French Thompson

French Thompson, who owns a business in the downtown Arts District, is one of several stakeholders calling for the city to improve support for the city’s art scene in the new draft general plan scheduled to go before voters in November.

Stakeholders in Scottsdale’s arts community are concerned that a draft General Plan that could be sent to voters later this year does not do enough to support and grow the city’s longstanding arts scene.

The city is in the process of updating General Plan 2035 in anticipation of sending it to City Council for approval in June before it goes on the ballot in November.

The new document – which covers a range of topics from land use and sustainability to transportation – would set a broad vision for the city’s growth and development over the next decade or more.

Unlike the city’s existing plan, the new draft includes a specific section dedicated to arts and culture.

However, some residents have criticized that section for vague language and failing to include concrete goals to foster and grow the city’s arts amenities.

“I think that the important thing that I saw…was that there was not a lot of action that was going to happen,” said resident Diana Smith, who has a long history of involvement in arts and civic organizations.

Smith, who currently sits on the board of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, said the plan “doesn’t give us much direction. It doesn’t say build a theater….and yet those kinds of potential goals could be part of what the city is headed for if we plan and look at the general plan as a future look at what things could be.”

Smith wants the city to include more direct support for its wide range of cultural assets, including museums, performing arts organizations, art galleries, art schools, historic sites and cultural assets.

She said that outside of inclusion on a single map, the 322-page document even fails to mention Scottsdale’s Museum of the West – the downtown museum the city spent over $11 million to build and has supported with over $3 million in support since 2015.

Adam Yaron, a city planner who has worked on the plan, said the original draft was written in 2014, prior to the museum’s opening.

“Adding more reference to the Museum in the plan has been an excellent suggestion by our citizens,” he said.

Smith, who worked on the previous plan in 2000, said she is worried that without revisions to include direction to support area non-profits and arts organizations, the city will continue to lose these assets over time.

“What we saw is that if you go back and look… that report lists a lot of arts organizations, and many of them have disappeared,” she said. “I don’t see us supporting our arts as a recreation, as entertainment, as tourism and as a cultural venue as much as we support some of the other things in our city.”

Stakeholders in the downtown art community have also criticized the plan for its vague language.

Downtown Gallery owner Bob Pejman cited sections of the plan calling for the city to “explore” ways to expand opportunities for art exhibitions or “encourage” clustering of arts-related uses and artistic venues.

Pejman and other stakeholders have called for stronger language in support of the arts.

“You will discover that the Sustainability & Environment section has very direct and action orientated – definitive – verbs,” French Thompson wrote to the City Council. “The verbs used in the Arts & Cultural are much milder or (milquetoast).” 

Thompson, owner of French Designer Jeweler in the downtown Arts District, said “I question if the people putting this together in the first place have more knowledge and awareness of Sustainability & Environment and no clue about the Downtown or anything to do with Arts & Culture.”

Both Pejman and Thompson also took issue with the fact that the most recent arts section draft no longer calls on the city to “Maximize the potential of art and cultural events for generating economic activity.”

 Yaron said that section was not removed and was relocated to a section focused on tourism.

“Based on community comments, staff will be suggesting that a similar economic policy remain in the Art/Culture Element as well, which staff will propose to Council at their next study session on the General Plan,” he said.

Yaron also pointed out that, if ratified, this would be the first general plan in city history to include an entire section dedicated to arts and culture.

He acknowledged that some wording is vague because “at the General Plan level, arts/culture goals and policies are written to a city-wide perspective and not intended to be specific to any one area of the city.”

Specific goals for the downtown Arts District, for instance, are included in area-specific documents the like city’s character area plans, he said.

Still, Yaron said there several areas in which the plan already uses the concrete language Pejman, Thompson and Smith are looking for.

For instance, the draft 2035 plan calls for the city to “Strengthen Old Town arts destinations through physical improvements, promotion, the adaptive reuse of unique spaces, and collaboration among arts and cultural entities.”

Still, Pejman and Thompson voiced anxieties long-held by downtown gallery owners that the city is looking to replace the downtown Arts District.

They cited language calling for the city to consider “establishing new districts that celebrate the city’s tradition of arts and culture, and support the revitalization of existing arts-related districts.”

“It’s almost like they’re setting the stage for the Arts District to be redeveloped but need to find a new arts district first,” Pejman said.

Yaron said this is not the case, though he acknowledged the wording could be misleading.

He said the section was originally written when the plan was first drafted in 2014 with the intent of highlighting the importance of public art works throughout the city and the possibility of creating a “district-like” atmosphere centered on those pieces in places like the Scottsdale Airpark or Westworld.

Yaron said that the city would likely rework the section “so it doesn’t appear that the city wants to erode or designate a separate arts district elsewhere – which was never the citizen task force intent.”

Not all arts advocates are against expanding the city’s efforts to expand its arts reach across the city, though.

Smith agreed with the general idea, but said the plan needs to be clearer on those goals.

Smith said the city should continue to support existing areas and programs, but also include specific direction on how the city could expand public and private arts programming by building new attractions, such as theaters or venues, in areas like northern Scottsdale that are far from the traditional downtown arts hub.

“If I’m looking out 20 years from now, I don’t want the city to just be promoting the art galleries downtown…it’s not enough, in my opinion; not in a city that has a quarter of a million people right now,” she said.

Smith said she believes Scottsdale’s status as a top arts destination in the Valley has been eclipsed by other Valley cities that have invested in theaters, museums and other venues.

“The Herberger (Theater) downtown (Phoenix) is a robust core and the Heard Museum is a robust core, and I don’t’ see that in our plans for the future for Scottsdale,” she said. “We say we are the premier arts and culture center of the Valley. I don’t believe that we are.”