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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ASU Art Museum

The war of words was in full swing this year as partisans filled public and online spaces with opinions about immigration, voting, public health, and more. That war was poignantly addressed in "Text as Image," an outdoor exhibition of text-based art created as part of ASU Art Museum's "Pilot Projects" series. The temporary public artworks included Jacob Meders' Warbird Press vending machine with prints addressing colonialism and Indigenous lands, Kristin Bauer's Dia/Chronic banner confronting propaganda and white supremacy, Hugh Hayden's Pillory sculpture referencing police barricades and medieval stocks, and Iván Argote's Tiernos, We, Somos and Strong installation of concrete chairs addressing human interactions during polarized times. It was the perfect collection of temporary public artwork for the times, conveying not only the perils of the present moment but the possibilities for a less fractious future.

Artists Alexandra Bowers and Pete Deise transformed an empty space at Park Central for their pop-up exhibit "The Four Seasons," providing viewers with an intimate way to view their work outside of traditional gallery settings. Large billows of fabric suggested geographic features, reinforcing the ways these artists' works reflect natural elements such as wind and water. Both artists played with elements of scale and movement, bringing life to an otherwise barren space. Their pop-up exhibit reinforced the power of art to transform both interior and exterior spaces, and signaled the potential of other urban environments to serve as places to encounter and experience art.

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.

Burton Barr Central Library

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.

FilmBar

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.

West Wind Glendale 9 Drive-In

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.

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