Bentley Gallery is bustling with activity on a hot summer night. A group of artists has congregated in the back of the space. A trio at one end includes Randy Slack, Christine Cassano and Marilyn Szabo. The rest of the circle is made up of other notable Phoenix artists: William LeGoullon, Liliana Gomez, Patricia Sannit, Pete Deise. But the scene is not another art opening; rather, it’s an Artlink Artist Council meeting.
They’ve all come here tonight to voice their opinions on various topics. The back and forth is lively, sometimes serious, with bits of levity. Leading the conversation is Catrina Kahler. Presiding over such robust artistic personalities might seem daunting, but for Kahler, it’s just another day on the job.
Kahler has always been a woman of action. Her commitment to downtown Phoenix can be seen in the results of her hard work. She’s made it her mission to let everyone know just what she sees as Phoenix’s best self. Whether as a resident, through an online magazine or running an active arts organization, she’s worked tirelessly to bring attention to what she loves.
Kahler was born in Tucson and has lived in the Phoenix metro area since 1989. Both her parents hailed from the Chicago area and moved to Arizona in the early ’60s. Her father was a salesman who owned his own business. “We moved around a lot, going where the business took us,” Kahler said. “I got a taste of discovery from that experience, learning about a new place by exploring and observing.” She has lived in the Southwest her entire life, although family trips to Chicago made an impression on her. “I remember visiting when I was young. I felt the energy of that city and never forgot it. My mom loved Chicago and the city life, so no doubt I got my passion for cities from her.”
Kahler went to high school in Albuquerque and then made the move to Phoenix to attend ASU. She worked her way through college and lived with her sister to keep expenses down. She majored in English but wasn’t particularly fond of academics and found lectures not to be the most stimulating environment.
Kahler’s brother-in-law was an event producer and promoter, and he needed part-time help. With no experience in the field, Kahler saw this as an opportunity and jumped right in. “I wanted to learn by actively doing something,” she said. “I started by answering phones, and soon I was producing a parade, running in-game promotions for spring training games, doing PR and working in all levels of event production. That was my education. I worked hard and I learned a ton. It was a fantastic experience, and perfect for someone like me who wanted to dive into a project and learn as I go.”
Although Kahler was already a long-time Arizona resident, she wasn’t truly acquainted with downtown Phoenix. Her work had taken her all over the Valley, but one fortuitous drive down Roosevelt Street finally captured her attention. She recalls, “When I first encountered that historic neighborhood (the area along Roosevelt Street from Central Avenue to 7th Avenue), the mix of history, architecture and engaged residents was unlike anything I had encountered in my previous fourteen years of living in the Valley. It attracted me from the start.”
Kahler has made it her mission to help the whole Valley – and beyond – become aware of the area’s unique qualities. She started by buying the historic Coe House. Now a multi-use space featuring offices, the house has periodically served as a gallery. Kahler also acquired Downtown Phoenix Journal, an online magazine focused on the area. She has diligently built both entities into what they are now.
Through Downtown Phoenix Journal, Kahler began a partnership with Artlink to produce the map for Art Detour, the annual event started decades earlier by artists with studios in the Warehouse District. The artists worked together to invite the public on a “detour,” away from the mainstream museums and galleries, to discover a different aspect of the Phoenix arts community. Along with organizing Art Detour, Artlink, a nonprofit organization, promotes the monthly First Fridays art walks.
Kahler had always been fond of Artlink and joined its board of directors in 2011, eventually becoming president. “Its inclusive nature and passion for artists is palpable, and I love it,” she said. “Artlink always stood out to me as a strong organization because it’s so rooted in the community as a whole.”
Art Detour celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this year. As with any annual event that’s lasted that long, it’s seen its share of ups and downs throughout the years. Today, Art Detour and Artlink are enjoying a momentous upswing, due in large part to Kahler’s leadership. Under her guidance, Artlink has continued to expand its scope and become integral to the advancement of the arts and culture in Phoenix.
A popular addition initiated by Kahler and Artlink has been the annual Art d’Core Gala. It started as a way to celebrate Art Detour’s silver anniversary and has now become the can’t-miss art party of the year. “We wanted to celebrate by having a social event that brought together different facets of the arts community,” Kahler said.
“We wanted to host an event where artists could join with downtown Phoenix stakeholders and the business community, all in one place. These groups were always isolated whenever there was an event,” she said. “There would just be artists or just business people or just city people, and we wanted to start bringing them all together to create connections.”
Another significant initiative has been the formation of the Artlink Artist Council. The group comprises artists who have established themselves in Phoenix. Kahler explains that she sought to “identify a way to speak to the level of professionalism in the arts community.” Another goal, according to Kahler, is to “create a connection between the organization and artists who’ve had on-the-ground experience becoming successful.”
“These are my favorite meetings,” Kahler said, “with sixteen artists of this caliber in the room. It’s a pleasure to dig into the details of the organization and to hear their viewpoints.”
These two enhancements now go hand in hand as the Art d’Core Gala has become a showcase for members of the Artlink Artist Council to display their work. The combination of fine art, set in the elegant Warehouse 215 at Bentley Projects, and the who’s who of the arts community has made the Art d’Core Gala the ideal art event for the city.
Kahler has also been overseeing an innovative way to keep track of arts and culture events in Phoenix. “As the arts community grows, we need to create more sophisticated methods and tools to support it,” she said. “We developed Phoenix Urban Guide (PUG) as a culture map, event calendar and, most importantly, a database that gives us the ability to identify, connect and promote our cultural assets in a variety of ways. Right now we are developing an artist directory that will make it easier to find local artists.”
Artlink’s most ambitious project by far is its partnership with Park Central – Phoenix’s first shopping mall that opened in the 1950s. Much of the space has been derelict for years and is finally being revitalized. A critical part of the redevelopment will include an arts and culture component with potential for exhibition, studio, performance and rehearsal spaces, and, of course, a gallery for art sales. “There are some members of the business community who thankfully recognize that, yes, they want to engage with arts, but they don’t necessarily know how,” Kahler said. “The developers of Park Central want to connect, but they realize that they’re not in the business of arts and culture. So they set out to find a partner in that effort, and they chose Artlink.”
Kahler is leading the charge for an arts-and-culture approach to the project in a way that engages artists to contribute to that plan. “We will identify the assets that the Park Central redevelopment contributes, but we will get feedback from the visual arts community, the performing arts community and others,” she said. “We want to determine what this project represents and what it could be at its highest and best use, to contribute to the arts in a way that elevates the community as a whole.”