Arizona Highways - Q&A: Terry Etherton

Jeff Kida, Arizona Highways, October 20, 2021

After 33 years in downtown Tucson, one of the city's best-known galleries for photography and other art has a new home. Etherton Gallery moved this year into a gorgeous space in Tucson's Barrio Viejo neighborhood. I spoke with the gallery's founder, Terry Etherton, about the move, the gallery's history, and what keeps him going after four decades in the business.


JK: Were you interested in art from a young age?
TE: Not really. I didn't grow up in a family that paid a lot of attention to art. After I graduated from high school in 1969, I was drafted into the U.S. Army, and when I was stationed out in Kansas, there was a darkroom there. I bought a Yashica-Mat camera at the PX and became familiar with photography that way. After I left the Army, I went to Southern Illinois University and double-majored in photography and cinematography.


JK: From there, you headed to San Francisco. What drew you to the Bay Area?
TE: I spent part of my Army years in the Monterey area, and we'd hitchhike up to San Francisco if we had spare time. I told myself I was going to live there someday. Once I moved there, I worked as a cinematographer for several years, shooting training and industrial films and some documentaries. It was a hard lifestyle: At times, I'd work every day for six months, then do nothing at all for three months. Eventually, I decided on a whim to move to Tucson, a place I'd visited between film projects.


JK: Where did you get the idea to open your own gallery?
TE: When I was getting my degrees, I figured I was going to be an artist. Then I found out I wasn't that good. But I always wanted to figure out how to make a living doing something I really liked. When I came to Tucson, the Center for Creative Photography had opened recently, and I realized something big was happening there. I also realized that there was no one in Arizona selling photographs, and  I decided to just give it a shot and see what happened. People always ask me what my business plan was, and I still don't know what that means. I just did it by the seat of my pants. One day, I was downtown and saw a "For Rent" sign across the street. I called the owner, and the rent was $235 a month. I opened my first gallery there in 1981.


JK: Did you have any idea what went into running a gallery?
TE: I knew enough from living in the Bay Area that I was familiar with some well-known photographers, and I also had spent a lot of time around galleries. I knew enough about hanging a show, framing and writing press releases. Initially, it was just me, and the rent wasn't much, so the stakes were very low. I knew a little about a lot of things, but I didn't know anything about running a business. As time went on, I had to figure it all out.


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