Beyond the swimming pools, the palm trees and 200+ golf courses, the surprises of the sprawling, adjacent cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale are the abundant and rather flamboyant expressions of art and culture, from literally hundreds of outdoor art installations to truly unique museums and historic sites. When I arrive in Arizona’s “Valley of the Sun,” I first settle into a lounge chair with an umbrella-topped libation in hand, and wonder how I’ll manage to get around to all the cultural attractions.
Art, History, Music and Cowboys in Phoenix and Scottsdale
The Heard Museum displays more than 40,000 pieces of fine art and cultural artifacts in twelve galleries. The Courtyard Cafe is a great place to have an invigoeating coffee drink before setting off to see the huge collection of rare Native American textiles, beadwork, basketry, ceramics and scupture. This year until mid-August, a blockbuster exhibition entitled “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivers” includes Kahlo’s famous Self Portrait with Monkeys, and Rivera’s Calla Lily Vendor.
On the first Friday evening of each month, the Heard opens its doors for a party; admission is free, live music and special artisan events ensue, and food and drink are enjoyed. And in November, the museum hosts the annual Mercado de Las Artes, complete with strolling mariachis and a lively marketplace with Hispanic artists from Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.
An impressive new bastion of cowboy culture, Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is filled with paintings, sculpture, artifacts and interactive exhibits from across the Western states. Maynard Dixon’s 1935 mural of Kit Carson’s mountain men leads the way to depictions of the Lewis and Clark expedition, to the works of Arizona artist John Coleman and those by Charles M. Russell, Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser; and to vintage saddles, spurs and ephemera that illuminate the lives of the cowboys. An aficionado of museum gift shops, I was disappointed to find the rather small, uninspiring retail outlet here; perhaps the brand new museum has plans to add Native American-made art and apparel, and cool cowboy stuff!
Rated Phoenix’s #1 attraction by TripAdvisor, unlike any cultural institution in the world, the Musical Instrument Museum presents more than 6,000 instruments in riveting, interactive audio-visual displays. Visitors see, hear, and feel the vibes of such icons as Johnny Cash, Elvis, Taylor Swift, and traditional music from around the world. On view through September 4, “Dragons and Vines: Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces” focuses on the spectacular artistry of inlaid guitars. Once when I visited here with a group, by chance, Judy Collins was performing. We snuck into the back of the small theater and listened to her ethereal voice––as pure and as crystalline as ever.
Adjacent to Sky Harbor Airport, the Pueblo Grande Museum lies on an ancient Hohokam archaeological site. A short walking trail leads to a platform mound, a ball court, and replicated dwellings, and to galleries of pre-Columbian and Native American artifacts. Through August, the “One World, Many Voices: The Artistry of Canyon Records” exhibit features one of the country’s oldest independent record labels, accompanied by live music on Sundays.
Today a National Historic Landmark, Taliesin West was, 1937 to 1959, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and his student protégées, who hand-built a sleek, revolutionary-in-style complex of homes and studios at the foot of the looming McDowell Mountains. A must for first-time visitors, best booked in advance, the uber-popular 90-minute guided tour showcases Wright’s influence on architecture throughout the surrounding region and the world. I had the rare and enlightening experience of a “back of the house” private tour with Arnold Roy, a long-time resident architect and a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Here he talks about the revolutionary early days at Taliesin West.
The Arizona Science Center, the historic 1895 Rosson House Museum and a collection of restored historic homes and buildings (some housing restaurants and bars) comprise Heritage & Science Park in downtown Phoenix. The leafy park is also known for a busy calendar of annual ethnic festivals and events.
A veritable outdoor Southwestern art gallery and museum, the Scottsdale Public Art Collection incorporates more than 100 sculptures and installations. A self- or audio-guided tour shows off such works as the kaleidoscopic mirrored panels of Donald Lipski’s “The Doors;” Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, and Western equestrian bronzes such as the life-size Hashknife Pony Express and the Arabian Horse Fountain
Anchoring the canal waterfront, designed by Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, steel-clad, 64-foot-high pylons create a moving shaft of light over the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, made magical by the soft sounds of his world-famous bronze windbells. (Soleri fans visit his gallery and studio at Cosanti to watch the fiery casting of his bronze windbells, “must have” souvenirs of Scottsdale.)
Led by the city’s top tour guide and culture vulture, Ace Bailey, the free, two-hour Local Motion Cultural Tour, by trolley, starts at 10:30 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month; reservations are required. This an easy ramble to scenic and historic sights from the Old Adobe Mission church to the gallery and outdoor art district; to myriad works of art in the Scottsdale Civic Center park, and to the iconic, ’50s-style Hotel Valley Ho.
A long-time resident and art/culture expert, Ace also offers a variety of private and group art, architecture and Native American tours through her company, Ultimate Art & Cultural Tours. She has insider connections with artisans, historians and other local luminaries who have known and loved her for years, and go out of their way to meet with her clients.
On one of her tours in the arts district, at Expressions Gallery, we met with Dave McGary, whose monumental Native American figures in bronze are in the Smithsonian and the White House and throughout the West in state capitol buildings, museums and other public places. Standing tall at the entrance to the gallery are two goose-bump-producing, life-size, bronze Native American figures: “Rain in the Face” and “American Horse.”
One of my favorite experiences with Ace was when she took a few of us to meet the doyenne of Cattle Track Arts Compound, Janie Ellis, who spun tales of family life on the historic ranch, which was established on the outskirts of Scottsdale in the 1930s, and is open to the public for tours. On the National Register of Historic Places, Cattle Track is a cluster of busy workshops inhabited by architects, printmakers, a blacksmith, a jeweler, and a ceramist, among others. The ranch has a long and glorious history of resident artists such as Fritz Scholder, world-famous for his Native American paintings, and the abstract expressionist Louise Nevelson.
Phoenix and Scottsdale Hotel Art Collections
A visit to one of the Phoenix or Scottsdale luxury resorts often turns out to be a cultural experience. Paintings by legendary cowboy artist, Lon Megargee, are on view at the circa-1930s Hermosa Inn, which is an architectural showplace in itself. At the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, visitors watch Cuban artist, Nelson Garcia-Miranda, create his exciting works most evenings, and the public spaces of The Phoenician resort are home to a $25 million art collection on par with the state’s top museums. It’s a short roadtrip through dramatic desert landscape to Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North to see extensive fine art installations, and, cocktail in hand, to watch the stars come out over the Valley of the Sun.
The Hotel Valley Ho’s Mad Men-era architectural style is the brainchild of Edward Varney, an apprentice of the godfather of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. Varney’s minimalistic architecture and hip, colorful interior attracted Hollywood stars in the late-‘50s and ‘60s. Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were married there; Zsa Zsa Gabor rode horses around the property during her stays, and even Bing Crosby escaped to Valley Ho. Step back in time and saddle up at the bar for a dirty martini!
STAY in Phoenix and Scottsdale
Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix. A minimalist, urban vibe in a swanky new downtown hostelry, with a hopping rooftop bar and pool, over-sized guest rooms with posh amenities, and a Southern cuisine-focused restaurant.
The Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort®. Opened in 1929, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural gem, with 740 five-star-rated rooms, 8 swimming pools; two golf courses, 6 restaurants and lounges, and the Wright Bar with fire pits and views of Squaw Peak.
Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa. A brand new mid-century-design resort with bungalow-style accommodations amid towering pines, giant saguaros and views of Camelback Mountain. Pool terraces with cabanas; Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen; and cultural experiences.
Hotel Valley Ho. One of the most authentic mid-century modern hotels in the country, once a hideaway for Hollywood stars. Sporting a “Flintstones meets Jetsons” style, the lobby bar is a trendy gathering place. Cool, contemporary, brightly-hued guest rooms.
What are your favorite resorts and museums in Phoenix and Scottsdale?