Adriana Gallego, left, is the director of the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona. (Luis Garza/Contributor) “Arizona is one of only three states without permanent funding for the arts,” says SAACA director Kate Marquez. “Our organization was born out of necessity.” (Julius Schlosburg/Contributor)

As director of the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance, Tucson native Kate Marquez is constantly having to toggle between speaking two languages: the subjective and intuitive expression of the artist, and the objective, bottom-line reasoning of the business professional.

“We are the in-between. That is our job,” Marquez said. “We’re always looking for the right business partner or government entity to support an artist or artist group. And that’s not always easy, because artists or creatives can sometimes get stuck in their own heads, and businesspeople don’t always know how to interact with the arts outside of just writing a sponsorship check. So, you do have to be nimble.”

But Marquez said a funny thing happened during the pandemic – after the very unfunny thing of Tucson being named the third worst-hit city for jobs lost in the creative sector, in a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute. Seemingly overnight, people in fields far from being considered creative became artists themselves, as they indulged long-hidden talents during their extended time away from the office. And artists, in turn, began learning marketing and economics, if only to survive.

“One thing we’ve noticed coming out of COVID is that number of individual creative-based businesses has grown by at least 30%,” Marquez said. 

“People got to hone their creativity during that time, and some of them developed side gigs and others just walked away from their corporate job and said, ‘I’m going to use my creative passion and turn it into a business.’ Whether it was making honey or paper art or whatever. There’s a stronger market now than I’ve seen over that last 20 years of people starting their own small businesses and expanding the creative sector. So that’s exciting to see.”

On the other side, artists who lost income streams due to gallery and museum shutdowns and musicians who could no longer perform live figured out other ways to monetize their creativity.

“It gave everyone permission to think differently,” said Adriana Gallego, who started her current job as executive director of the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona in April 2020, just weeks after everything shut down. 

“We all had to figure out how we were going to get out of this and support each other. And one of the pivots I saw were artists learning how to use digital technology – even some of our senior artists, who were not necessarily digital natives.”

Another pivot, conversely, was to create more work outside. 

“The murals, the public art in our community, became a big draw for folks, especially during COVID, because they couldn’t go anywhere else,” said Nogales-born Gallego, who worked as a muralist herself in California – as well as an art educator in state-run prisons and, later, director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts – before helming the Arts Foundation. 

“So you saw families congregating outside, doing outdoor sculpture tours, or driving around and looking at murals.”

Of course, Tucson has long been known for its outdoor art. “You can’t drive around Tucson anymore without finding a mural, on your way to a restaurant or just taking a stroll through the park,” Gallego said. “But people have become not only more supportive of outdoor art but protective of it. If there’s an artwork that needs mending or got damaged somehow, we get those calls right away so that we can go fix it. It’s been wonderful to see.”

Big businesses, too, in their efforts to retain or lure workers back to the office, have become more cognizant of the role art plays in creating a more welcoming and productive environment – particularly when it comes to displaying a work culture of inclusion and diversity. Even the blandest offices become awash in black, red, yellow and green during Black History Month, with a few bold orange hues and colorful calaveras added throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.

“If we have some artwork in our work environment where we can see ourselves reflected in it, there’s like a connection that is formed,” Gallego explained. Support and use of culturally authentic and indigenous art in the corporate sphere has become business shorthand for telling employees of diverse backgrounds, “We see you,” which – as calculating as it is – has proved a benefit to traditionally under-represented artists.

“One of the first things they asked me when I started with the Arts Foundation was, ‘Help us find outside funding for artists that represent the full demographics of our region, and get us on a path toward diversity, equity and inclusion,’” said Gallego. “And I was like, ‘I’ll get right on it!’”

But finding that funding for the arts in general is still an uphill battle in Tucson. The city of Tucson tapped the Arts Foundation to distribute its funds from the CARES Act relief package, funneling over $1.7 million to some 300 artists and arts organizations in the Tucson area, and the foundation divvied out another $500,000 in relief funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, with much of it going to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) grantees and artists in Native sovereign nations. 

But that tap has now turned off, leaving organizations like SAACA to find funding through business supporters. The alliance has been remarkably successful, leveraging business support to build a 14,000-square-foot art space called the CATALYST Collaborative Arts & Maker Space at Tucson Mall, where artists in all different fields – from painting to podcasting and culinary arts to music – can work and produce creative projects together. But Marquez said the creative community worries if it could survive another unexpected disruption like the pandemic.

“Arizona is one of only three states without permanent funding for the arts,” she said. “So, without state funding, what a lot of cities in Arizona have done – like Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Glendale – they have all input their own funding mechanisms for arts and culture. But in Southern Arizona, there’s not a single community that has any permanent funding stream for arts and culture. So our organization was kind of born out of a necessity.”

Marquez finds it sadly ironic that a region with such a rich artistic and cultural community still lacks that funding stream. 

“We’ve got 350 organizations working in our arts and cultural infrastructure, from the Creative Arts Center in Patagonia with 20 volunteers running it, all the way up to the Southern Arizona Artist Guild, which has 180 artists. We’ve got six symphonies that are almost all volunteer. And that’s just what we consider our organized arts infrastructure. We also have one of the highest concentrations in the Southwest of people making jewelry. We have people making lamps, and selling artisan foods at farmers markets. We have sculptors, selling their wares on Etsy or in person at festivals.”

Fortunately, Marquez says, as more businesspeople branch out into creative work – either as a side hustle or an expansion of their current field – the support for what’s considered art is becoming easier to harness.

“Categories that you once wouldn’t think qualify as arts are now seen as having an arts and creative component,” she said. “So, web design would come under that, or architecture, or culinary arts. The real business of the arts represents much larger numbers than have ever really been quantified before here in Southern Arizona.”

As more businesspeople venture into creative endeavors, Marquez hopes more money will flow into the arts.

“Everyone’s a creative now,” she said, “in one way or another.”