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The 18 Best Artists, Galleries, and Artworks in Metro Phoenix

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The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now. Here's our list of the best art and artists the Valley has to offer.

Best Art Gallery: Lisa Sette Gallery

Designed by Midcentury Modern architect Al Beadle, this semi-subterranean gallery wrapped in a white scrim beautifully backlit at night, is itself a work of art. Lisa Sette, a gallerist for more than three decades, presents visual art in various media, as well as installation and performance pieces from emerging and established artists for local and international art aficionados.

Best Pop-Up Gallery: 40Owls

Isaac and Gabriel Fortoul, the brothers and artists who've adopted the moniker 40Owls, are making sure one beautiful space in downtown Phoenix doesn't sit completely unused. Their pop-up gallery inside an office space along the Central Corridor has great bones — exposed ceiling rafters, red brick walls, and concrete floors. During a March exhibition titled "Fortoul Brothers Phoenix," the brothers transformed the space into an immersive art experience. Visitors walked through an installation of giant teardrop sculptures suspended from the rafters as they arrived, then explored paintings and sculptural works — including a pair of pieces connected by a winding path of moist sand.

Best Student Gallery: Northlight Gallery

Weave your way through the halls of Grant Street Studios, home to Arizona State University's master of fine arts students' studios, and eventually you'll arrive at Northlight Gallery. It's one of the university's four exhibition spaces dedicated to works by its students (and sometimes its faculty), spotlighting some of the Valley's most thought-provoking works displayed in the high-ceiling setting of a salvaged brick warehouse just south of downtown.

Best Hope for the Phoenix Arts Scene: {9} The Gallery

Gallerist Laura Dragon's art space {9} The Gallery has been hosting exhibitions and events for years now and has hit quite the streak, collaborating with Tara Sharpe's Artelshow to host an art show and site-specific dance performance, developing relationships with Valley art favorites including Joseph "Sentrock" Perez (who's based in Chicago now, but visits the Valley frequently) and Lauren Lee, and finally giving women street artists their due with a gallery exhibition titled "Rue Femme."

Best First Friday Hangout: Fifth Street between Roosevelt and Garfield streets

If you want to ride the supreme First Friday vibes, you need to put yourself on Fifth Street between Roosevelt and Garfield streets. Peruse the street vendors selling everything from original paintings to silverware jewelry, pop into one of several galleries that line the street, drop by the Lost Leaf to catch an inevitably cool local act, and grab an ice cream cone from Melt or an iced toddy from Jobot.

Best Place to Learn About Native Southwestern Culture: Heard Museum

Besides obnoxious, people who say that Phoenix has no culture are actually kinda racist. No culture? Tell that to the Heard Museum, the Southwest's premier hub of Native American art and history, home to educational events, art exhibitions, and festivals. It's been open since 1929, and serves as the Valley's go-to source for those curious about both their local history and what kinds of art indigenous people across the county craft.

Best Temporary Public Art: Decoys by Jeffrey DaCosta

Every year, the Valley gets a fresh influx of art courtesy of a public art program called, ahem, IN FLUX. For the 2016 cycle of the program, Jeffrey DaCosta brought 18 wooden deer sculptures coated with light-sensitive paint to an empty storefront at the Pavilions at Talking Stick. When the sun sets, the animals are illuminated in green, yellow, orange, and red, highlighting how the natural world melds and merges with technology.

Best New Muralist in Town: Mata Ruda

It was early in March that artist Karlito "Mata Ruda" Miller Espinosa did something you don't hear about too often: He left New York to further his arts career as a muralist in Phoenix. His first street piece as a freshly minted Arizonan depicts a woman wearing a crown of pinkish roses who longingly stares with a slight furrow in her brow toward a bright white moon. It's called Mas Alla, which translates to "further" and references the struggle of immigrants searching for better lives.

Best Mural: Reverberate Her Lines

Sprawled across the side of the Drumbeat Indian Arts store, the Reverberate Her Lines installation is a sprawling, cosmos-inspired work by a collective of Native American graffiti artists working together to create a wide landscape that incorporates elements of the desert — elote, canyon walls, sandy vistas — and vivid character work.

Best Trip to Outer Space: The Firefly Room at Phoenix Art Museum

"You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies," more commonly known as the Firefly Room, is a 2005 mixed-media installation at Phoenix Art Museum with LED lights by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Step inside (pro tip: move slowly, and keep your left hand on the wall until your eyes adjust), and you're transported to another realm; tiny color-shifting lights suspended from the ceiling get reflected in mirrored walls and a black marble floor to breathtaking effect, creating a dazzling, multi-hued starscape.

Best Play, Equity: Arizona Theatre Company's Of Mice and Men

Arizona Theatre Company's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men this past spring was neatly rendered by an excellent creative team. Director Mark Clements of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, with whom this is a co-production, found the gentleness in Steinbeck's cruel tale of George and Lennie, a pair of drifters with naive dreams for the future. Scott Greer's magnetic rendering of Steinbeck's tragic, brain-damaged man-child Lennie was a stunner, and Jonathan Wainwright's George provided the quiet eye of Steinbeck's storm.

Best Play, Non-Equity: Stray Cat Theatre Stupid Fucking Bird

It was easy to lose count of how many plays-within-a-play this seriocomic beauty comprised, thanks to a stage full of fine performances and some stunning commentary about what's wrong with theater and with the world. It was also easy to love Aaron Posner's play, which was "sort of adapted" from Anton Chekhov's famous 19th-century drama The Seagull.

Best Performance as a Talking Mirror: Terre Steed, Nearly Naked Theatre’s Wonderland Wives

Buddy Thomas's raucous raspberry to childhood's best-known bedtime stories was neatly directed in its world premiere by Nearly Naked founder Damon Dering. If Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann had written fairy tales instead of potboilers, they might have resembled these second-act stories, whose heroines were all slatternly, marvelously grouchy, and mostly played by men. The effect was of an especially rambunctious Bette Davis impersonation contest, led by actor Terre Steed, who inched slightly ahead in this drag race if only because he portrayed four different women, most notably Snow White's Magic Mirror, an embittered, shrieking reflection of a baritone Baby Jane who convinces Snow not to be so pure.

Best Local Boy Makes Good On Screen: Travis Mills

Local filmmaker Travis Mills' stylish post-noir profile of one of Phoenix's bigger characters, Jack Durant, increased Mills' profile as an indie filmmaker who shoots his low-budget, tightly shot movies right here in Phoenix. A new, young producer/director who can lure Hollywood A-listers like Tom Sizemore (who played the title role in Durant's Never Closes) and director Peter Bogdanovich (who wanders through as a shady character trying to get Jack a spot in the local country club) is doing something right, and we're cheering him on.

Best Director: Damon Dering

Last fall, Nearly Naked Theatre founder Dering launched his new season with Monster, an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Perhaps because Dering didn't helm the production himself, it stank. But this past master of camp knuckled down, leaping in to remind local theatergoers of his many visionary talents by directing a knockout world premiere of Buddy Thomas' Wonderland Wives, followed by an acclaimed production of Next to Normal that had critics and audiences swooning.

Best Actress: Johanna Carlisle

Mid-year, local star Johanna Carlisle delivered the best line of the play ("Just because I moved to Yorkshire doesn't mean I have to sit on it!" she bellowed when asked to take a seat on the ground) in Phoenix Theatre's Calendar Girls. As a British gal "of a certain age," she elevated a one-dimensional role with some subtle movement and more than a little wisecracking. A few months later, she stomped off with a well-polished production of Next to Normal at Nearly Naked Theatre, directed by company founder Damon Dering. Carlisle is a world of talent, all of it her own.

Best Actor: Beau Heckman

Terry Johnson's Hysteria requires a cast who can perform and respond to both broad slapstick and stagy melodrama, often in the same scene. Fortunately for theater audiences last fall, director Patrick Walsh assembled such a cast for the Southwest Shakespeare production of this peculiar masterpiece, which reimagines the meeting between psychologist Sigmund Freud and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. Despite stiff competition from a gaggle of thespians, all of them running in and out of doorways and bellowing, Beau Heckman stood out as an especially fabulous Freud, both fearful of and besotted by his own knowledge of the emotional world.

Best Dancer: Nicole Olson

As a lovely dancer with long, fluid lines and a choreographer skilled at storytelling through movement, Nicole Olson elevates the metro Phoenix dance scene. A true collaborator and trailblazer, Olson embraces the call for contemporary dancers to move outside their own art form to work with, and support, artists in myriad other fields.

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