Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West to Open in January 2015

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There's no shortage of Western art in Old Town Scottsdale, where folks encounter the city's official nickname: "The West's Most Western Town." Best known is Ed Mell's Jack Knife sculpture anchoring the intersection of Main Street and Marshall Way.

But soon you'll find works by Mell and more than 150 additional artists inside the city's soon-to-open cultural destination -- a two-story, 43,000-square-foot museum dubbed Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West.

It began as the dream of former Scottsdale mayor Herb Drinkwater, according to museum director Michael Fox. The museum, which is owned by the city of Scottsdale and operated by a nonprofit called Scottsdale Museum of the West, is scheduled to open to the public on January 15, 2015.

See also: George Morrison Retrospective "Modern Spirit" Takes the Long View at Phoenix's Heard Museum

Fox describes Western Spirit as a "museum of storytelling," saying it's meant to share not only stories of the Old West -- but also stories of the contemporary West, and conversations about its future. Expect tales of early explorers like Lewis and Clark, but also explorations of modern issues including wise use of water resources.

Soon it'll be crunch time for the museum. They'll spend mid-December to mid-January finishing construction while installing exhibition spaces, and loading in artwork and artifacts loaned by collectors and cultural institutions. Phoenix artist Bill Dambrova is working on interior elements needed to display the artworks.

Western Spirit spotlights the art, culture and history of 19 states, including Arizona. It's built on the former site of the Loloma Transit Station, which was designed by architect Vito Acconci, and is preserving elements of that design while transforming the space into the museum's education center and administrative offices.

The museum was designed by the architectural firm Studio MA based in Clifton, New Jersey, and Phoenix. Landscape architects Colwell Shelor of Phoenix designed the campus, which features low-water use desert plants including trees repurposed from pre-Western Spirit days. Both interior and exterior spaces are LEED Gold Standard certified -- meeting particular requirements such as sustainable materials and energy efficiency for "green" design, construction and operation.

Museum renderings and blueprints convey the eventual majesty of the space, but for now it's a mash-up of unfinished surfaces that merely hint at what's to come. Concrete sidewalks bear impressions mirroring the intricate designs of western saddles, and concrete walls bear textures echoing the spines of tall Saguaro cactus. When we visited, cedar ceilings were being installed and massive windows meant to illuminate interior spaces with natural light were about to go in.

A pair of bronze statues already installed in the entry courtyard stand covered by heavy cloth. Eventually they'll be joined by a Scottsdale Public Art installation called Diamond Bloom by contemporary artist Curtis Pittman. The museum will feature works of sculpture inside galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden. Folks entering the museum will be greeted by Maynard Dixon's 1935 mural Kit Carson with Mountain Men.

Inaugural exhibitions will include Charles Fritz paintings chronicling the Lewis and Clark expedition, quintessential Western fare from spurs to saddles collected by Abe Hays of Scottsdale, works by cowboy artist and author Will James, more than 80 paintings by various artists reflecting 19th and 20th century life in the American West, and an exploration of process and materiality featuring artists John Coleman and Erik Petersen.

A gallery housing "Fine Art of the American West: People and Places" will feature works meant to showcase "the rich variety of themes, styles, and imagery of western art." Think Ed Mell to Georgia O'Keefe. In another gallery, the "Confluence of Cultures in the American West" will feature works of contemporary art from the Tim Peterson collection. Exhibits will rotate every six months or so, according to Fox.

Western Spirit will also include a Heritage Hall with images and bios for folks "who have made contributions to the American West," an auditorium with 135-seats that fold back into the wall as needed, and a museum store. Once up and running, it'll offer an ongoing assortment of educational programs and events, some created with partners that include Arizona State University and Scottsdale Artists' School.

It's not every day you get the chance to watch a hometown museum taking shape. You can peek in on the museum's progress at 3830 N. Marshall Way along First Street, which is one block south of Main Street. Look for the nearby Stagebrush Theatre and Scottsdale campus for the Arizona School of Real Estate and Business. You can't pass the construction zone perimeter, but you can get a feel for what it's like to bring a new museum to life.

Once the museum opens, regular hours will be Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. During Scottsdale ArtWalk Thursdays, the museum will have extended hours through 9:30 p.m. Admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors 65-plus and active military, $8 for students and children ages 6 to 17. Admission is free for the age 5-and-under set, and special group rates are available.

If you need a Western art fix in the meantime, just head to Old Town Scottsdale...

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