neighborhoods. It was well received at a test run last month at the Toole Avenue Art Walk. David loves the idea of mobile venues; he says we may see spin-offs of Planet Rabbit to other areas like mobile massages or salons.
As for the name, David has always had a fascination with rabbits. And besides, he says: “Now names are just catchy and random.”
Another Dinnerware-sponsored event about to happen is FemArts, which will feature unique installation pieces by 15 to 20 women artists. It takes place November 14th and 15th at the Steinfeld Warehouse. The building itself will be a substantial part of each installation. David brought the group of women artists together because it’s not being done elsewhere now. He likes to look at an exhibit as a beginning, not an end point and is hoping it is an opportunity for a new group to form, if that’s what those involved want.
David is all about keeping Dinnerware and the arts in Tucson alive. He’ll be focusing on working with WAMO, which is now managing the Steinfeld Warehouse, to help clarify the direction. He believes that in five to ten years it will be a wonderful art center, although how that will manifest itself is yet to be seen. He’s not done yet, according to Titus Castanza. “David has yet to realize his greatest achievement.”
As for David, he regards the time he spent in the 90s, working alone in his studio, as the sweet days. “Will I get back to that? I don’t know”. For the sake of the arts in Tucson, there are many here who are hoping that even if he does, his “art adoption agency” never closes.
* For more info on Planet Rabbit, stay tuned to its Facebook page.
* Hear 3 Story's radio feature on Planet Rabbit here.