The Phoenix Zoo’s New Art Gallery Focuses on Celebrating Nature
An under-used building at the Phoenix Zoo finds new life as the Wild Side Gallery.
By Douglas C. Towne | Photography by Melissa Valladares
If the Phoenix Zoo ever had doubts about opening an art gallery, they were quickly erased when organizers located a centerpiece for the space hidden in an on-site warehouse. “While searching a dusty storage facility on a scavenger hunt in the zoo for works to showcase in the gallery, we found what looked like something framed in a plastic bag,” artist Dyana Hesson says. “I pulled it out and immediately knew we had something special. I have dreams like this.”
The painting was Francis Henry Bouguereau’s portrait of Robert Maytag, who founded the independent, nonprofit wildlife park in 1962. The picture was subsequently restored and will be displayed in a future exhibit. “And now, we have uncovered and have restored another treasure: a beautiful midcentury-style building with its own story to tell,” Hesson adds.
The 2,400-square-foot structure that has been transformed into the zoo’s new Wild Side Gallery was designed by famed Valley architect William Cartmell, who was also responsible for Arizona State University’s Manzanita Hall and College of Law building. It was constructed near the zoo’s front entrance for $100,000 in 1970 and opened as an auditorium. Natural materials were used to create an earthbound aesthetic, with a stepped building profile and open bays that bring in the outdoors.
The auditorium had long been vital to the venue, partly because it was the largest indoor structure with air conditioning. Over the decades, the space was utilized for meetings, night camps, animal holding, storage, workshops and offices. “Initially, the interior had half mounts of stuffed animals coming out of the walls,” says Harry Papp, who has served on the board since the early 1980s. “We didn’t feel good about that, but it was a different time. We eventually donated them to ASU.”
The zoo was considering using the building as a permanent storage facility until its president, Bert Castro, discovered the Ironwood Gallery at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. “This beautiful art gallery inspired me to use the building as a designated space for the growing work of our art committee and the park’s art exhibits,” he says. “We’re always looking for new ways to engage people, so they’ll walk away motivated to care for the natural world.”
The art committee began in 2018 when artists who had donated their work for the annual Zoofari fundraiser—where guests enjoy a catered evening amid up-close animal encounters—were given a behind-the-scenes tour as a “thank you” by board member Jean Bingham. The outing included a stop at the Savanna Grill, designed around two 19-foot-tall stained glass windows depicting kudus at an African waterhole. Artist Bob Berg had initially created the pieces for Leona Helmsley’s Paradise Valley home. When the house was later demolished, the windows were donated by the Town of Paradise Valley. Hesson and fellow artist April Howland realized the potential of the café’s tall, empty white walls and launched an art exhibition program.
The zoo has had incredible exhibits in that space over the past few years, mainly from Arizona artists. “The program has been a great success and enabled us to bring a new audience to learn about our conservation work,” Castro says. With the Wild Side Gallery, the park seeks to build upon this momentum by celebrating the visual arts in a place that was once off-limits to visitors.
The building was renovated while being mindful of its beginnings, which Scottsdale architect Douglas Sydnor appreciates. “It is a treat to witness them saving midcentury modern architecture and stripping away unsightly remodels and additions,” he says. “They are striving to resurrect the original spirit of the structure through smart improvements, which include uncovering clerestories and windows that will bathe the gallery interior with natural light.”
Renovations for the gallery started in 2022, funded by donations, including $200,000 by Jean and Barry Bingham. Cubicles and asbestos were removed, and new HVAC and drywall were installed. Recessed cabinet spaces were transformed into lighted art niches. Then the fun part began. “Two very talented artists on our committee helped with the color decisions,” says arts committee member Janice Castro, Bert’s wife. “We wanted to keep the walls neutral but brought in green on the moveable walls since they would be easier to repaint as shows changed.”
“We’re always looking for new ways to engage people, so they’ll walk away motivated to care for the natural world.”
—Bert Castro, president and CEO, Phoenix Zoo
The gallery’s striking retro sign resulted from research into midcentury colors, fonts and designs. The arts committee passed on their suggestions to the zoo’s management, which then worked with a local sign maker, E2 Innovations Inc., to make the finished product.
A local woodworker, Gard Gardiner, created the furniture in the Wild Side, including the dual reception desk/bar and three custom benches. Janice Castro says he listened carefully to what the zoo wanted and fashioned beautiful pieces. “Gard absolutely glowed with pride in the pieces when he saw them in the gallery,” she says.
The gallery will showcase Art on the Wild Side, a rotating exhibit program focused on the inspiration, celebration and conservation of nature that will feature regional artists and the park’s permanent collection. The space debuted with Pete McBride’s photography from “Between River and Rim,” documenting his journey with author Kevin Fedarko hiking almost 800 miles along the Grand Canyon. The exhibit runs through September, and a portion of sales benefits the zoo.
The wildlife establishment will continue upgrading the gallery with more renovations, including removing an addition that covers the building’s original northeast windows. “That part of the gallery is now dark, but soon it will be flooded with light and provide a great view of the property’s Arizona Trail,” Janice Castro says.
Papp is amazed by the stunning transformation of the building where he and other chaperones overnighted decades ago with his daughters and their Girl Scout troop for a night camp. “We slept on the concrete floor and listened to lions roar and wolves howl all night,” he says. “As you can imagine, the 30-some kids were so excited, they didn’t get much sleep, and neither did I.”
Gallery benches: Gard Gardiner, Gardiner Custom Woodworking, Phoenix, gardinercustomwoodworking.com