spotlight: arizona institutions

by scott andrews


Travelers journeying by air to Arizona the first time might be tempted to believe their vessel both space and time capsule. Below, if traveling by day, roll seemingly endless desert and mountains only seldom crossed by faint roads–a porthole cinema of what looks to be the Old West. If flying at night, however, the Valley of the Sun erupts in light emerging as a giant city walled by impenetrable darkness. In the middle is Phoenix, with sister cities Scottsdale, Tempe, and Mesa, to the east. Arizona, which will celebrate its centennial as a state next year, is both a very young and ancient place, and Phoenix, now the fifth largest city in the nation, is aptly named. The city and its neighbors are built on the site of a five hundred year old canal system dug by the Hohokam, ancestors of Native peoples who still live in the region. All is encompassed by the Sonoran Desert.

Beast Bridge
Paolo Soleri
Gelatin silver print, 57 3/8″ x 29 3/4″
Photo: courtesy the Cosanti Foundation. © Paolo Soleri and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

As a magnet for tourism, and subject for artists intrigued by landscape, Arizona has long been inescapable. Many early photographers, such as Ansel Adams and Frederick Sommer, made their most iconic images here. To the Surrealists, “The West” was thought of as an exotic antidote to European habits. Dali went off to Hollywood, but Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning made home and studio amongst the eerie rock formations of Sedona, just north of Phoenix, before decamping to the south of France. Though famous for its otherworldly scenery, Arizona has also attracted architects and urban theorists who have seen potential for reinvention in the very newness of the place. Frank Lloyd Wright founded his architecture school Taliesin West in the hills of North Scottsdale in 1937; today, it still thrives. Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, a full-scale experiment in urban sustainability begun in 1970, continues its build further north, near the town of Cordes Junction. Espiritu loci–the spirit of the place–is an overwhelming spur to creative exploration in the lands south of the Grand Canyon. One of the most extreme adventures in land art is also in Arizona. Light artist James Turrell has been turning Roden Crater, an extinct volcano northeast of Flagstaff, into a masterwork of perceptual art since the late 1970s.

Underlying this creative activity, and increasingly important as social hubs, are an array of art museums spread throughout Metropolitan Phoenix and its older sibling Tucson, located 100 miles south halfway to the Mexican border. In Midtown Phoenix lie two grand collecting institutions–the Heard Museum and Phoenix Art Museum.

First floor of the Katz Wing for Modern Art, Phoenix Art Museum
Photo: Bill Timmerman, courtesy Phoenix Art Museum

Phoenix Art Museum is the largest visual arts museum in the Southwest, with over 285,000 square feet of exhibition space. A wide array of collections includes American, Asian, European, Latin American, Western American, modern and contemporary art, photography and fashion design. Originally formed as the Phoenix Art Center in 1936 under the directorship of the American surrealist painter Philip C. Curtis, the museum opened in 1959 and has expanded to its present size with additions by renowned New York designers Tod Williams/Billie Tsien Architects. Known popularly for its holdings of Southwest favorites such as Frederic Remington, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, the completion of the Ellen and Howard C. Katz Wing for Modern Art in 2006 has brought modern and contemporary art to the museum’s collecting forefront. Many new acquisitions are now prominent throughout the museum, including works by Anish Kapoor, Sol LeWitt, Cornelia Parker, Yayoi Kusama and Kehinde Wiley. “Living for Art,” opening in March, will inaugurate the bequest to the museum from the famed Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection of contemporary art. World-class photography, curated by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, is highlighted in an ongoing series of exhibitions. A rare museum feature is the Department of Fashion Design, backed by a collection of over 4,500 American and European garments; its curator Denita Sewell organizes regular exhibitions featuring designers such as Geoffrey Beene and Emilio Pucci.

The Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art was formed in 1929 to house the indigenous art collection of Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard. Since then the Heard has grown to international stature as a center of American Indian art, with an expanding collection of over 40,000 items and a large research library. Permanent exhibitions include “Home: Native People in the Southwest,” representing American Indian tribes of the region, and “We Are! Arizona’s First People,” including works by all 21 of Arizona’s tribal communities. Changing exhibitions present both historical and contemporary works, predominantly by North American Native artists, ranging from traditional craft forms such as pottery and fiber arts to painting, installations, video and conceptual art. Recent exhibitions have won international acclaim, such as “Holy Land: Diaspora and the Desert,” organized by then Lloyd Kiva New Curator of Fine Art Joe Baker, which examined seven displaced artists and their cultural ties to the desert. Their newest show, “Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows,” on view through January, highlights interpretation of Tlingit and Haida carving and surface design in contemporary glass works. The Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, held each spring for over 50 years, and the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in February, are centers of American Indian life in the region and two of the most popular events in the city.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) is small by Phoenix standards, but it makes up in gumption what it lacks in assets. With no dedicated galleries to display a permanent collection, SMoCA mounts up to ten temporary exhibitions a year, most of them curated in-house. Built twelve years ago in a repurposed Cineplex with design by Phoenix architect Will Bruder, SMoCA is dedicated to modern and contemporary art, design and architecture. The museum is located next to the Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts abutting the rolling lawns of the Civic Center, the site of the annual Scottsdale Culinary Festival and other nationally known events. Within SMoCA’s outer walls is James Turrell’s elliptical skyspace Knight Rise. Through an aperture at the summit of the circular ceiling, shimmering light shines on the walls of the enclosure, revealing a play of spectra that change through the hours and weather. “Bridges: Spanning the Ideas of Paolo Soleri,” on view through January 23, coincides with the recent completion of Soleri’s first ever built bridge, spanning the canal at the nearby Scottsdale Waterfront. The exhibit presents the genesis of Soleri’s merging of architecture and ecology into his theory of Arcology, a synthesis instigated by speculative designs that considered bridges both metaphor and exemplar for self-contained urban space. The exhibition is typical of SMoCA’s emphasis on reading art into the world, rather than bound by hermetic aesthetics.

South of Scottsdale is the City of Tempe and Arizona State University Art Museum, founded in 1950 and located at the J. Russell and Bonita Nelson Fine Arts Center and nearby Ceramics Research Center. The CRC presents guest artists and contains an extensive collection of contemporary American and British ceramics. Holdings at the Nelson include regional and international works, with an emphasis on the Southwest and Latin America. Past Director Marilyn A. Zeitlin initiated an emphasis on contemporary studies in
1992, followed by studies in New Media with visiting artists such as Nam June Paik and Shirin Neshat. Recent curatorial initiatives favoring social art practice include Social Studies, a series of artist residencies and resultant exhibitions incorporating participation by ASU students and the public. Two years ago the newly formed Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, to which the museum belongs, instituted cross-departmental programming leading to exhibitions like “Defining Sustainability,” held in tandem with the International Conference on Urbanization and Global Environmental Change. In the planning is the Desert Initiative, a dispersed biennial championed by new ASUAM Director Gordon Knox, to be co-hosted by numerous regional institutions. Current and upcoming exhibitions include “Open for Business,” site-specific art and performance in local business venues and “It’s not just black and white,” a Social Studies project by Phoenix artist Gregory Sale that will consider punishment and discipline within Arizona’s criminal justice system.

Mesa Arts Center (MAC), located on the eastern edge of the Valley of the Sun in downtown Mesa, is an outlier, and as befits its relative isolation, aptly self-contained. The original Center operated from 1980 to 2005 in an old elementary school; in 2005 the new towering glass walled facility opened on a seven-acre parcel sporting four theaters, five art galleries and 14 art studios. Offering performance from drama to music and dance, and studio classes for children and adults, the Center bustles with activity. Located in the heart of the shopping district, the effect is a little bit Vegas, not shopping mall. The art galleries, known as Mesa Contemporary Arts, present a mix of local and national artists, ranging from lowbrow icons like Chris Mars and Daniel Martin Diaz to photography and fine craft. Each Fall the Center opens the season with the galleries, theaters and studios working in concert to present themed programming that celebrates an aspect of East Valley life and aspiration. Low Riders, street dancing, live tattoo parlors and selections from Cheech Marin’s collection of Chicano Art greeted crowds two years ago; this season began with a group show of 25 American Indian contemporary artists including Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Arizona-born New York abstractionist Mario Martinez and performance artist James Luna. On view as of January, the 32nd Annual Contemporary Crafts Exhibition.

Tucson Museum of Art (TMA) was originally formed in 1924 as the Tucson Fine Arts Association, located in the old Kingan House. In 1975 it moved to its present location on Main Street, where it changed its name and became the caretaker of five historic properties; together they form the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. The Block is located in downtown Tucson on the northwest corner of what was the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, established by the Spanish army in 1775. While Phoenix institutions relish their most recent improvements, Tucson’s character is more that of conservator than fashionista; the pairing of new and old structures works well for the museum. The TMA collections held throughout the complex contain Art of Latin America including pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art, Art of the American West, and Modern and Contemporary Art, featuring pieces by Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Jasper Johns, and Chuck Close. Nearby is an assortment of galleries, studios and restaurants as well as the Museum School for Visual Arts, an alternative public high school. Arizona Biennial ’11, opening June 25, is a juried exhibition at TMA exclusive to Arizona artists, and highly prized as a resume citation. Many exhibitions occur concurrently, with four new shows opening February. “Approved Images: Lawrence Gipe” features new paintings by the Tucson artist that explore the use of sentimentality for propaganda by authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century.

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA-Tucson) Formed in 1997 by Tucson artists James Graham, Julia Latane and David Wright, MOCA-Tucson existed for a decade without a permanent location. With the assistance of a capacity-building grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, MOCA took over the former downtown city fire headquarters and opened the museum last February with the group show “Made in Tucson/Born in Tucson/Live in Tucson.” The exhibition presented works by over forty artists who have lived or exhibited in the city, and included works by Robert Colescott, Harmony Hammond and Vik Muniz. The exhibition space’s massive glass walls and cavernous main room–designed to garage fire trucks–offers little wall space for two dimensional work, which is mostly sited in a series of smaller rooms, but presents convertible environs for installations, sculpture and performance, as the glass fronting the street can be raised to open to the outside. After so many years in contingent dwellings, it is no wonder that the museum is a shape-shifter, a hybrid. As Director Anne-Marie Russell explains, “MOCA draws from the best of three classic projects: the museum, the alternative art space and the artist in residence model… MOCA is a think tank, a project space, an experimental lab.” The current exhibition, “The Artist as Collector: Olivier Mosset,” successfully locates the Tucson-based Swiss artist’s minimalist aesthetic and fondness for old motorcycles in the spare neo-Brutalist building.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art is a teaching institution endowed with wide-ranging collections of American and European fine art from the Renaissance to the present time. The holdings include the Samuel H. Kress Collection of European paintings, sculpture and decorative objects from the 14th to the 19th centuries, which features paintings by Domenico Tintoretto, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and a masterwork of late Gothic painting, the Retablo of the Cathedral of the Ciudad Rodrigo. Other museum highlights include maquettes of the cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, including plaster, clay and terracotta sketches, along with his tools, donated by his widow Yulla Lipchitz who was a winter resident of Tucson. The Edward J. Gallagher Jr. Collection includes one of the largest gatherings of sculpture in the Southwest, including works by Jean Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Henry Moore. Also in the Gallagher Collection are 20th-century paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Kurt Schwitters. The museum also features a number of Old Masters such as Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Francisco de Goya. In addition to selections from the permanent collection are temporary exhibitions on loan from other institutions and organized by the museum. Currently on view is “The Aesthetic Code: Unraveling the Secrets of Art,” organized by UA Museum of Art Curator Lauren Rabb, which explores mathematic and design principles underlying painting composition.

The Center for Creative Photography is an archive and research center administered by the University of Arizona Libraries. The Center holds the largest repository of important photographs in the US and is an internationally respected photography research facility. Established in 1975 by Ansel Adams and then University President John P. Schaefer, it includes the complete archives of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Frederick Sommer, Garry Winograd and many other significant twentieth century photographers. The archives are available for research, 15% of which is online offering over 15,000 searchable images. The Center is an active collector, adding one to three photographers’ archives each year. Exhibitions curated by the Center are presented in the galleries on campus, travel regularly to institutions in the US and Europe, and are organized by special arrangement for Phoenix Art Museum, where the Center’s curator, Rebecca Senf, is also the Norton Family Curator of Photography. Current traveling exhibitions include “New Topographics,” which will be shown this year in Austria, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands and Spain and “Richard Avedon:
Photographer of Influence,” on view at Palm Springs Art Museum through January and showing at Nassau County Museum of Art beginning in May. Currently showing at the Center’s galleries are “Face to Face: 150 Years of Photographic Portraiture,” presenting work by Southworth and Hawes, Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Yousuf Karsh, and Avedon. Also now on view is “Ansel Adams: Arizona and the West,” presenting over three dozen works selected from Adam’s prodigious career.