Best Museum 2022 | Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art stands out for consistently delivering the unexpected, whether it's the replica of an artist's living room or a mobile home trailer purchased by an artist at a local swap meet. The museum excels at introducing metro Phoenix audiences to creatives working in other cultural hubs while also spotlighting works by artists with Arizona roots or artists working in Arizona. Curators strike a delightful balance of showing works by emerging and established creatives, and the museum has demonstrated by its exhibitions a commitment to elevating the voices of women artists and BIPOC artists. The museum also creates and hosts fun community experiences, such as trivia nights, screenings of films by ASU students, and artist talks, fostering a sense that the museum is a community space for learning, growth, and creativity rather than a building designed to merely house and show works of art.

Galleries get a bad rap in some circles, especially from those who assume that traditional art venues are stuffy places filled with art that's hard to understand and impossible to afford. Art One gallery in Old Town Scottsdale counters that model by presenting an eclectic assortment of affordable artworks in a casual, friendly setting where you don't have to worry about being intimidated because you're not an art expert. The gallery has a large storefront window, so passersby can always see art as they walk down the street, and more pieces are often displayed outside the gallery during the day, which makes art feel even more relatable. Art One is the best place to see works by emerging and established artists, including many you won't see on the beaten path of Phoenix's downtown arts scene. On any given day, you might see a work by one of the Valley's most prolific muralists, a piece by a well-known local artist that differs radically from their typical style, or a piece created by a talented high school or college student. The gallery also shows works by students at Autism Academy. It's a perfect place to discover local talents before they hit the big time.

For more than two decades, the "Chaos Theory" exhibition has been one of Phoenix's best-loved arts traditions, in part because it brings together a stellar lineup of some of the Valley's most renowned artists for a night of not just artwork, but also vibrant conversations and pop-up music performances. It's typically held on First Friday in October, but that didn't happen in 2020 when, like everything else, it was canceled due to the pandemic. But organizer and artist Randy Slack brought "Chaos Theory" roaring back in October 2021 with works by more than 70 artists, most of whom are already part of the unwritten "who's who" list of metro Phoenix creatives (or rapidly rising stars). It's a night when artists take time to appreciate each other's work and people from art bigwigs to the merely art-curious gather in one place to celebrate the city's creative side — without having to pay a dime for the experience. After all that COVID-19 isolation, "Chaos Theory" was an exhilarating way to reenergize the Phoenix creative scene.

Odds are, you don't spend a lot of time thinking about how art influences or reflects the world around you, or how it affects your own perceptions and perspective. ASU Art Museum gave visitors a compelling glimpse of the ways historical images have fostered and reinforced ideas, policies, and practices related to incarceration with this exhibition featuring works by a dozen artists who drew from carceral culture in their own communities in and beyond Arizona. The exhibition perfectly meets the current times, in which advocates decry the rise of the prison industrial complex amid dwindling resources for education, family support, mental health care, and other community needs. The exhibition filled every gallery at the museum, signaling the significance of the issue, and the museum even added prompts for reflection to stairways and other spaces. Thoughtful programming supplemented the exhibition, giving community members opportunities for learning, conversation, and action, proving that art exhibits can be powerful catalysts for change.

Even with art festivals, people tend to assume that bigger is always better. But a small festival at this off-the-beaten-path arts center proves that good things still come in small packages. Especially during the age of COVID-19, as some have felt more comfortable avoiding crowds, Shemer Art Center struck just the right note with its family-friendly, pet-themed festival that gave community members a chance to stroll around the center's grounds taking in sunshine amid a casual, creative vibe. Visitors got to meet local artists and talk with them about their work, try pet-themed art projects led by metro Phoenix creatives, enjoy a pet parade complete with costumes and fun takes on pet transports, and explore the center's sculpture garden. While there, visitors got to check out the inside gallery spaces as well, getting a glimpse of the charming house transformed into an intimate arts venue. And the dogs who joined them discovered that beyond the expanding universe of cat videos, there's a big wide world of canvases covered in playful pups.

A giant sun anchors this bright mural that exudes optimism, even as it references the history of the region with its colorful depictions of waterways, corn fields, cactuses, and rock formations. Artists Jake Early and Quinn Murphy collaborated on the mural, which pays tribute to not only the city, but also a downtown Phoenix ambassador who was killed in a bicycling accident. The mural holds special meaning because its title references the late Hans Hughes' enthusiasm for Phoenix. Aesthetically, it stands out for its clean lines and abstracted landscape incorporating bold colors. The fact that it's painted on the side of a historic building adds more layers of meaning. And its location near Symphony Hall affirms the fact that murals are no less important to the cultural ecosystem in metro Phoenix than more traditional art forms. It's a visually stunning nod to history, community, civic engagement, and the essential place of artists in the urban landscape.

The best art has a way of changing our perspective, helping us to notice things we haven't really seen before or think in new ways about the world around us. Dale Chihuly's orbs, spires, baskets, and other glass forms exhibited at Taliesin West and the Desert Botanical Garden did just that, drawing attention to both the built and natural environments in metro Phoenix, where the pace of daily life can keep us from seeing the rich complexities of color, pattern, and texture in the urban desert. Chihuly's installations amid desert plants, renowned architecture, and water features were a powerful reminder of the role art plays in creating and sustaining vibrant communities and healthy ecosystems, and provided a window into new ways of seeing the desert environment too often taken for granted. Through these outdoor artworks, people who might never have explored these cultural gems discovered their rich tapestries of design, and those who already frequented these sites experienced a renewed sense of curiosity and wonder.

Renting a car at the airport is pretty high on the list of mundane travel experiences, so when a monumental work of art gets installed inside a rental car center, it's a big deal. Paul Coze's triptych spanning 70 feet was first installed at Sky Harbor Airport in 1962, and reinstalled inside the rental car center in 2021 amid airport improvements. Anchored by a giant phoenix rising over the city, the piece speaks to the city's past while also calling to mind its future. But it also symbolizes the city's strong history of showing art at the airport, which gives both residents and visitors a way to experience the rich cultural diversity of the city in an unexpected setting. As Phoenix, like other major metropolitan areas, continues to face challenges, the artwork is a powerful reminder of the myth of the phoenix, a bird that rises from the ashes as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Driving along most freeways in metro Phoenix, you won't find much to delight your senses. There's the occasional mile marker, signs telling you where you can eat and drink near various exits, and sometimes a humorous overhead display by ADOT that references pop culture icons such as Star Wars or the musical Hamilton as a way to encourage safe driving. But when you travel along the six-mile strip of the Pima Freeway/Highway 101 in Scottsdale, where the freeway walls sport Carolyn Braaksma's massive desert designs inspired by cactus, flowers, and wildlife, you get a delightful respite from the regular freeway views. On the freeway, and retaining walls in adjacent neighborhoods, you'll find her massive prickly pear cactuses, giant green lizards, and other desert delights that renew your sense of pride in living in the desert, with all its natural beauty.

Taking inspiration from Amanda Gorman, the country's first national youth poet laureate, artist Jerome Fleming created the image of an African-American girl that anchors his art installation on a giant curved wall at a busy light rail station in Roosevelt Row. People using the light rail or passing the artwork while driving, bicycling, or walking enjoy a bright reminder of the power of youth, nature, reading, and imagination. The central figure in Fleming's piece stands in a field with yellow flowers, near a lone butterfly hovering by an open book. Gorman's poetry centers on the African diaspora, and the mural also calls to mind the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the rural South during the 20th century. Fleming's beautiful imagery conveys an idyllic setting, but also prompts reflection on themes that are prevalent in Gorman's work, including racism, feminism, and ongoing oppression. It's particularly poignant when considered in the context of calls in some circles to limit youth access to books that celebrate diverse identities, experiences, and communities.

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