Best Art Museum 2021 | Arizona State University Art Museum | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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It's not every day you see a lowrider car built by an artist placed at the center of a museum gallery, or realize the genius that must go into creating an automotive mashup as a symbol of hybridized cultures and identity. But that's exactly what happened to visitors who explored ASU Art Museum earlier this year, where the "Body/Magic: Liz Cohen" exhibit expanded on the artist's previous "Bodyworks" series inspired in part by lowrider culture. The exhibit introduced new audiences to Cohen's take on labor, identity, and transformation during a year when those very issues were at the heart of contemporary life. The museum's "Pilot Projects" explored social justice as the nation grappled with police brutality, white supremacy, and health inequities. The museum provided outdoor art experiences amid the pandemic and a robust lineup of virtual conversations with artists. Free admission meant greater access for community members and helped the museum stay relevant and responsive during challenging times. Bottom line: ASU Art Museum was the right museum at the right time.

Andrew Pielage

Gallerist Lisa Sette has a gift for finding connections between contemporary art and contemporary society. For part of the past year, she showed works organized around the color blue, highlighting the color's historical, aesthetic, and political significance (from ancient times, the color has represented the sky and the sea, and served as a symbol of power, wealth, and status; today, of course, Americans identify it with the Democratic Party). Sette's midtown gallery is also distinguished by its artist roster, which includes Sonya Clark, Claudio Dicochea, Mark Klett, James Turrell, and many more. Walking into her gallery, you'll always see a fascinating mix of materials, from Annie Lopez's cyanotype photography on tamale paper to Mayme Kratz's delicate animal bones encased in resin. Lisa Sette Gallery is also a great place to discover emerging talent, such as collaborators Merryn Omotayo Alaka and Sam Fresquez, whose large-scale suspended sculptures made with synthetic hair and braid crimps were shown alongside Angela Ellsworth's bonnets made with thousands of corsage pins for this year's "Things We Carry" exhibit exploring identity and radical self-expression. Here, both art aficionados and the art-curious find work that stretches their ideas and perceptions, delivering that perfect mix of questions and answers.

New Mexico artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (Madan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, European) suspended strands with more than 7,000 hand-formed unfired clay beads in a circular form inside a gallery space at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, creating the Something to Hold Onto installation that anchored his "Passage" exhibition. Made by artisans across the U.S. and Mexico, the beads represent those who've died migrating north across the U.S.-Mexico border. Luger invited several artists to collaborate for this exhibit, including Arizona artists Thomas "Breeze" Marcus (Tohono O'odham) and Dwayne Manuel (Onk Akimel O'odham), who created a monumental spiral-shaped floor mural that Luger mirrored when hanging his work. During a year filled with immigration-related rhetoric, the installation demanded that viewers consider the people behind the statistics, and served as a powerful call to advance justice for asylum-seekers and Indigenous people living in the borderlands.

Tunnel vision marked much of the year, as massive misinformation campaigns, alternative realities, and social media algorithms magnified existing fissures in the country's political landscape. With "Elemental," the first U.S. mid-career survey of works by Teresita Fernandez, Phoenix Art Museum (in conjunction with Pérez Art Museum Miami) seemed to foreshadow the rapid rise of literal and metaphorical wildfires, including public health dangers amplified by hubris and denial. Through materials, forms, and ideas referencing colonial histories and present-day exploitations, Fernandez gave viewers the chance to consider the complex nature of the American landscape, and how their own words and actions are altering that terrain. Her Fire (United States of the Americas) 2 installation, comprising the 50 states made with charcoal, was the perfect visual for a year when it felt like everything familiar was simply burning to the ground. The exhibit challenged viewers to forgo tunnel vision for a wider view of the world, even if the view wasn't always pretty.

Mural artists were busy this year, bringing art to public spaces even as many traditional art venues took a pandemic pause. One mural, painted in downtown Phoenix, stood high above the rest — and not just literally. Miles MacGregor ("El Mac") and Thomas "Breeze" Marcus collaborated to create a 45-foot-high portrait of a young woman from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa community. She appears to be gazing over the city built on the ancestral homeland of her people. More than a work of art, it's a new monument to the history of the region and the Indigenous people who continue to call this land home. Elsewhere around the county, old monuments rooted in white supremacy have been coming down. Here in Phoenix, this new monument was raised up, paying homage to Indigenous peoples of the past, present, and future.

After a massive yellow mural reading "Black Lives Matter" was painted on a prominent street in Washington, D.C., Gizette Knight hoped to install a street mural with that same theme in downtown Phoenix. When she couldn't get city approval, Knight did what activists do best: She found another way to make the message heard. Knight coordinated a Black Lives Matter mural project that included numerous Black History Matters murals painted by various artists around Phoenix. The murals, hosted by places like The Nash and Carly's Bistro in Roosevelt Row, featured the faces of renowned Black changemakers like Shirley Chisholm, Huey P. Newton, and Harriet Tubman — as well as some who aren't as well known. Best of all, the project included a billboard along Grand Avenue, assuring that the Black History Matters message would be widely seen in our urban landscape.

Arizona-based artists M. Jenea Sanchez and Gabriela Muñoz have been collaborating for more than five years, most recently working with a women's self-help collective along the border between Arizona and Mexico. This year, that collaboration leveled up with an exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art titled "Division of Labor: Women Shifting a Transnational Gaze." The museum had invited Sanchez and Muñoz to co-curate an exhibition of works drawn from its own collection. Instead, the artists created an exhibition featuring not only works from the collection, but also 10 contemporary Latinx artists working in the borderlands. The collaboration went beyond two artists teaming up; it became a model for shared power and horizontal leadership within art museums and communities.

Between pandemic shutdowns and the growing footprint of big developers, it's been a tough year for creative venues. Undaunted by the challenges, Palabras Bilingual Bookstore founder Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña launched a new creative hub called Nurture House just a few blocks west of the main drag in Roosevelt Row. It's home to Wasted Ink Zine Distro, Abalone Mountain Press, Pachanga Press, and Por Vida Bakery, which means you can snag some great reading material and support local publishers while you're enjoying tasty baked treats. Nurture House has front and central courtyards, which make great outdoor gathering spaces, and the bookstore has a cozy room with a big purple couch where you can dive into books about arts and culture surrounded by walls filled with paintings by Jeff Slim. It's also a community gathering space for book club and open mic nights, where diversity is celebrated and authentic conversation, self-expression, and listening are truly nurtured.

Mike Miskowski has made his political disdain known for more than five years by hanging it from bridges and overpasses and off-ramps all over town. He's the guy behind the large-scale anti-Donald-Trump signage that decorated local freeways in 2016 and beyond. "Trump is Putin's Bitch!" was Miskowski's first greatest hit; other popular signs included "Trump Is A Whiny Bitch" and "Most Corrupt President Ever." Before that, "Trump Locks Babies In Cages" got a lot of attention, as did "Your Vote Is Your Weapon." Miskowski, whose signs are all handmade, has lately pointed his outrage at the GOP and its crazy behavior. His motto? "Any political message I can get in under seven feet of space is worth that space."

Grand Avenue has an eclectic mix of art experiences on First Fridays, from tried-and-true favorites like printing on one of the presses inside the Hazel and Violet letterpress shop to pop-ups that blend food with visual culture at Bones Bodega. Beyond gallery exhibits that show works by dozens of artists, you'll find offbeat street art, open artist studios, pop-up artisan markets, and live painting — all of which take the First Friday experience on this funky diagonal strip near downtown to a whole new level. Best of all, there's an authentic community vibe that's evident as people pause to take selfies, sip tea at outdoor bistro tables, talk about their favorite art sightings, and just marvel together at the wonder of it all.

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