Tucson is an art town, no question about it. Artists are attracted not only by the famous southwestern light and the glories of desert and mountains but by the funky, retro downtown and the warehouses that once served cargo trains when the railroads reigned. Here’s a short sampling of Tucson galleries and museums, but keep your eyes peeled for the many other venues serving up painting, photography, glass and the many other media that thrive under the desert sun.
135 S. Sixth Ave.
Nationally known for its superb photography exhibitions, Etherton mounts shows of modern-day and classic photographers alike. You might find Danny Lyon’s break-your-heart Texas prison photos, Mark Klett’s brilliant landscapes, grounded in the history of the West, or Kate Breakey’s gorgeous painted photos of desert birds. Etherton also showcases provocative contemporary painters, including Bailey Doogan, Jim Waid and the late Nancy Tokar Miller, along with up-and-coming young Tucson artists. Housed in the historic Odd Fellows Hall downtown, the gallery also has fine offerings of Mata Ortiz pottery from Mexico and deals in historic photos by the likes of Edward S. Curtis. Named best gallery in the Best of Tucson competition for 18 years running, the gallery has been operating since 1981.
154 E. Sixth St.
Located in a cool warehouse in the gallery-thick district around Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue, this longtime gallery, founded in 1976, delivers up a wide range of contemporary Southwest landscape painters. Many artists in the Davis Dominguez stable hail from the artist colony at Rancho Linda Vista (Ranch of the Beautiful View) in Oracle, an hour north of Tucson, where they’re inspired by the Sonoran Desert and the Catalina Mountains alike. The gallery also has a special emphasis in sculpture. Ceramic sculptor Joy Fox, a gallery regular, makes large figures, half-human, half-desert animal, etched with petroglyphs and then blackened and burned. Skilled colorist Claire Campbell Park makes gorgeous tapestries that are like paintings in thread. Painter Alfred Quiroz delivers acid political commentary in large-scale history paintings. An annual spring miniature show, “Small Things Considered,” has Tucson’s favorite contemporary artists downsizing and making delightful tiny works in their signature styles.
711 S. Sixth Ave.
Master glass artist Tom Philabaum displays his glistening wares in a gallery located in the happening neighborhood of Five Points, just south of downtown. Philabaum can make glass do anything he wants: he shapes it into vertical “rock” sculptures, into painted vases and into mixed-media abstractions that combine metal and glass. An indefatigable champion of the art form, Philabaum invites leading glass artists from across the nation to exhibit in the gallery. He and his glass-blasting team also do production work, making lines of drinking glasses, paperweights and holiday ornaments. Visitors to the shimmering space can peer through a window – of glass, natch – to watch the glassmakers at work, pushing molten glass into the glory hole furnace.
140 N. Main Ave.
This up- and-coming regional museum occupies a whole city block; the main building, in a 1960s brutalist style, stands harmoniously alongside a collection of historic buildings arranged around a lovely patio. (The patio also has a restaurant, Café a la C’Art.) TMA hosts a wide array of regularly changing exhibitions by noted artists. Chief curator Dr. Julie Sasse snagged a show by Ai Weiwei, the internationally known Chinese artist-activist, and has put together other exhibitions charting everything from the rise of contemporary string art to the new emphasis on the “nocturne” in art--sensuous nighttime works in paint and print. An every-other-year juried Arizona Biennial charts trends in the state. Outstanding permanent collections include The Art of Latin America, which starts with pre-Columbian antiquities dating to 500 B.C., on up through Spanish colonial art and into the quirky folk art of today. The Art of the American West features paintings and sculpture depicting the landscape and peoples of the West, by such notables as the late Native American artist Fritz Scholder and painters Ed Mell and Maynard Dixon.
Center for Creative Photography
1030 N. Olive Rd., University of Arizona campus
Step into this treasure house and you might find yourself not only looking at Ansel Adams’ luminous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” but reading his hand-written diary to learn how he happened to make this famous image one afternoon in 1941. Now celebrating its 40th season, the center was founded in 1975 with the complete archives of five photographic eminences: Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer. Since then, the center has grown like Topsy, and now houses the archives of 239 masters, from Lola Alvarez Bravo to Edward Weston. It owns some 90,000 photographs by 2200 photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries. From the beginning the center has collected photographers’ letters, diaries and even cameras, along with their photos. Nestled within the University of Arizona, the center is many things: a museum with changing exhibitions drawn from its own collections, a major research center and a teaching resource for UA students.
1031 N. Olive Rd., University of Arizona campus
The Altarpiece of Ciudad Rodrigo, a 15th century Spanish suite of 26 jewel-like paintings depicting the life of Christ, is probably not what visitors expect to find in a university art museum in the desert Southwest. But the lavish Early Renaissance works, carefully restored and permanently on display, are not the only unexpected works here. UAMA has a solid collection of contemporary masters, including paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, a roomful of sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz, and dozens of etchings made by Depression-era printmakers paid by the Works Project Administration. Changing exhibitions draw on the collections, showcase well-known local and regional artists, and honor the work of University of Arizona art professors and graduate students. The museum faces the Center for Creative Photography, making it easy to visit both on the same day.
Baker + Hesseldenz Fine Art
100 E. Sixth St, Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building
For in-your-face, up-to-the-minute, pop-surrealist art, this gallery is the ticket. Visitors might find floating skulls in Francois Robert’s photos or half-human, half-animal Hieronymus Bosch-like figures in Hannah Yatta’s paintings. The gallery, mostly focusing on experimental artists working in Los Angeles’ hot contemporary scene, is run by a pair of ambitious interior designers, Mary Ann Hesseldenz, and Scott Baker, a celebrated contemporary furniture designer and builder. In 2014, the husband-and-wife team added a gallery in the front of their design studio, pledging to mount changing exhibitions of art that complements their ultramodern home designs. The studio is in a warehouse that also houses several other galleries, including Wee, Contreras and Davis Dominguez.
6872 E. Sunrise Dr., Suite 130
(520) 722-7798; (800) 422-9382
This combo gallery and museum-within-a gallery offers carefully curated offerings in the art of the West. Antique Navajo weavings, Hopi kachinas, ceramics by the famed San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez and other Native American artworks share space with paintings by Western landscape artists. One of the best known is Ed Mell, a landscape painter whose works straddle the boundary between traditional and contemporary. The museum is dedicated to Maynard Dixon (1875 to 1946), a lauded artist who roamed the West doing illustrations for magazines; he worked in pen and ink, watercolors, pastels and oils. Dixon lived for years in Tucson, and recorded the beauties of the Catalina Mountains in oil on canvas. The downtown restaurant Maynard’s was named in his honor.
Raices Taller 222 Workshop & Studio
218 E Sixth St
Raices is an artists’ cooperative specializing in Latino artists and Latino subjects, but all comers are welcome. Occupying a small storefront walled off from the Santa Theresa tile-making workshop in the artsy neighborhood near Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue, Raices regularly issues open calls to artists for its theme shows. The resulting exhibitions round up everything from lovely Mexican-focused paintings by David Tineo, a revered local painter who’s been honored in a one-person show at the Tucson Museum of Art, to first time works by first-time artists. Wide variety of media is the rule, with Sherrie Posternak making mixed-media feminist collages out of women’s clothing and Maya Holzman making color photos of Mexican-American life. The gallery’s openings are among the best in town, with good munchies, readings by local authors and performances by dancers and singers.
265 S Church Ave
MOCA-Tucson may just be the only museum in the United States located in a former firehouse. The bold modernist design lends itself perfectly to the cutting-edge art this scrappy institution serves up. The “Great Hall,” once a garage for fire engines, has been the setting for a gigantic mountain-scape made by artist Alois Kronschlaeger out of 2 x 4 lumber and netting; his angular art mountains aped the real-life Catalinas that you can see out the all-glass garage doors. The concrete-and-glass space has also been a good fit for monumental non-paintings on metal by Max Estenger, who also built a life-size subway toll booth the exact size of the one he uses in Brooklyn. The warren of former offices at the east end of the building make for an intimate space to showcase small works and films. Nicole Miller, for one, has shown innovative videos documenting African-American life in Los Angeles as well as the life and death of two schools in Tucson. Besides a roster of changing exhibitions, MOCA also hosts art talks and poetry readings.
Conrad Wilde Gallery
101 W Sixth St, Steinfeld Warehouse
Artist Miles Conrad has been fighting the good fight for cutting-edge contemporary art for a dozen years in Tucson, in a variety of locations. Right now his gallery is in an elegant space carved out of the sprawling Steinfeld Warehouse. He champions innovative abstract artists who work in a variety of unexpected materials: PVC piping, burnt newspapers, cloth, thread, iron and even toilet paper. The art at Wilde may be wild, but Conrad, a gifted painter of waxy encaustics, insists on a high level of craft and care in every piece he exhibits. He stages an annual encaustics invitational and frequently hosts poetry readings.