Tucson: An Artist's Paradise
Sonoran Desert Offers an Aesthetic that has Attracted Artists for Decades
Maybe it’s the quality of the light – the way it blankets the Tucson valley in golden hues at sunrise and sunset or filters through a cloud in long, finger-like beams after a monsoon. Maybe it’s the Sonoran Desert landscapes – the way they appear stark in the dead of summer, yet lush in late spring as yellow, magenta, white, and orange wildflowers blanket the ground. Maybe it’s the mountains – the way they rise up all around you, infinitely tall, casting lengthy shadows and continuously drawing you back to their asymmetric, yet unbelievably magnificent facades. Whatever it is, Tucson has long been a source of inspiration for creatives. Described as a “mini mecca for the arts” by the Wall Street Journal, the Southern Arizona enclave’s artists celebrate the quality of light, rich Native American and Mexican culture, and otherworldly landscapes. Their collective creativity is effortlessly splashed around the city – through public art displays, and in galleries and museums – and features an aesthetic that is exclusive to Tucson.
Start your artistic journey of Tucson at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, the ongoing gallery and once-home of Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia. Constructed by DeGrazia himself in the traditional adobe style with abundant skylights and cactus floors throughout, the gallery is home to six permanent exhibits and several smaller, rotating ones that feature DeGrazia’s signature works. DeGrazia’s fascination with the Sonoran Desert and its indigenous inhabitants – the Tohono O’Odham and Pascua Yaqui – is well documented in his expressionist paintings, which range from the Native American people’s creation stories to the Spaniard missionaries’ arrival and establishment of Mission San Xavier del Bac. Adjacent to the gallery is the Mission in the Sun, also built by DeGrazia in honor of Padre Kino, the first Spanish missionary to arrive in Tucson. DeGrazia’s once vibrant murals in the Mission were partially destroyed in a 2017 fire, yet the site remains a sacred space for many Tucson locals, who adorn it with hallowed relics.
In Tucson’s Downtown district visit Blue Lotus Artists’ Collective, a non-profit gallery in downtown Tucson that celebrates Black artists, newly opened in 2023. in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood, stop by Etherton Gallery, a Tucson photography institution since 1981. Their exhibitions highlight some of the most prominent figures in the world of photography, including the work of prolific photojournalists like Steve McCurry, best known for his National Geographic Afghan Girl cover photo. Around the corner, visit Philabaum Glass Gallery & Studio, the only all-glass gallery in Southern Arizona, featuring the work of Tucsonan Tom Philabaum, who previously owned the studio, and more than 50 other nationally recognized glass artists. Not to be overlooked is Madaras Gallery, featuring the works of Diana Madaras, who has built a well-earned reputation as one of Tucson’s most celebrated artists. Her vibrant paintings showcase distinct Sonoran Desert landscapes and can be found not only in her gallery, but on the walls of hotels and attractions throughout the city. To view distinct artwork of every medium, look no further than Desert Artisans Gallery, a juried gallery that features the work of 60 premier artists in Southern Arizona, with displays ranging from clay, glass, jewelry, and paintings to photography and wood.
Though he never lived in Tucson, world renowned photographer Ansel Adams was resolute in archiving his photography collection here. In 1975, The Center for Creative Photography opened at the University of Arizona following a meeting with Adams and the then-university president. While the center initially only featured the archives of five renowned photographers, today it has grown to include 270 archival collections and more than 8 million archival objects, including negatives, work prints, albums and correspondence. Among the notable photographers who have entrusted their archives to the Center: W. Eugene Smith, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Edward Weston, and Garry Winogrand.
Just down the street is The University of Arizona Museum of Art, home to seven permanent collections and several rotating exhibits. One of the most cherished works is the $130 million Woman-Ochre painting by renowned impressionist artist William de Kooning, which was stolen from the museum in 1985. Just a few years ago, the painting was found in the bedroom of a deceased New Mexico couple, badly damaged from when it was cut from its original frame. In October 2022, 37 years after its theft from the University of Arizona Museum of Art and five years after being recovered, the famous painting – now expertly restored by the Getty – returned to its rightful home.
Other notable museums include the Tucson Museum of Art, celebrating its centennial in 2024 and featuring western, Latin American, and modern and contemporary art exhibitions, plus five historic houses that provide visitors with a unique look into Tucson’s past; The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, with a collection of more than 500 smaller-than-life antique and contemporary dollhouses and rooms; the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (MOCA), Tucson’s only museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art from around the globe.
As Tucson continues to revive its downtown corridor, it’s difficult to ignore the multi-story high murals that have cropped up on the sides of historic buildings over the past decade. Largely funded by the City of Tucson, there are now more than 60 colorful murals in and around downtown. These murals, created by celebrated Tucson artists such as Jessica Gonzales and Joe Pagac, read like a book of Tucson’s history and speak to the destination’s unique Sonoran Desert setting. For an in-depth look at the murals and insight into the artists behind them, the Tucson Presidio Museum offers a guided tour of public art and murals in some of downtown’s most distinct neighborhoods. Another option is to take a recorded audio tour with Pedego Electric Bikes. Narrated by aforementioned muralist Pagac, the GPS tour starts at the Pedego store in the Catalina Foothills and follows 42 unique “pins,” including 15 of Pagac’s murals.
It’s not just Tucson’s museums and galleries that showcase the imaginative spirit of the city. Continue your creative journey at a hotel where Tucson’s artistic expression is on full display.
Book a stay at Hotel McCoy Tucson, a 1960s era roadside inn that has been reimagined as a mid-century art hotel. Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted by a larger-than-life rainbow mural with the words “Tucson is Magic” adorning the archway you drive under to park. The lobby and rooms are also chockfull of artwork from local artists – all available for purchase with proceeds going entirely to the artist. Just down the street is The Tuxon, another mid-century hotel that reopened after undergoing an extensive reinvention and rebranding. Historic photos line the walls of the lobby, while the exterior of the building showcases a “Howdy Tucson” mural, as well as two originals from the aforementioned muralist Jessica Gonzales.
Located in Tucson’s scenic Catalina Foothills, the historic Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, a one-time boarding school for girls, is also home to a multi-million dollar art collection. The resort boasts more than 100 sculptures, paintings, pottery, photography, and tile-work – all thoughtfully and subtly placed to accentuate the property’s idyllic desert surroundings. If you visit twice, don’t be surprised to find your favorite pieces in a different place. The property’s owner rotates pieces to keep the collection fresh and inspiring for its regulars.
If Tucson’s creative spirit empowers you to craft a personalized piece, you’ll be pleased to discover there are a plethora of art-focused workshops at your fingertips.
Most people think of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as a world-class museum without walls, dedicated to preserving the wildlife and ecosystems found in the Sonoran Desert. It is all that, and more. The museum is home to the Art Institute, where you can view exhibitions at the Ironwood and Baldwin galleries or take an art and photography class that serves the dual purpose of furthering your skills as a mosaic maker, landscape painter, or mixed media artist, while also fostering your love of the Sonoran Desert. And if you can’t make an in-person event, the Art Institute is now offering online classes to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home.
Tucson’s two botanical gardens – Tohono Chul and Tucson Botanical Gardens – illustrate how verdant the Sonoran Desert, the most diverse desert in the world, truly is. Their education of native flora and fauna extend beyond their shaded walkways and into the classroom, with both offering artistic workshops. At Tohono Chul, craft a floral barrette from sequins - the perfect accessory for a quinceañera - or create a cactus of life (this concept is derived from the tree of life) with wire, papier-mâché, paper clay, and acrylic paint. Continue your creative journey at Tucson Botanical Gardens, where you’ll learn to paint watercolor on a most unusual palette: fabric, create collages of fiber landscapes, and practice beginner pen and ink techniques while sketching botanicals.
And it’s not just attractions that offer arts courses. The Drawing Studio, Romero House Potters and Blue Raven Art School are three Tucson-based businesses featuring classes ranging from calligraphy and basket weaving to book and jewelry making. No matter your choice, you’ll leave Tucson feeling invigorated and inspired – with a memento of your making.