Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
The arts and culture of Phoenix can serve as a major draw for any culture-savvy traveler looking to explore the Great Southwest.
By David Carmichael
From the Spring 2016 Travel & Culture Issue of Clef Notes Journal
America’s sixth-largest city, Phoenix has always been a point of destination for the winter-worn Chicago traveler. In fact, every year, 16 million leisure visitors make their way by air or land to the timeless Southwestern backdrop of the Greater Phoenix area.
The perfect setting for family vacations? Sure it is. An easy fit for weekend adventures and romantic getaways? Of course. Still teeming today with cowboys and red-rock buttes and the sort of cactus typically only seen in cartoons, few understand that the remarkable milieu of Phoenix is also infused with a rich wealth of culture and arts unlike any other destination in the region.
It’s the heart of the Sonoran Desert and the gateway to the Grand Canyon, and it boasts a history that is a testament to the spirit of the Puebloans, ranchers, miners and visionaries that settled its boarders hundreds of years ago.
Native American history permeates the landscape, and Western sensibilities lend distinct character to the city’s diverse cultural offerings. From thoughtfully designed museums to vibrant theater and lively music centers, Phoenix is loaded with the kind of culture that welcomes and inspires.
Art & Museums
Diversity reigns among Phoenix area museums. Every taste and educational appetite is sated with worthy institutions that explore art, history, science and horticulture—and that’s just for starters.
Probably Phoenix’ most famous museum, The Heard Museum (heard.org) is well known for its extensive collections of traditional and contemporary art, all offering keen insight into the culture of American Indian tribes native to Arizona and the Colorado Plateau. The Heard houses the nation’s largest compilation of Hopi Kachina dolls, and the permanent exhibition Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience is a powerful and haunting look back into a time when Native Americans were forced to attend boarding schools hundreds of miles away from the only homes they ever knew.
With innovative programs, world-class exhibitions and dazzling festivals, the Heard sets a national standard for collaborating with Native people—particularly those of the Southwest—to present first-person perspectives on their culture and legacy.
The Phoenix Art Museum (phxart.org) is the largest fine-art museum in the Southwest. And its permanent collection includes American, Asian and European masterpieces, as well as contemporary works, fashion and photography. Holding more than 17,000 pieces in all, the museum is renowned for its Western American collection, which boasts works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington and Ernest Blumenschein. The sculpture garden is stroke of genius in design, offering a peaceful urban escape amidst a bevy of inspiring artworks for visitors to take in.
Opening in the spring of 2010, The Musical Instrument Museum (mim.org) is the first of its kind dedicated to the distinct celebration of global instruments. With engaging exhibitions that include music-making devices from 200 countries and territories, the museum is a testament to what goes to the heart of pursuit of musical illumination, its creation. With instruments in its collection both exotic (such as a Dominican boumboum trumpet) and famous (such as the piano on which John Lennon composed the song “Imagine”), the Experience Room births robust inspiration as it invites guests to touch and play the unique instruments in the museum's care. And the museum offers a bounty of concerts year-round for local audiences to delight in.
Chicagoans familiar with the north shore’s bucolic botanic treasures will warm to Phoenix’s sprawling Desert Botanical Garden (dbg.org). As the name suggests, the outdoor museum showcases a remarkable assortment of amazing desert plants—and not just those native to the Southwest. Among the succulents that adorn the garden’s 50-acre grounds are endangered desert species from around the world, including Dali-esque trees from North Africa and sprawling cacti from Mesopotamia.
During the winter months, Desert Botanical Garden adorns its paths with more than 8,000 hand lit Luminaria bags for Las Noches de las Luminarias, a popular Phoenix holiday tradition. The garden is nestled among the red sandstone buttes of Papago Park, not far from leisurely hiking trails and the Phoenix Zoo.
Parents and children will revel in The Children’s Museum of Phoenix (childrensmuseumofphoenix.org). Designed for children ranging from infant to 10 years of age, the museum offers hands-on exhibits that stimulate, excite and entertain.
Lovers of Science will flock to the likewise-kid-friendly Arizona Science Center (azscience.org), which houses more than 300 interactive exhibitions, a planetarium and an impressive IMAX theater. Their permanent exhibit, Forces of Nature, puts visitors squarely in the midst of the world's most foreboding forces. Whether it's the eye of a hurricane, or a tornado's center, a wildfire or volcanic eruption, you'll get an up-close-and-personal look at nature's harshest forces in the center's innovative show.
Other worthwhile museums in the greater Phoenix area include The Pueblo Grande Museum, The Hall of Flame Fire Fighting Museum, and The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. And another great option for viewing contemporary art comes the first Friday of every month in downtown Phoenix, when tens of thousands of people crowd the streets of the famed Roosevelt Row neighborhood for the First Friday Art Walk. The popular festival of street performers, bands and merchants is concentrated in Roosevelt Row but also extends to gritty Grand Avenue.
Galleries and art-related spaces within the area’s acclaimed arts district open their doors to a unique self-guided tour on Fridays from 6 to 11 p.m. with free shuttles (headquarted at the Phoenix Art Museum) available throughout downtown.
For an even broader stroke, check out neighboring Scottsdale’s own fine art walk featuring galleries sporting art works spanning the traditional to the contemporary to Southwest and Native American works. The kind of pieces you’ll see go well beyond paintings and prints. You’ll find ornate Indian pottery, bold sculptures, fine art photography and a variety of stunning visual art. Walks take place Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. along Main Street and Marshall Way in Scottsdale’s bustling downtown area.
Music, Dance and Theater
With more than two dozen theater groups in Greater Phoenix, there is no shortage of the dramatic arts in Arizona’s Urban Heart. From Broadway plays to lyric opera performance, every taste for live entertainment is served when Phoenix comes out to play. The Herberger Theater Center (herbergertheater.org) is the home of Ballet Arizona, presenter of a diverse slate of revered classical ballet repertoire like the works of Balanchine to today’s choreographic masters; The Arizona Opera Company, a bastion of international and emerging artists and storytellers; and Arizona’s preeminent professional theater group, producing a rich variety of works for the live stage from classics to contemporary and musical theater.
The Phoenix Theatre (phoenixtheatre.com), founded in 1920, is the nation’s longest continuously running community theater. Another notable venue is Arizona State University’s Grady Gammage Auditorium (asugammage.com), which is considered to be the last public commission of Chicago’s own Floyd Lloyd Wright; it provides a stage for hit Broadway musicals, grand opera, dramatic productions and university lectures.
The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra (phoenixsymphony.org), which has been performing for more than 58 years, makes its home at Symphony Hall in downtown Phoenix. And some of the nation’s best-known artists regularly appear at Talking Stick Arena (formerly US Airways Center), Chase Field, Orpheum Theatre, Comerica Theater (formerly Dodge Theatre) and Salt River Arena.
And if you thought the heat in Arizona was exclusive to its dry desert atmosphere, you were wrong. Jazz is alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona. Recognized by Downbeat Magazine as one of the top jazz venues in the US, The Nash (thenash.org) is named for Phoenix native and acclaimed jazz musician Lewis Nash, called by Modern Drummer Magazine “the most valuable player” in jazz.
Placed neatly in the heart of Phoenix’s popular Roosevelt Row downtown, The Nash boasts a full lineup of live performances from artists with a wide range of career credentials. From classic jazz to new music, you’ll find a plethora of artists ranging from touring jazz veterans to local favorites.
For smooth jazz, rock and folk and that brooding ambiance that makes you sink down into your seat and soak in a night of amazing sound, try the Crescent Ballroom, a hip downtown live music hall with a lounge that sports a one-of-a-kind, locally sourced menu that is as hot as the acts that adorn its stage. There you’ll find the likes of hot indie bands and touring heavy hitters like the Buena Vista Social Club, no small potatoes when you're talking great live music.
Chicago architecture buffs will want to head over to the David and Gladys Wright House (davidwrighthouse.org), located on 10 acres of land at the base of Phoenix’s stunning Camelback Mountain. Legendary Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the home in 1950 for his son David and daughter-in-law Gladys, smack in the middle of some of the area’s expansive citrus groves. Wright designed the home in the form of a spiral rising from the desert floor, converting the treetops into the lawn and revealing 360° views of the mountain terrain that fashion the stunning valley.
Finished in 1952, the David Wright House represents but one of three distinct spiral designs realized by Frank Lloyd Wright and the precursor to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The house is regarded as Wright’s last residential masterpiece.
Restored and maintained by The David and Gladys Wright House Foundation, the stunning home is a striking representation of the vision that produced many of the architectural treasures we Chicagoan’s are familiar with from the Oak Park Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio to Unity Temple. The David and Gladys Wright House celebrates the artistic legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright with tours, educational programs, exhibitions, lectures, research facilities, events and performances. The foundation’s mission is to inspire creativity in future generations of artists and architects.
More than almost any other major U.S. city, Phoenix today is a place that proudly salutes its storied past. From its architecture and culture to its thriving Native American Tribal communities, every corner of the desert metropolis teems with an unambiguous reverence to its rich and poignant history.
The city is a vibrant living remembrance of its sprawling growth from a time when Native Americans alone inhabited the land to the era of Phoenix’s early settlement, when clashes grew out of the burgeoning mining, trading and farming industries that spawned its growth.Phoenix’s ancient past is even preserved in several intriguing ruin sites like Pueblo Grand Museum & Archeological Park, which boats a full-time archaeologist on site to help visitors explore and understand the fascinating culture of the Hohokam Indian, the first known residents of the area.
Phoenix, AZ nighttime skyline (photo courtesy of Visit Phoenix).