Nearly overnight, Rialto Block went into exhibition business for themselves

May 24, 2011

Thursday, Feb. 17: “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” was closing in three days and the owners of the Rialto Exhibition Center, 300 E. Congress St., had no idea what would fill the building after Feb. 20.

That day, exhibit manager Shawndon Lex got a call from Marty Martin, curator of the Origins Museum Institute in El Paso with a Tutankhamun exhibition he wanted to bring to Tucson. Lex passed Martin on to building co-owner Don Martin (no relation to Marty). Suddenly, they had a post-Feb. 20 tenant.

Just as suddenly, they had a new enterprise for the Rialto Block, rechristened the Rialto Exhibition Center: they would go into the exhibition business for themselves.

Friday, Feb. 18: Lex had breakfast with Don and Charlotte Martin to map out a business plan for what would become Rialto Art & Antiquities, Don Martin’s own exhibition staging company to replace the national Premier Exhibitions that had brought “Titanic” and “Bodies: The Exhibition” to the Rialto.

Sunday, Feb. 20: Titanic closed and Marty Martin flew in from El Paso.

“By the end of that evening, we arranged for the Tut items to come to Tucson,” Lex said.

Monday, Feb. 21: Four days after the fateful call from Marty Martin, papers were filed to create the Rialto Art & Antiquities limited liability corporation and bank accounts were opened and a staff of 13 was assembled, several transferring over from Titanic, Lex himself, who was Premiere’s education outreach coordinator in Tucson, became Rialto Art’s executive director.

“We were starting to build King Tut before Premiere loaded up Titanic,” Lex said.

Things in the exhibition/museum world just don’t move this fast. Ever. Let alone landing an exhibition overnight, but establishing from scratch an exhibition staging company.

“The No. 1 thing, from the very start, instead of putting up a for lease sign on the building and figuring out what to do, we wanted to follow the momentum of Premier. Once we came up with the idea, why wait, and we jumped in full force,” Lex said.

Anybody who knows Don Martin know he doesn’t let traditional obstacles and traditional sluggishness stand in the way when he wants something now.

“Boldness is genius,” Martin said. “Literally over night, RAA as a company came together.”

“Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharoah’s Tomb” opened March 6, 18 days after Marty Martin’s first call. King Tut is scheduled through April 30, but will likely stay at Rialto until September.

Just in March, the ink barely dry on the LLC paperwork, Lex has booked the Rialto Exhibition Center with exhibitions stretching out two to four years..

“We have six other exhibitions lined up, starting in September,” Lex said.

Not that long ago, Lex finished up four years as a buyer for University Medical Center. A bit after leaving UMC, he joined on with Premier Exhibitions. Watching Tucsonans pass through the “Bodies” and “Titanic” exhibitions, which had 50,000 and 40,000 visitors, respectively, convince Lex that maybe they could go into the exhibition business for themselves.

“Mainly, it was the amount of people and their comments,” Lex said. “So many said ‘I’m so glad this is in Tucson’ and ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to drive to Phoenix.’”

Rialto Exhibition Center is not just about the indoors. The outdoors behind the building has also been transformed into a 4,000-square-foot brick plaza that RAA will use to stage countless special events and private parties. Ben’s Bells will christen the plaza April 9, and the Centurions Prohibition block party comes May 7.

The plaza is enclosed on three sides by the Rialto block’s Sixth Avenue and Congress Street edifices and the Rialto Theatre. There now is the brick plaza and another 7,000 square feet of gravel.

“It’s all just been a parking area,” Lex said.