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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As the founding director for ASU's Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and a Mohave language preservation activist, Natalie Diaz has been exploring the intersections of language, place, and identity in her work, which this year expanded to include her second poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It was well-received upon its release, then it became very well-received when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. During a year filled with conversations about social justice related to health care, immigration, and police brutality, Diaz's poetry created space for readers to consider how one can love and be loved in the context of colonial violence, and gave voice to Diaz's experiences as an Indigenous, Latinx, and queer woman.

For nearly a century, this expert collection of keen travel stories and scenic photography has documented the hills and valleys of our fair state. In April 1925, Arizona Highways was meant to document the booming road-construction projects of the Department of Transportation, but long after those pathways were paved, the magazine was still publishing, a showcase for some of the world's best photographs of cactus and cactus wren, of mountains and sunrises. Alongside the stunning shots, you'll find stories about everything from the water crisis in the Navajo Nation to the best scenic drives in town and beyond. And since this is the social media age, we should remind you that the magazine's Instagram account (@arizonahighways, of course) is chock-full of that same top-quality photography and always makes us stop our scrolling to appreciate our state's natural beauty.

We're big fans of all three hosts of local National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's magazine-style program The Show. Steve Goldstein and Mark Brody have the institutional knowledge and journalist acumen it takes to keep us up to date Monday through Friday. But Lauren Gilger's the one who puts this show over the top. She's got the news chops for sure, but she also understands how important it is to look beyond the headlines at the ways the arts and culture both reflect and affect our lives. We hope she never trades us for a larger market.

In a sea of options, we prefer to get our local news from KAET-TV, metro Phoenix's PBS station, and Horizon, which has been on the air for more than 40 years, has long been Channel 8's crown jewel. That makes Ted Simons, who's been on the show since 2007, the king. And the guy wears his crown well, managing to always be prepared no matter the topic, and elevating the conversation while still making his guests feel welcome. Simons manages to be hard-hitting and gracious at the same time. Not an easy feat. All hail Ted!

When we think of people doing an outstanding job supporting local music, the DJs of KWSS are right near the top of the list. The indie station will celebrate its 16th anniversary later this year, which means it has spent more than a decade and a half playing songs by local artists and exposing the public to aspects of the Phoenix music scene they may have missed. The DJs are all volunteers, so when you've listened to The Jay Cairo Show, Dani's Diner Retro Hour, or Dubs' Private Reserve (which just ended a four-year run), remember that you're tuning in to a group of folks who care enough about bringing music to the Valley that they're willing to do it for free.

ASU Art Museum

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.

Lisa Sette Gallery
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.

Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

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.

Phoenix Art Museum

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.

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