In 2016, Tempe resident Robert Moore was a member of the city's municipal arts commission and on the lookout for new ways the commission could engage with the local cultural scene. He didn't have to look very far. Moore recommended transforming an aging and largely vacant retail building owned by the city at the Danelle Plaza shopping center near his home into a platform for local artists. Two years (and many negotiating sessions with city officials) later, the Danelle Project was born. Coordinated by Moore and Tempe Art A Gogh-Gogh co-founder Evan Liggins, it's a visual feast of works by more than 20 notable local artists. Three sides of the 16,500-square-foot building and other spaces around the plaza are adorned with art: Vacant storefronts are filled with displays and installation pieces, while large-scale murals adorn exterior walls. Some works are evocative, such as Clyde's pandemic-inspired mural Dreams on Pause depicted in deep blues and grays. Others celebrate the eclectic history of Danelle Plaza (Nick Rascona's skateboard mural is inspired by a late '70s skate park on the property). Then there are the oddities, like Sarah Hurwitz and Daniel Funkhouser's Futureland, Arizona, which reimagines our state as a post-apocalyptic and neon-drenched toxic wasteland. (Certain installations become illuminated after dark.) It's also, conveniently, a drivable art experience — fitting for this car-friendly metropolis.
Walking around the city's best museums and galleries, you'll rarely find works by as many Phoenix-based artists as you will during a stroll along Oak Street Alley. Dozens of artists have been painting murals in this Coronado neighborhood alley for many years now, providing an evolving exhibition that reveals the diverse styles and themes embraced by local muralists. Some address heavy topics like gun violence. Others memorialize historic figures or musicians. And a very special one elevates the light that a little girl who died of cancer continues to shine on her community. Oak Street Alley includes work by some of the city's best-loved artists, including La Morena, Maggie Keane, Thomas "Breeze" Marcus, and JB Snyder. For both the casual art lover and the dedicated mural spotter, it's a place spilling over with inspiration — and more than a few kickass selfie backdrops.
During a year dominated by the pandemic and divisive political rhetoric, Tree of Life stood out. Created by Tucson artist Daniel Martin Diaz, the piece — a trio of cut-steel sculptures anchored by an 11-foot-tall red tile mural with tree imagery blending organic and scientific forms — served as a monument to healing, growth, and community. It's particularly striking within the wider context of national conversations and protests about monuments, because it serves as a monument to the desert, as well as the people past and present who give it life. In addition, the piece inspires viewers to explore the artist's larger body of work, leading them on a journey through his imaginings of physical and metaphysical worlds.
For travelers who'll never enter a traditional art space in Phoenix, Vanished Tempest provides a glimpse into the city's contemporary art scene, opening a window onto the creativity in our midst. The installation, which opened inside Terminal 3 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in June, features a group of paintings created by Phoenix artist Laura Spalding Best on silver trays and candy dishes. Best painted vignettes that amplify the intersection of natural and urban landscapes, such as a palm tree seemingly rooted in concrete, prompting people passing through Phoenix to consider both the beauty and the hidden complexities of desert life. Her artwork leaves travelers wanting to learn more about our city and the curious ways it's navigated by both visitors and locals.
As new construction goes up all around it, Burton Barr Central Library continues to stand out, reminding people that great buildings are more than big boxes. Walls of windows allow patrons to look over the urban landscape, even as shelves filled with books invite them to look inward and keep learning. Through lecture series and other programs, Burton Barr Central Library promotes Phoenix's diversity. With dedicated spaces for youth and makers, a first-floor gallery, and a rare book room, the library amplifies the importance of not only reading, but community as well.
Nowadays, most people can watch movies on the devices they keep in their pockets or sit at home in front of a TV screen scrolling through countless film options, which means a movie theater has to bring something extra to the equation to really make an impact. Majestic Theaters, first launched several years ago as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, offers themed events tied to classic films, luxury seating few can afford to realize in their own homes, and culinary choices that range from comfort food to more sophisticated fare. Special event screenings happen at several theaters across the Valley, meaning people have more places and times to see the specialty films that appeal to their sense of nostalgia or play. Props like glow sticks create an atmosphere that's hard to capture in your own home. Movie-going as a spirited, social enterprise is on full display at Majestic Theaters, where you can feel like a kid but still experience films with some heavy grown-up vibes.
This year, FilmBar gave cinema fans new ways to engage with films by adding a smaller secondary screening space at its brick-and-mortar movie house in downtown Phoenix and screening films in partnership with other spaces around the Valley. Patrons saw classic movies inside the historic Orpheum Theatre, lent their vocals to Big Gay Singalong screenings for movie musicals and other fan favorites at its outdoor satellite at the new Pemberton PHX, and saw the launch of FilmBar's partnership with the Nile Theater for a series of record/movie swaps and film screenings. Even as people have more options for watching movies in the comfort of their home alone on a comfy couch, FilmBar is finding new ways to show the value of films for creating and sustaining community.
The last permanent drive-in movie theater in Arizona was offering outdoor cinema long before other drive-in movie locations started popping up around the Valley during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1979, guests have watched thousands of new movies under the glow of Glendale 9's outdoor screens and enjoyed the old-school concessions stand, which is shaped like an octagon and includes all the staples (popcorn, cotton candy) of the moviegoing experience. Glendale 9 was one of the first drive-ins nationally to upgrade its movie audio from boxy speakers that hung on car windows to FM frequencies on people's car stereos, and it continues to premiere new movies every week.
It's not just that the miniature cityscape of Phoenix now on display at Tempe's LEGOLAND Discovery Center is made from nearly 2 million plastic LEGO bricks. The other thing that makes master model builder Alec Posta's whimsical creation so very special is the inclusion of Phoenix's perpetually torn-up streets. The numerous construction scenes are a nice touch in the diorama, created by a team of builders in both 1:72 scale and 1:48 scale. The cityscape extends into Tempe and beyond, so Chase Tower and St. Mary's Basilica are joined by the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook and the Cardinals Stadium. Want to show out-of-town visitors your city? Take them to the Arizona Mills shopping center, point to Posta's clever creation, and you're done.
It's hard for a first-timer to find Lux Central. There's no sign, and Google Maps will send you to what looks like an empty building on Central Avenue. The entrance is around back, and you'll know you're there because you'll start to see effortlessly glamorous people who all look hipper and happier than you could ever hope to be. Although being surrounded by all these pretty people makes us feel ugly and unstylish, we still like going to Lux Central. As a cafe, it's something of a five-tool player, offering coffee, baked goods, brunch, dinner, and booze, and staying open late (midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on the weekends). That means that pretty much anytime you stop in, you'll find a decent crowd of people whose clothes and tattoos and haircuts and mannerisms you can study in the hopes of becoming cooler.