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60 Years at Phoenix Art Museum

Throughout its history, the local institution has been the lifeblood of culture in Arizona.

By Carly Scholl | Photographs Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

“I’m so proud of the recent contemporary show called ‘Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain and Other Myths,’” says curator Gilbert Vicario. “I would see people of all ages walk out of the gallery with their faces lit up. It was amazing.” The exhibition reflects the breadth and depth of the museum’s long-standing interest in global art.


ON THE NORTHEAST CORNER of Central Avenue and McDowell Road sits the heart of art and culture in the Valley. Its sleek yet unassuming contemporary facade houses a world-class collection of works of nearly all mediums on display for visitors to absorb and appreciate six days a week.

The cardiac beat of Phoenix Art Museum sustains creative life in the city—pumping expertly curated exhibits, informative lectures and a meticulously preserved history out into the community, only to have that freshly oxygenated artistic fervor recirculated to the institution by way of generous donors, eager students and enthusiastic patrons of Arizona’s fine art scene. This symbiotic relationship has been the legacy of the museum since its conception in the early 20th century.


“After Arizona gained its statehood in 1912, there was a committee of ladies from the Phoenix Women’s Club who wanted to improve the art that was being shown at the state fair. These women were the start of the museum,” explains head librarian Patricia Peregrine. Nearly a decade after the club purchased their first painting for the Phoenix Municipal Collection, the Phoenix Fine Arts Association was formed.

As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, artist Philip C. Curtis came to town in the mid 1930s to become the director of the Phoenix Art Center. His charming surrealist paintings, often depicting Victorian-era characters and fanciful settings, can be seen at the museum today, but his impact on the local art scene goes beyond his personal works. Under his tutelage, a board, director and librarian were established; art classes were taught; and works were donated to the center that would eventually become Phoenix Art Museum.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: The original Phoenix Art Center in the 1930s. • A brick house on Coronado Road known as the Civic Center House, was used for activities, exhibitions and art classes in the 40s. • A sketch of the Phoenix Art Museum from 1961, designed by Alden B. Dow and Blaine Drake, on a plot of land donated by the philanthropic Heard family.

In 1959, the Phoenix Art Center moved from a small house on Coronado Road to its current corner downtown after the board of trustees succeeded in raising $1 million for construction of the museum, theater and library complex. “There were two primary architects,” says Peregrine of the original building design. “One was named Alden B. Dow, as in Dow Chemical. The other architect was Blaine Drake, who was Frank Lloyd Wright’s right-hand man at Taliesin West. He was largely influential in implementing the Wrightian style of the design.” The original museum was a 25,000-square-foot construction that was painted a soft pink hue on the exterior. In 1965, the east wing, comprising galleries for Western art, the Sculpture Courtyard and Singer Auditorium, was completed, tripling the size of the institution.

Today, after several renovations and expansions, the 285,000-square-foot museum, as architect Billie Tsien says, “sits quietly in the landscape and offers a place for the community to gather and interact with art.”

It is impossible to recognize the artistic achievements in the city without acknowledging the civic and cultural leaders who championed them. “This town is full of self-improvement-oriented people and has been since the early days,” asserts Peregrine. “It was these individuals and families who rolled up their sleeves and established many of the important organizations here—Phoenix Orchestra, Phoenix Symphony Guild, Phoenix Zoo, libraries, theaters and, of course, museums. These forward-thinking families were all integral in establishing the important cornerstones. And they did it not because they wanted to improve the community, but because they wanted to enrich it.”

Peregrine offers an important distinction between improvement and enrichment. As many early Phoenicians were transplants from midwestern metropolises, such as Chicago and Minneapolis, the instinct to simply re-create cultural offerings from these cities would have been understandable. Yet the community leaders sought to discover and celebrate the unique aspects of Arizona’s culture and develop its own identity in the world of art. Today, the museum boasts an extraordinary breadth of works in the permanent collection and visiting exhibitions that celebrate not only the local landscape, but reach to all corners of the world.


Part of what makes Phoenix Art Museum a cutting-edge force is its willingness to grow, change and renew as time goes on. “Museums are so much more now than they were 20 to 30 years ago,” explains Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator. “I think everybody in the field has worked very hard to break down the conventional artist-spectator experience, wherein you look at a precious object but it’s very removed from your life. We strive to have art be a more integrated part of people’s lives. Especially in this moment of social media, museums provide an extremely unique experience with things that can’t be replicated. They also offer spaces for public gathering, much like a movie theater. I love sitting in a room with other people—usually complete strangers—and experiencing not only my own reaction to the art form in front of me, but also everyone else’s.”

In 1994, the institution celebrated a fresh beginning with an expansion and renovation designed by New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. “We first became acquainted with the property in 1989, and noticed Central Avenue was really undeveloped and sort of empty,” recalls Williams. “The first thing we wanted to do was express to the community that the museum was an important par t of growing cultural life in Phoenix,” Tsien adds. “We wanted to move the face of the museum to Central Avenue and welcome in the people who were driving by.” Using materials inspired by and sourced directly from the desert, namely precast concrete made in downtown Phoenix and quartzite aggregate from Utah, the pair designed the palo verde-green facade panels that cover the museum’s western wall. “The pale hue is such a Southwestern color, and we wanted the museum to feel connected to both the desert and the city life of Central Avenue,” explains Tsien.

ABOVE: Beginning in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project, the original Phoenix Art Center emphasized local arts. RIGHT: The relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces was an essential feature of the museum’s latest renovations. Landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck was tasked with creating a peaceful plaza leading to the main lobby where guests might feel encouraged to linger.

In addition to adding the panels, the architects also expanded the complex to include new gallery space, classrooms and other visitor amenities, all following a horizontally oriented design that, as the architects say, “abstractly references the original design by Dow and Drake, and celebrates the planar desert floor.”

Twelve years later, a second phase of expansions began, which included the entrance plaza, sculpture garden and the modern art wing. “We realized that the entrance was neither gracious nor graceful,” says Williams. “In that next round of renovations, we understood that shade in the Valley is absolutely essential, so we created a large canopy in the entrance pavilion with the striking cantilevered overhang.” To complement the architectural achievements, a fresh outdoor design was needed.

“The goal from day one was to have a very indoor/outdoor experience,” explains Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck, who describes designing the new entrance plaza as sculpting an exterior space. “The water feature outside provides white noise to distract from the traffic on Central Avenue, while sculptural, lime green palo verde trees offer dappled shade and act as living art,” she says, also noting that the pale paving used in the forecourt was meant to mimic the effect of white gallery walls, allowing the architecture to shine as art.

Phoenix Art Museum boasts one of only four major fashion collections in the country and regularly shows landmark works, such as a 2018 exhibition of Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s futuristic couture.

The result is a space that invites guests to linger—whether it be in the sculpture garden, the entrance plaza or within the galleries. “This is not an elitist place,” remarks Tsien. “The museum hosts everything from school field trips to formal events—it’s for everyone. We wanted to make sure the design was practical but still beautiful. There needed to be a balance of public and private spaces for people to enjoy interacting with the art and with each other.”

From humble beginnings as a community-organized center where local Phoenicians strove to uplift art in their small town of just 25,000 people, to the epicenter of culture in an ever-growing metropolis, Phoenix Art Museum has accomplished extraordinary feats in just 60 years. Thanks to a progressive curatorial legacy and to local roots that run deep in Valley history, it’s likely the next 60 years and beyond will be just as groundbreaking.

A selection of Harry Winston-designed jewelery on display in 1962 demonstrates the museum’s early emphasis on costumes and accessories that span centuries. “There has always been fashion here,” says head librarian Patricia Peregrine.


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