Cat Spencer Recalls the History of Downtown Art Space Radix Gallery

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Cat Spencer still runs into people who want to talk about Radix Gallery, the downtown Phoenix art space she ran more than 30 years ago.

“I did a pop-up show in Scottsdale for Cliff Benjamin a while ago,” Spencer said last week from one of her homes in New York. “People kept coming up to me to tell stories about Radix and the art they bought there.”

Spencer’s gallery was a late-’80s anomaly: a refined, contemporary gallery that showed conceptual art by up-and-comers. Local art history was made there: The first meetings for what would become downtown’s monthly art walk were held at Radix. Until very recently, and despite the fact that the gallery closed in the early 1990s, its name remained on the structure’s façade.

She was sad last week, Spencer admitted, when she saw the real estate listing for the Radix building. “It tore at my heart a little bit,” she said.

Spencer hadn’t set out to open an art gallery. A native New Yorker, she studied architecture in London and at Arizona State University, then went to work for renowned New Mexico architect Antoine Predock.

“He called one day and offered me a job,” she recalled. “And everyone I knew said, ‘Why would Antoine Predock offer you a job?’ Well, he did.”

Spencer worked on several significant Predock projects, including ASU’s Performing and Media Arts building. Her company car was a VW van.

“There was a Jimi Hendrix cassette in the tape deck,” she remembered.

She moved to Italy in the late 1980s and lived in India for a while before returning to the States and marrying Phoenix architect John Chonka. Spencer joined his practice; their offices were on the top floor of what became known as the Radix building — a gorgeous old concrete block structure, covered in paint.

“It was a mess when I found it,” Spencer said. “But it was fully rented, so that was good. Downstairs there was the Tolstoy Foundation and a contact lens manufacturer.”

Two months later, the contact lens guy won the lottery and closed up shop; then the Tolstoy Foundation moved out. “We had an empty downstairs, and that was what prompted me to open an art gallery.”

Spencer showed work by Bob Adams, Mayme Kratz, and Jim Cherry. The photographer Craig Smith was an early Radix signing.

The AIDS crisis was decimating contemporary culture at the time. “All of us were grappling with life and mortality,” she said. “Radix did demonstrations like A Day Without Art, where we lay on the ground and did chalk outlines of our bodies.”

The downtown art scene was heavy on performance art and grungy DIY visuals at the time. “It was exciting and fun,” she said. “And very different from what we were seeing in Scottsdale galleries.”

Opening an art gallery in a cultural void wasn’t, she said, a calculated move. “I didn’t study the landscape and find an artistic hole to fill. It wasn’t a marketing move. I stood in that concrete building and thought, This can’t just be about paintings or sculptures. I wanted it to be about the people and the ideas behind the art.”

Her favorite memories involved sitting in her office and talking with people who’d just bought a piece of art.

“It was the energy of those who participated,” she explained. “It was the artists, the collectors, the people from the museum who came to buy art. It wasn’t just me or the building.”

Spencer and Chonka divorced in the mid-1990s, and she closed Radix and moved to New York City. “I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “I wanted to live at the Chelsea Hotel, but it was too expensive. So I rented an apartment across the street, and the red neon of the Chelsea sign shone in my window.”

She went from selling art to selling real estate. Spencer and her husband live now on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in a log cabin in the Hudson Valley. She still sometimes thinks of the Radix building on First Street.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I’ll drive by an empty building and for a flash I think, Can I do it again? Can I open another art gallery?”

Mostly, she’d do it for the chance to see those Phoenix artists again. “I miss those people,” she said of the painters and sculptors she represented. “For me, it wasn’t what was in the frame or on the pedestal. It was what the object stirred in the observer. And getting to talk to the people who created those objects, and the people who wanted them.”

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