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Wanderings: Tucson, Arizona

With abundant galleries, festivals and art classes, this city is a high-desert paradise for collectors and artists alike

Written by JoAnna Haugen  
February | March 2015


Once hailed as a “mini Mecca for the arts,” Tucson, Arizona, isn’t chic or polished, but it is flourishing with a style all its own. An arts enthusiast could spend days combing the galleries scattered throughout the city’s 11 districts, and with more than 215 arts groups in town and myriad hands-on activities, this high-desert city is an ideal place to seek out new pieces for a collection or to create an original piece to take home.

Much of Tucson’s artistic soul is sunk into the downtown area. Like much of the art found throughout the city, the Tucson Museum of Art places heavy emphasis on the landscape, people, experiences and artistic traditions in the West. The museum has a block of five historic houses, built from the mid-1850s to 1907, which contain many of the museum’s galleries. Some are open by appointment only or for publictours on specific days, so it’s worth calling ahead to get the most out of a visit. Café à la c’Art, located inside the courtyard of the museum, is a country-style café known for its delicious baked goods.

The Sonoran Glass School, also located in the downtown area, is considered one of the premier destinations for glass arts education events and experiences in the Desert Southwest. Guests can wander through the glass art gallery and check out the glassblowing studio. Taking a glassblowing, flame working or slumping class in one of the school’s studios offers a unique artistic dimension to any trip. Available year round, these classes are suited for every level of interest and ability, from the novice to the experienced glass artist. Also in this area is the Drawing Studio, which boasts a more diverse selection of classes ranging from basic drawing fundamentals and Abstract painting to printmaking. For more than 20 years expert instructors have helped aspiring artists and other creative types develop a personal artistic style and perfect specific techniques. Call the studio in advance of a trip to find out what one-day courses may be available.

After spending a few hours in the studio, satiate a growing appetite at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, an innovative farm-to-table dining experience from James Beard Award-winner Janos Wilder. Embracing local flavors and ingredients, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails offers outdoor seating and is open late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. An added bonus for art-inspired diners: The restaurant partners with a local art gallery to create a distinctive dining environment.

Though there are 35 art galleries in the downtown area, several others exist in the Santa Catalina Mountain Foothills. Highlights in this area’s Gallery Row include the Settlers West Gallery, which features antique and new American Indian art, textiles, baskets, jewelry and pottery. Another is Madaras Gallery, one of two galleries that feature the work of Southwest artist Diana Madaras, known for her paintings of the Southwest, desert landscapes, horses and floral scenes. In the same building, Wilde Meyer Gallery offers a sensory experience for collectors. The gallery shows remarkable contemporary and Western art amidst a space filled with chic Asian antiques. Stopping by for Tucson’s Gallery Row Artwalk, which takes place every Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m., is an excellent opportunity to see and experience the works of more than 100 renowned artists.

For anyone interested in Southwest art, the Medicine Man Gallery is a treasure trove. Founded by Dr. J. Mark Sublette, the Medicine Man Gallery specializes in the work of Western painter Maynard Dixon and San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez, and there is also an extensive collection of work by the Taos Society of Artists and early Santa Fe and Taos art colonies. The Tucson Maynard Dixon Museum is also housed here.

Throughout the year in Tucson, visitors can plan to attend a number of art-heavy festivals. During the Artisans Market, held in November and March at the Tucson Museum of Art, more than 100 Southwest artists converge to sell their work. Held in late March at the Arizona State Museum, the Southwest Indian Art Fair celebrates native dance, music and fashion alongside dozens of artists selling their work. And, among the highlights of the All Souls Procession, held each November, are the free classes in mask making, lantern creation and puppet making. The two-mile-long procession ends with the burning of a large urn filled with hopes and wishes for deceased loved ones.

After a long day exploring the city, check in to the Royal Elizabeth Bed and Breakfast Inn. This meticulously maintained 1878 adobe Victorian mansion embraces the colors and style of Southwestern culture. The outstanding gourmet breakfasts are loved by guests. A bit closer to the University of Arizona area is the Arizona Inn, which has won numerous awards over the years for providing a high level of personal service without being intrusive. While a number of high-end resorts exist on the outskirts of the city, Arizona Inn offers a luxury experience in the heart of Tucson.