Gotta say, since Roosevelt Row's found itself overrun with development and condo construction, we've found ourselves spending much more of our twice-monthly artwalk hours scoping out the city's slantiest stretch. Indeed, the arts are booming on Grand Avenue, and our fingers are crossed that this is just the beginning. Well, not the beginning, exactly. 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." After years of museum and gallery shows around town ignoring women street artists, {9} put them in the spotlight. It's that combination of paying attention, passion, and willingness to take risks that makes it a model in the burgeoning arts district.

It's no secret that there are countless galleries, restaurants, and bars in downtown Phoenix that are great for taking in all that is First Friday. But 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. And then, just park it. The activity and buzz animating this downtown street might just be the best work of art you'll see all night.

Best Place to Learn About Native Southwestern Culture

Heard Museum

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. Wanna know the story behind the road named Indian School or the impact the region's railways had on its Native people? You'll find both — and get the chance to see contemporary artworks as well as historic items. And here you thought we were being dramatic.

Phoenix Art Museum

Last time we checked, it cost about $20 million to take a jaunt on a commercial space flight, so until we've saved up the dough, we like to replicate an out-of-this-world experience 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 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. We're still keeping an eye out for that NASA Groupon deal, but until then, the Firefly Room is your best bet for an in-town space odyssey.

Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix/Ro Ho En

Gridlock, haboobs, Sheriff Joe — life in Phoenix can be harsh sometimes. Fortunately, there exists in the center of town a space so secluded, so peaceful, we almost don't want a lot of people to know about it. Okay, fine. We'll share.

The next time you need a moment of Zen, you're welcome to join us at Ro Ho En, also known as the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. Completed in 2000 as a symbol of the relationship between Phoenix and its sister city Himeji, Japan, this 3.5-acre "strolling garden" offers stress relief and inner calm in the form of paved paths, shade trees, stone sculptures, friendly wildlife, and a central lake. The Garden hosts special events now and then such as tea ceremonies and an annual moon viewing festival, but really, any time is a good time to feed the koi, exhale deeply, and experience a little serenity now.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men this past spring was neatly rendered by an excellent creative team. Todd Edward Ivins' set design, moved to and fro by costumed, silhouetted ranch hands, provided expertly cheerless settings; Joe Cerqua's sound design and scoring and Jesse Klug's clever lighting design offered the only warmth in a series of deliberately dusty scenes of meager living. 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.  

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.

A stunning cast burnished a lot of hammy, existential dilemmas and improv-busting devices, and director Ron May created some stunning stage imagery on Eric Beeck's slick and functional set.

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. The real magic was in Mr. Steed's performance.

Jack Durant was a small-town gambler with loose ties to Vegas racketeers. He had a big, obstreperous personality, owned our city's most successful restaurant, and was listed among the FBI's most dangerous men in Phoenix. Jack liked women, eavesdropping on patrons of his restaurant bar, and golf. He might have seen one or two people being murdered. None of this makes for grand opera, but it did make for an independent feature film by local filmmaker Travis Mills. His stylish post-noir profile of one of Phoenix's bigger characters, Durant's Never Closes, 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 the Durant picture) 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.

If for no other reason than his comeback from a dreadful season opener, local theater bright spot and former wunderkind Damon Dering deserves accolades. 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. These two winners more than made up for any transgressions, and reminded us that Dering is estimable in his talents — our very own Tyrone Guthrie.

Best Of Phoenix®

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