Downtown Phoenix Art Space Alwun House Celebrates 50th Anniversary
Not many people can say that they are running an art gallery. Less can say that they live in the one they lead.
Kim Moody and Dana Johnson can.
Fifty years ago, Moody noticed Roosevelt’s dilapidated white house and 12 streets in Phoenix’s Garfield neighborhood and decided to transform it from the drab and naive place it was. This house became known as Maison Alwun and it was one of the first art galleries in the city center.
Johnson joined the group 14 years later and for the past 37 years the partners have led the Alwun House Foundation. Managing the gallery and the foundation helped Moody and Johnson through the good times and the bad.
Moody has spent his life in the arts
Moody grew up in a world of art. His Mormon education and his music went hand in hand, he said. His mother founded the Arizona Mormon Choir. In addition to traveling with his eight siblings on operetta tours, Moody performed in high school theater shows and played the piano.
Her mother has since passed away, but her brown, detuned, flower-etched upright piano lives in the Alwun house. Moody’s still playing.
In college, he studied theater arts with a specialization in secondary education. But after teaching for two years, Moody had a new vision: he would create a permanent space where he could organize art, music, and theater for the downtown community.
He covered the walls of his house with ideas scribbled on sheets of paper. It was there that he decided on the name of the collaborative art space he wanted to create.
“Alwun. All-in-one, All-in-one art, Moody said with a smile. “Once I had the vision, I stuck with it.”
It was an ordinary day in 1971 when Moody walked past the house for the first time. There were no trees, no driveway, almost no life in the neighborhood. But he knew that the historic 1912 house was the perfect place.
“I had to live here for it to work”
Almost a decade of renovations followed once Moody moved into Alwun House. Moody, with the help of co-founder Laurence Vanderbeek and her friends, transformed the house from top to bottom.
They created backyard ponds, made a bar from telephone poles, and built a grape trellis with wooden trellises. They built wooden fences from old materials from his grandfather’s barn in Thatcher.
In 1978, Moody invited his friends over for the official opening of the house. Dressed in bell stockings, a t-shirt and sandals, Moody started a bucket squad as 40 friends pounded the basement with hammers to make the basement bigger.
It was literally a breakup, Moody said with a laugh..
“Don’t worry, we’ve already served some wine,” Moody added.
This marked the start of theatrical performances called “Alwun Basement Theater”. Art exhibitions were held on the ground floor while Moody lived on the top floor.
“I had to live here for it to work,” Moody said.
How Johnson came to Phoenix and found Alwun House
As the Alwun House grew, an architect playing tuba and steak arrived in Phoenix barely out of college. Everything was better than the small town of 5,000 in Kansas where he came from, Johnson said.
“An uncle called and said, ‘Come to Phoenix, and I got a job in a week,’ Johnson said.
Johnson hardly knew anyone in town. But after hearing a radio commercial for a reggae party hosted by Alwun House, Johnson went to Riverside Ballroom where he met Moody.
Movies, late nights at Red Devil Pizza, and lots of conversations followed. They have become inseparable.
“We immediately started seeing each other, and we fell in love and moved in,” Johnson said.
They complement each other, Johnson said. Each has its own strengths.
Moody, the artistic director of the house, welcomes the guests. Johnson, now president of the Alwun House Foundation, manages the logistics of the shows. In a recent conversation with the Republic, when asked how they worked together, Moody responded “with passion” as he rose from the table to give Johnson the most comfortable seat.
“It’s better for his back,” Moody said.
After 10 years working at an architectural firm in the valley, Johnson fell seriously ill and was forced to retire. He almost died, Johnson said. But amid treatments and healing, Moody invited him to run Alwun House by his side.
“It became my raison d’être, really,” Johnson said.
Alwun House has grown in 50 years
Things have changed since Alwun began in 1971.
Other theatrical performances filled the basement. The speakers spoke of metaphysics, the hot topic of the time. Some of the first poetry readings in Phoenix were held there.
Visual art exhibitions have become regular. The odd, ready-to-use, truly artistic one was welcome.
“The artists came here because there was no other place and it grew and grew,” Moody said.
As Alwun developed, the two began to build a community in the Garfield neighborhood which was, at the time, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the region, Moody said. So, with a few friends from the neighborhood, they created the Garfield Neighborhood Association in 1989.
“We say art transforms community, so we thought, let’s transform that community,” Moody said.
A village of volunteers and passionate artists carried the house like a labor of love. Volunteers set up the outdoor stage in the backyard. A neighbor who works in construction donated concrete for the outdoor patio, another patron funded the bright orange paint job the house wears today.
Various grants were used to fund things like a lodge for performers or the ArtPark built in 2019. The $ 390,000 project took months of grant writing and approval, Johnson said. He didn’t know anything about accounting until he came to Alwun House. He now oversees the drafting of all grants and finances.
How Alwun House served the community
The locals built Alwun House, but it also served the community.
In 1996, in partnership with the neighborhood association and APS, Johnson and Moody planted 1,100 trees in the community.
When 12-year-old Viridiana Solorio Sosa was killed when a van drove through her front yard, Moody and Johnson rallied her peers to paint a mural dedicated to their classmate at Garfield Elementary.
With the help of the Weed and Seed grant, Alwun House started a youth group on violence prevention: Garfield Youth & Leadership.
When Lupe Sisneros – a beloved friend and founder of the Garfield Neighborhood Association – passed away, Johnson baked a cake for the memorial service held at Alwun House. Sisneros once told Moody before forming the Neighborhood Association, “I don’t know much about building a neighborhood, but I can bake a cake.”
So they did it for her, in addition to ordering and producing a part,
Barrio Nana ”, to honor Sisneros and his inspiring love and neighbor.
“An art gallery doesn’t have to be pretentious like it is in most places,” said John Avedesian, retired teacher and artist. “An art gallery can be part of the community. It can be a neighborhood community center. That’s what Kim and Dana did.”
Alwun House has inspired many young artists
Local artist Jared McGonigle will never forget Moody and Johnson.
He was in the fourth grade when his artwork hung in the Alwun House. In partnership with Avedesian, Moody and Johnson hosted their annual “Salon des Enfants” exhibit where children from across the community could display and sell their art. at the Alwun house.
“It was the first experience that I heard someone talk about my art that wasn’t my mom or my brothers,” McGonigle said. “And then someone bought it and it wasn’t a friend or family member who bought it. It was just someone who really appreciated it. That moment was my inspiration. . ”
McGonigle is still creating art for Alwun House today, 20 years later.
Artist and curator Kristin Wesley discovered Alwun House as a young artist in high school. Then she got married in the house. Johnson made the cake. She also celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary there. And in 2019, they launched Wesley’s annual “IGNiGHT: the Art of Burning Man” gallery, a comprehensive exhibit featuring fiery sculpted flowers and LED costumes.
It’s okay to be weird, ”Wesley said with a laugh. “Uniqueness is something that can and should be celebrated. Dana and Kim taught me that. ”
Johnson and Moody are already gearing up for their next “Exotic” show in February. Their slow mornings with tea and coffee will continue. So will the morning brainstorm on how to let everyone know about the crazy new show at Alwun House.
It all takes place at their outdated brown table on the back porch – the place for everything, really. A place to write scholarships, to sit and rest after a gallery exhibition. This is the place where artists sit and talk to them for hours about their art.
It’s often covered in the usual junk, but everyone has their place at the table, like anyone who stops at Alwun House for a show.
“You know my dad had a silly little sign on the wall that said, ‘The biggest job is the game, the biggest game is the job,” Johnson said, crying.
“It’s exhausting but it’s not work because I like it very much. And the imprint I would have left here. It’s satisfaction. And it’s joy.”