Best Art Museum 2023 | Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Of all the ways we could describe what we see at Scottsdale Museum Contemporary Art, the most apt word may be "surprising." Each new exhibition brings work that dazzles and challenges us. This year alone, the museum showed the toll poor air quality takes on the human body through "The Air Around Us," a series of installations around the Valley; and showed the cracks in modern human interaction in "Language in Times of Miscommunication." But we also love the things about SMoCA that don't change, like James Turrell's austerely beautiful Skyspace and a super-cool gift shop. It all adds up to the best art museum in town.

A number of the excellent museums around the Valley offer free or pay-what-you-wish admission at certain days and times, and for that we're grateful. But we're deeply appreciative of the fact that any time we want to check out what's new at ASU Art Museum, it costs us exactly zero dollars. The building itself, located at Arizona State University's Tempe campus, is a delight, an angular labyrinth that we love to explore. But the art is always a sight to behold as well. Just this year, we've enjoyed the fascinating "Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas," an exhibit examining the history and culture surrounding the sport, and "Everything Is a Little Fuzzy," thought-provoking works about life in a post-pandemic world. That one you can see at the museum through the end of this year.

For decades, Phoenicians both born here or transplanted were taught that the Indigenous residents of the area just "disappeared" one day. As with much Native history retold by non-Native people, it was bunk. Tribes who live here today have roots reaching back to 1 A.D. This name change is notable because it stems from a long-overdue collaboration between the museum, which opened in 1929, and local Indigenous communities so they could finally tell their own stories. When Pueblo Grande Museum became S'edav Va'aki Museum in March, it was more than a formality. It recognizes the living cultures and homelands of the Native peoples who have been here for centuries and more accurately represents their heritage. "Pueblo Grande" means "large village" in Spanish and reflects a language with no connection to the people. S'edav Va'aki, pronounced "suh-UH-dahf VAH-ah-kee," is an O'odham name for the large central (S'edav) platform mound (Va'aki) that was the ceremonial house of a village in the Salt River Valley. Visitors can see the preserved mound just outside of the museum, which is undergoing a major overhaul of signage and exhibits to add context to the true history of the region's Indigenous people.

Andrew Pielage

Many art galleries in metro Phoenix cluster together in certain geographic areas: Roosevelt Row, Old Town Scottsdale, Grand Avenue. And then there's Lisa Sette Gallery, which stands alone not only on a map but also in reputation. Sette's gallery, which is rapidly approaching its 40th anniversary, has moved around the Valley before settling in its current location near Third Street and Thomas Road. What hasn't shifted is the gallery's stellar offerings from top artists in Phoenix and beyond. A favorite show this year was "Dark Garden" featuring mixed-media work by local artist Mayme Kratz. The gorgeous, moody pieces celebrate the harsh beauty of the desert. We celebrate Lisa Sette Gallery for consistently showing some of the best work in Phoenix.

If you dig the look of Taco Chelo, Barrio Queen and Ghost Ranch, visit this new studio in the heart of the Grand Avenue arts district where the artist responsible for those vibes, Gennaro Garcia, creates a range of distinctly Mexican-inspired works. He churns out everything from highly collectible paintings, prints, sculptures, wood carvings and Talavera pottery to more affordable T-shirts, stickers and tote bags. Garcia's favorite subjects include women (particularly Frida Kahlo), skulls and food, and, as an avid cook himself, he plans to use the space to host intimate dinners co-created with various chef friends. Maybe he'll even serve wine from a collaboration he's doing with a producer out of Valle de Guadalupe — he plans to launch the vino this year and considers it yet another art form. The studio is open by appointment and on some First Fridays; check his Instagram page to keep up.

How does one decide the best art exhibit of the year? Is it the prominence of the artist or the cultural significance of the work? If we're going strictly by how many people saw and enjoyed the art, the clear winner is "Mr.: You Can Hear the Song of This Town," which occupied the Steele Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum this past winter. The contemporary Japanese artist's work — bright, whimsical and inspired by anime — was a delight for eyes of any age and any level of artistic knowledge, and we watched during one of the museum's PhxArt After Hours events as attendees stood rapt, scanning the intricate, colorful pieces to glean every detail.

In our opinion, there's nothing more glorious than Phoenix in November, when the weather has finally cooled and it's once again a joy to be outside. It's just one reason why the annual Canal Convergence event, produced by Scottsdale Public Art, is the best art festival of the year. The tagline of Canal Convergence is "Water + Art + Light," and the inventive light-based works created by artists from all over the world are just the beginning. For 10 days, the Scottsdale Waterfront is abuzz with creativity and excitement. There are tours of the area, art-making activities for all ages, live music, dance performances, food and drink vendors and more. Much of the programming is free, which is just one more reason we eagerly await the return of Canal Convergence each year.

Though off the beaten path, Alwun House is always one of our must-visit First Friday destinations. The big orange house has been a haven for the Phoenix art community for 50 years and shows no sign of changing. Owners Kim Moody and Dana Johnson have kept things fresh by continuing to show work by some of Phoenix's best artists, hosting marquee events like the local Burning Man community's IgNIGHT party and opening the Art Park in the space next door, giving them more room to entertain and delight the art-loving denizens of the city. Make sure you check the calendar before you go, though; some events, like Exotic Art Show, aren't exactly family-friendly.

Sadly (or not, depending on your point of view), Super Bowl weekend has come and gone. But the best souvenir of those crazy days is "Welcome to Phoenix," the bright, beautiful mural that still graces Adams Street between First and Second streets. Painted by local artist Kayla Newnam, the mural is 10 feet high and a whopping 190 feet long. Desert images like gila monsters, cactuses and mountains are done in bold colors, all surrounded by a striking sunset. Newnam's design was chosen out of almost 50 submitted, and the people of Phoenix were able to participate in bringing it to life; Newnam hosted two Community Paint Days during the creation process. Next year, "Welcome to Phoenix" will greet visitors arriving for the NCAA Men's Final Four.

The 2023 Super Bowl wasn't just an opportunity to show the world our excellent nightlife and gorgeous weather; the depth of our city's artistic talent was also on full display. One of the most prominent examples was Lucinda Hinojos's design for the Super Bowl tickets themselves. The Vince Lombardi Trophy stands amid a boldly colored desert landscape that's also graced by drawings of Native Americans in traditional dress, hummingbirds, cactuses and more. The NFL tapped Hinojos, who also goes by the moniker "La Morena," to create art for a number of related pieces, including a souvenir football. In case you didn't pick up one of those (or snag a ticket for the big game), you can see a mural featuring her designs near First and Washington streets.

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