Creative endeavors enrich communities, both financially and culturally. We caught up with Adriana Gallego, executive director of the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona, to discover how her organization connects artists to each other, the community, and to needed resources.
Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And on this particularly hot summer day, in the middle of a sun-beaten, almost colorless courtyard on the Tucson Rodeo Grounds, Adriana Gallego likes what she sees.
Gallego, executive director of the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona (AFTSA), strolls among a collection of oversized concrete pots, which local teens — expertly wielding plastic roller trays as impromptu paint palettes — are turning into a riot of color and culture.
One is decorated with the image of a fashionable charra and her fanciful, turquoise-and-amethyst colored horse. Another features a fuchsia Native American stylized sun with rays made of bubblegumpink ears of corn. On a third, still penciled in and awaiting color, is a beautiful Latina, resplendent in Día de los Muertos sugarskull makeup.
The pots are part the government-funded
La Doce streetscape beautification project, which will display them as public art along South 12th Avenue to reflect local color and culture to drivers and passersby.
“Our future is in the hands of our youth,” Gallego says, gesturing toward the teen artists. “It ensures we’re transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.”
Gallego, who grew up on both sides of the Arizona-Sonora border, knows a thing or two about navigating cultures. Born in
Heroica Nogales, she travelled northward to Tucson to earn her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Arizona, then moved to the East Coast, where she studied and apprenticed in New York. She returned to the West, working as a muralist in California, and as an art educator in state-run prisons, as well as at the celebrated Norton Simon Museum.
She ventured into arts administration in the mid-2000s, spending nearly a decade in Texas as CEO for the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and four years as director of strategic initiatives for the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
“I’m trained as a painter, but I am at the service of other artists,” Gallego insists. “AFTSA connects the cultural workforce with community members in ways that inspire creativity, imagination and selfreflection for all.” AFTSA’s mission includes distributing direct funding in the form of grants, offering technical assistance to artists and arts organizations, and providing professional development opportunities throughout the Southern Arizona region, including oftenunderserved rural areas.
The nonprofit foundation also coordinates large project teams to oversee installation of public artwork. It’s a crucial role: When funding large capital improvement projects, both Tucson and Pima County automatically set aside one percent for artwork, which can generate considerable funds for highprofile public-works projects that people use or see daily.
“My biggest wish would be that artists are appreciated and included as the resourceful members of the community they are,” Gallego comments. “If we’re able to connect artists to city council chambers, health departments, housing developments and other sectors of society, it would help us all think differently.”
One of her overarching goals is for AFTSA is to reach out to Southern Arizona’s full complement of demographics, including Native artists, Latinx individuals and those whose background hails from the African Diaspora. Despite the fact that 33 percent of U.S. residents are persons of color, Gallego says just four percent of cultural philanthropy goes to organizations of color.
Some people see funding for the arts as a non-essential expenditure, but Gallego observes that the sector actually brings in money.
In 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis — which defines the creative economy as industries including film and television production; performing and visual arts; publishing, marketing and advertising; as well as fashion, architectural and graphic design — deemed it a $878 billion industry. That number represented 4.5 percent of the nation’s overall gross domestic product. Arts in Arizona, the study also found, contributed $9.7 billion to the state’s economy, or about three percent of its overall GDP.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected those rosy numbers. Last year, Washington DC-based Brookings Institution reported that in terms of jobs lost, the New York and metro Los Angeles areas experienced the biggest downturn, but called out Tucson as the third-worst-hit city in percentage terms, right after Las Vegas, Nevada, and Nashville, Tennessee.
According to the arts foundation’s survey of 53 local organizations and 247 artists, Tucson’s creative industry took a collective hit of more than $26 million in seven months. AFTSA was instrumental in bringing in hundreds of emergency relief grants through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, directing funds to arts organizations, workers in the creative industry, and entertainment venues. But the distribution of 2.2 million grant dollars in fiscal year 2021 was only a fraction of what was needed.
“Although our financial investments were modest in comparison to the ubiquitous loss,” Gallego observes, “the relationships and human support systems we cultivated were essential to building the trust, solidarity and affirmation needed to rebuild together in community.
“We see ourselves as relationship builders,” Gallego adds. “We connect people to each other, and to resources. We’re going to rebuild together.”