Advocate for the Arts
2020 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Lisa Sette
Celebrating 35 years of her eponymous gallery, Lisa Sette remains a driving force in the Valley’s cultural scene.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Carl Schultz and Portrait Photography by Jesse Rieser
One summer day in 2016, gallerist Lisa Sette was driving home when Timmy Thomas’s 1972 song “Why Can’t We Live Together” came on the radio. The soulful R&B track is a plea for universal tolerance. Its lyrics—“No more wars, we want peace in this world, and no matter what color, you’re still my brother”—are especially poignant.
“I don’t cry easily, and I’m not an overly emotional person, but I absolutely burst into tears because I felt that everything he was saying from the ’70s was still equally relevant,” Sette recalls. Nationwide, the presidential election was in full swing while, in Arizona, the battle to overturn the controversial anti-immigration legislation SB 1070 was coming to a head. “We were having so many issues with people being unkind, to put it mildly, to one another,” Sette recalls. “Why are we having such trouble living together? I felt strongly that I had to curate a show that dealt with that issue.”
The resulting exhibition, “Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why (Why Can’t We Live Together),” opened in March 2017. Works by 15 artists from around the world explored conflict, resentment, hope and beauty. A second show two years later, titled “Subversive White,” dug even deeper into society’s troubles, examining white supremacy and the systems that enable it. “That’s how things percolate,” Sette explains. “It’s very personal.”
Sette has been using art not just as a way to beautify our environment but also to help open people’s minds and create a dialogue about issues that are important to her—whether it’s race, immigration, religion, politics or simply trying to understand our place in the universe.
This conscious approach to art—and living—was cultivated during her years at Arizona State University. The Connecticut native was studying art history and photography on the East Coast when she read Bill Jay’s seminal 1979 work, “Positive/Negative: A Philosophy of Photography” (Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.). Jay had recently accepted a position at Arizona State University, so Sette decided to move across the country to study with him. “He did not disappoint,” she exclaims.
While at ASU, the young studio photographer roomed with six friends in a historic brick house on 4th Street. Broke, they had no furniture, but the home itself featured a large living room with beautiful wood floors. It was here that she decided to create her first gallery, showing works by her fellow students. It was a natural fit.
“I wasn’t a very good artist,” Sette recalls. “I realized that the minute I graduated. I was always more interested in what other people were doing than what I was doing.”
By the time she was 26, Sette had opened her her first space in Old Town Scottsdale. Unlike most other gallerists in the Valley who were spotlighting cowboy and Western art, Sette chose to focus on contemporary works—an strategy that hasn’t wavered in more than three decades. “Traditional Western art was not my expertise,” she says. “I’m living in contemporary times, and I’m interested in what artists are saying. I think of them as being on the forefront of understanding what’s going on in the world in a very sensitive, often hypersensitive, way.”
Over the years, Sette has compiled an impressive roster of trailblazing artists, including such Arizona luminaries as James Turrell, Angela Ellsworth and Carrie Marill. Mayme Kratz, a 2003 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, has been represented by Sette’s gallery since 1991. “Lisa has a very clear vision and knows what she likes and doesn’t like,” Kratz explains. “She has a specific path that does not follow trends, and she doesn’t show work unless it means something to her.”
Heather Lineberry, senior curator/associate director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, concurs. “She shows a lot of work that has really significant content that talks about our social, political and ecological environment,” she says. “But it’s always done with a poetic approach, and the work is visually stimulating and engaging. It’s hard to get pieces that have that combination, and Lisa manages to do it over and over again.”
Client Rea Bennett appreciates Sette’s open-minded approach and willingness to showcase artworks that go beyond the aesthetic. “You never know what Lisa is going to come up with in terms of exhibits, but you can always count on everything being relevant and transparent,” she says. “I would not have acquired the collection I have today without her counsel and access to artists who have something potent to say about the state of our current times.”
Many of the artists Sette represents are from outside the Valley. “I really respect Lisa’s ability to spotlight some of the best artists in the state but then also create a larger context and dialogue with national and international artists,” Lineberry notes.
Recently, Sette featured the works of South African Zulu master potter Mncane Nzuza. Bringing the exhibition to life was a years-long collaboration with Chicago-based enthographic expert Douglas Dawson. “The pottery was so far out of my field of knowledge,” Sette admits. “But they’re beautiful and fascinating—and they’re made at the opposite end of the earth from where we are.” In addition to educating herself about the subject matter, the gallerist notes that it took two years to collect the 12 pots that were displayed. “People don’t realize that we’re working on shows years in advance,” she explains. “A lot of research, thought and planning goes into every exhibit.”
“Lisa does not show work unless it means something to her.”
—Mayme Kratz, artist
In 2014, Sette sent shockwaves through the Scottsdale art scene when she relocated her gallery from its destination storefront on Marshall Way to a nondescript address away from the pedestrian footpath in downtown Phoenix. The opportunity to purchase the 3,500-square-foot sleek, semi-subterranean modernist building designed by Al Beadle was too good to pass up. Across the parking lot, in a mirror image building that once housed Beadle’s offices, is the design studio of Sette’s husband, Peter Shikany.
Sette hired architect Wes James to restore the historic yet run-down space. “I wanted to be sensitive to not tearing out or ruining any of the architectural significance,” she explains. Bright white walls, illuminated by clerestory windows, offer a blank palette to showcase everything from moody black-and-white photos to bold sculptures and vibrantly hued textiles. “It’s simple, so what’s shown is the artwork. It’s a clean slate with a bit of a contemporary flair,” Sette points out.
Lineberry notes of the structure, “It’s a beautiful space that Lisa renovated lovingly. She really preserved the integrity of the building, and that in itself is a contribution to our cultural history. It’s intimate but airy at the same time, which is a challenging combination.”
2020 marks the gallery’s 35th anniversary, and celebrating this milestone is a new exhibition, “Serenity Now: Meditations on Humanity.” The title is an homage to one of Sette’s favorite TV shows, “Seinfeld.” Sette explains, “We’re doing a 180 from the hard-hitting issues and looking a little bit inward. I don’t want the political climate and torment to define us. I want us to think about how we can move through it.
“I grew up in an Italian-American household, and whenever anyone was upset, they said they had ‘agita,’ a general feeling of distress, and would run for a bottle of Brioschi. Well, I’ve had agita for three years now, and we have to find a way to feel better,” she continues.
Notes Lineberry, “Thirty-five years is a long time for a gallery to remain open. I think that says something about Lisa’s contributions to our community. To be honest, I can’t imagine our cultural scene without her.”
For more information, see Sources.