Scottsdale Arizona is one of those cities that has lots of things to do for every type of person. But one thing it’s particularly exceptional in is art.
There are public art walks, museums, and galleries galore, and even the restaurants are creative!
Here is a list of things to do in Scottsdale for an art-lover, organized by different styles and movements of art!
I took Art History in college. I remember sitting in a big lecture room with a hundred other students going through slides and slides of paintings on the big screen while my Art History professor droned on. I honestly wasn’t interested in Art History (even though I did love to sketch and paint when I was a kid), I took the class to fulfill an easy requirement in my quest to get a degree in business. As I looked around the class with most people daydreaming or sleeping, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one there who was just looking to get the credits.
However, as I moved into my corporate career and matured in my taste as an adult, my interest in art was ignited. I found myself getting memberships to museums when I lived in San Francisco and NYC. And I also found myself wishing I had paid more attention to my Art History professor.
I often think I would’ve gotten more out of college if I had experienced more of the world first. I have a feeling I’m not alone in this thought – right? Instead, I sped through credits just to get my degree, and get out into the world making money and spending money. Then 10 years later I was actually interested in things like history, languages, and art.
Now when I travel to cities, I love to immerse myself in the art scene, and often try to do a few stops in a local museum, see a show, or admire the public sculptures. Scottsdale is not only the perfect place to go for a winter getaway, but it’s also bursting with diverse art culture.
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About Scottsdale, Arizona – There’s Something For Everyone
The Scottsdale-Phoenix-Tempe triangle has always been confusing to me; are they the same city, or are they suburbs? In actuality, Tempe and Scottsdale are part of the greater Phoenix area; but they are separate cities. Scottsdale became a city in 1951. This long strip of land 12 by 36 miles is full of open spaces despite its population of 250,000.
Few cities offer the spectrum of things to do ranging from bull riding to fine art to adventure travel to facials, but Scottsdale has many different personalities – there’s something for everyone.
This was my first visit to Scottsdale, so I decided to focus on one theme for my visit since there were so many options – the art scene!
Scottsdale is a center for art in the United States, not far behind cities like NYC and Santa Fe. It’s home to more than 125 professional art galleries and studios, one of the highest per capita anywhere in the nation.
There’s art everywhere in Scottsdale. There are over 100 pieces of public art. The public art program was established in 1985 and ensured that every commercial development designates 1% percent that has to go to public art. That’s how Scottsdale has successfully built up its Public Art pieces.
Things to Do in Scottsdale (Through the Lens of Different Art Styles)
In a nod to my Art History Professor to whom I didn’t give my full attention, I decided to look at these things to do in Scottsdale through the lens of various art styles.
Some were easy – like the Scottsdale Contemporary Museum. However, others were challenging; how do you look at a restaurant and its food through an art movement? Overall, it was a fun way to look at this uber-creative city, and get a dose of art history at the same time!
Sculpture and Public Art: Scottsdale’s Art Walk
Although Public Art isn’t an art form itself, it is something that you will see an abundance of in Scottsdale thanks to the City Arts Program. According to the Association for Public Art it can be abstract or realistic, and it may be cast, carved, built, assembled, or painted. What distinguishes public art is the unique association of how it is made, where it is, and what it means.
You can see Scottsdale’s 10 most celebrated public artworks in a 60-minute walk that will take you through the heart of Old Town Scottsdale. I set out on the self-guided walking tour with the assistance of a map provided by Experience Scottsdale.
The 10 pieces were all very different; western, modern, contemporary, and interactive. As I strolled through the Old Town admiring the different sculptures, it brought back memories of art I had seen in other places in the world. The “Bronze Horse Fountain” by Bob Parks reminded me of the fountains in the piazzas in Italy, but with a western feel. And I adored “The Doors” by Donald Lipski where you feel like you are inside a human kaleidoscope. Not only was the art great, but it was a super way to see the city.
How you can do the Scottsdale Art Walk
Put on your walking shoes and do the self guided tour by printing out the walking tour map here.
However, if you don’t feel like walking to these different art sculptures and would also like a little commentary on the town as well as the art, then book a tour with Captain Kirk and his pimped-out golf cart. JoyRides AZ is a fun and informative way to get around Old Town and get a lay of the land. Kirk picked us up and showed us around town, entertaining us the whole time. Plus, everyone in town seemed to know him, saying hello as we drove by in our golf cart! “I’m the self-proclaimed mayor of Scottsdale,” Kirk said with a smile.
Impressionism: Diego Pops Restaurant
Now I’m really going to put my art history to work…have you ever thought about a restaurant through the eyes of art history? I felt a dose of Impressionism as I had a colorful contemporary lunch at the open-air restaurant Diego Pops.
Impressionism is normally full of vivid colors and open compositions to capture the emotion of light and movement.
Diego Pops is an eclectic restaurant offering mainly Mexican cuisine. However, as I looked through the menu, I realized this wasn’t your typical Mexican restaurant. They expressed their individualism by rejecting the rigid rules of traditional nachos; Diego Pops created brussel sprout nachos. They also made grilled street corn with hot Cheeto dust! These unique and colorful combinations were not only fun but delicious! And if you are going to go all out, and give a nod to the Impressionistic art of Woman with a Parasol and get an umbrella drink!
Installation Art: Wonderspaces Museum
It seems like everywhere I go in the world the popularity of installation art is growing. The three-dimensional construction of Installation Art plays with space to interactively engage viewers. From Meow Wolf in New Mexico to Team Lab in Tokyo to Wonderspaces in Scottsdale – this art is definitely engaging. Sometimes I like to call it Instagram Art since it seems like the whole point of it is to photograph it and put it up on Instagram!
I make fun of ‘Insta-art’ – but in reality, I love this art. These new interactive museums like Wonderspaces in Scottsdale are full of thought-provoking and active exhibits. However, one of the strangest things about Wonderspaces is that you had to go through a large mall to get to the museum constructed in an old movie theater!
However once there, you can check your coat and bag, get a drink from the bar and head off on your interactive art journey.
There are about 13 different ‘rooms’ with various installations. I loved the Confessions exhibit which allowed you to participate and create the art yourself. Inspired by Japanese Shinto shrine prayer walls and Catholic confession booths, artist Candy Chang invites visitors to write and submit a confession on a wooden plaque in the privacy of a confession booth. Then at some point later the confession plaque is hung on a big wall. I could’ve stayed in that room and read the confessions for hours! I even took the time to add one of my own.
I also enjoyed the On a Human Scale installation. It was made up of videos of people singing one note. Each note was mapped to a piano in the room. Anyone could play the piano and also see their notes/song come to life in the video notes. It was an interesting way to immerse yourself in music.
I was excited to move from room to room wondering what intriguing thing I would encounter next! If you like the interactive art scene, then definitely put this on your list of things to do in Scottsdale!
And, you’ll also get some great Instagram images out of your visit!
Contemporary Art: Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)
As the only museum dedicated to contemporary art in Arizona, I was excited to check out SMoCA. I’ve always been a fan of Contemporary Art; the dynamic art and ideas of our time exploring the possibilities of innovation, creativity, and expression. I like it because it creates a reaction in me. Often it is one of confusion, or it’s a puzzle to try to understand, and sometimes it’s a reaction of anger at the thought that ‘this’ is art. I think any art that creates a reaction in the viewer is effective.
At the time of my visit, the museum had a performance art exhibition which was pretty interesting. In addition, I fell in love with a few of the permanent works such as the Knight Rise – a hole in the ceiling of the outdoor garden which makes the sky the work of art. It was simple, yet it was a way to see the sky in a different perspective. In fact, this public art is free to visit at any time, you don’t have to go into the museum to see it.
I also fell in love with the painting done by a tango dancer with her tango shoes as the paintbrush. The painting was interesting, but it was the making of the painting (the creation was filmed and the video plays in the museum) that really grabbed my attention. It challenged the idea of what a paintbrush is.
SMoCA is actually part of the public art walk mentioned above, so you can visit as a part of that walk, or take more time and spend an afternoon there.
Mid-Century Modern Art and Design: Hotel Valley Ho
Named “one of the best-preserved mid-century hotels in the country” by author and architect Alan Hess, Hotel Valley Ho is an artistic icon in Old Town Scottsdale.
Opened in 1956, the hotel quickly became a hideaway for Hollywood celebrities like Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Zsa Zsa Gabor in the 50s and 60s. I was told it was popular for the Hollywood celebrities of the day because the paparazzi didn’t follow them all the way to Scottsdale – so there was a sense of peace there.
Mid Century Modern Art broadly describes the architecture, furniture, and graphic design from the middle of the 20th century characterized especially by clean lines, and organic and streamlined forms with pops of color. The looks were futuristic, but they weren’t a total departure from the past. Or you can just describe it as I do – it’s the TV show Mad Men.
As soon as I walked into the lobby of Valley Ho I was transported into the late 50s. Since it was December when I visited, the center of attention in the big open room was a blue aluminum Christmas tree! The fire was burning in a futuristic yet vintage-looking Malm fireplace in front of a stone wall that screamed mid-century.
As I opened my door to the tower suite I felt as if I had just walked back in time – a picture-perfect mid-century modern apartment that Don and Betty Draper would have been proud to be in. The bright yellow kitchen walls welcomed me along with a martini shaker and bar tray on the kitchen island. The low, sleek couch was framed with beautiful dome lamps and looked out onto a large patio overlooking the pool. I walked around marveling at every little detail of the design, elated with the homage to this brilliant art movement!
I was there to see and experience Scottsdale, but I sort of wanted to hole up in my Valley Ho Suite all day and soak in the vibes of a bygone era.
In addition to the trippy mid-century lobby, there was also a beautifully designed restaurant, ZuZu, with classic cocktails and delicious food with more immersive mid-century décor.
Stay at Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale
Baroque-Esque Art: Coach House Bar
Baroque Art is known for its extravagance and opulence. You might not think that a local dive bar could fit this art form, but during the holiday season, it most certainly does. Coach House bar during the holidays is an art spectacle. There’s no way you can miss it as this indoor/outdoor bar in Old Town is lit up with 65,000 Christmas lights! Nothing says extravagance like the tavern motto “Too much is just right”.
I stopped in at Coach House Tavern to see this glowing Baroque-Esque opulence in person – and to get a beer. It’s Scottsdale’s oldest bar, established in 1959. Every inch of the interior (and exterior!) was covered in lights and tinsel. I quickly decided I should locate the exits in case of fire! I asked the bartender how long it took to put up all of the lights.
“Twelve days,” he answered, “and our monthly electric bill skyrockets to $1500!” he quickly added.
The lights go up as early as November – so make sure you stop in and have a drink to help them pay their electric bill!
American Arts & Crafts and Art Deco: Taliesin West and Frank Lloyd Wright
If you want to get a look at the American Arts and Crafts style considered the precursor to Art Deco, then Scottsdale has the most famous example of it in Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.
Wright was a contributor to the American Arts and Crafts style. His designs were uniquely his own, often shaped by Japanese aesthetics, which stressed the interrelationship of landscape and architecture. He was known for designing buildings inspired by the desert and landscape. One of the best examples of that is Taliesin West, his remote summer home in Scottsdale.
We stood outside Taliesin West as our tour guide explained Wright’s design aesthetic of straight lines and geometric patterns which is characteristic of the Art Deco style. He and his apprentices built the entire home and additional buildings using and honoring material in the desert. He felt it was important to blend into the desert landscape.
Once inside the house, we were able to see his drawing room and his use of open spaces which he was famous for. Frank Lloyd Wright was an interesting character, and the tour was a great way to learn more about him and the influence he had on American architecture and art.
Tour Taliesin West in Scottsdale
Taliesin West is open to the public and offers a broad range of tours. Reservations strongly recommended.
Offered Mon-Thurs from 9 am – 3:45 pm duration 90 minutes PRICE: $35 adults, $25 students (13-25 with student ID), $19 youth (6-12). Fri/Sat/Sun: $40 GA, $30 students (13-25 with student ID), $19 youth (6-12). Members are free. There are also more indepth tours offered at various times. You can learn more here.
Collage Art: Postino Restaurant
Located in a 1940s brick post office, Postino restaurant infused its love of pop art and delicious boards of bruschetta into this old institution. The food and wine are enough to make you visit Postino, but I also fell in love with the collage of matchbooks that lined an entire wall.
Collage art was formed out of Cubism and includes the piecing together of a picture out of dissimilar objects. While the entire wall was filled with matchbooks, they were all from different places all over the world.
The ceiling-to-floor matchbook collage was fascinating to study! I had to go get a close-up view of all of these matchboxes. I was told that Postino bought the entire matchbook collection from a local man and made the collage. It reminded me of when I was a kid and had a paper napkin collection. Maybe I should have held onto it!
In addition to the collage art, Postino Highland is also a great place to go to see the mid-century modern decor. It is housed in a mid-century modern bank (former Valley National Bank branch) designed by famed Drover, Welch, and Lindlan architect, Frank Henry. Henry, the architect, apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright.
Surrealism: Cosanti Galleries
It is said that Surrealists often challenged perceptions and reality in their artwork; they are unconventional at the core. You can get a dose of Surrealism by visiting Cosanti Galleries, the original studio of Paolo Soleri, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Paolo spent his life challenging perceptions of architecture and design at his home and gallery in Scottsdale.
Italian-born architect Paolo spent his entire career pursuing a more utopian cityscape that was environmentally accountable. Through an ‘earth casting’ technique he created his own little utopia built into the earth using a unique building method. This urban laboratory has been under construction since its inception 50 years ago.
When we walked into Cosanti there were people working on building another structure. I guess it is indeed a slow process! As I walked around the dirt structures I was amazed at his vision. The structures can be viewed through a tour and you also get access to the gallery.
Gallery of what you ask? A gallery of bronze bells. Paolo realized he could prototype aspects of large buildings on a smaller scale with bells. This then turned into creating and selling bronze bells to help fund his foundation and projects. These Soleri wind bells have become a sought-after item for homes and gardens around the world.
50,000 bells are created every year on the grounds of Cosanti. In fact, you can even watch the bronze casting process on weekday mornings at Cosanti’s foundry. We arrived just in time for a tour and for watching the molten bronze being heated and poured into molds – a nail-biting experience!
I hadn’t heard of Soleri prior to this visit, but he will be forever burned in my brain as the bell man… and a dreamer.
Tour Cosanti in Scottsdale
You can tour Cosanti and and learn more about Paolo’s surreal artistic vision.
Cosanti is open for visitors 7 days a week: Mon.-Sat. 9AM-5PM & Sun. 11AM-5PM. (Closed major holidays.) Free admission.
Renaissance: Citizen Public House Restaurant
The Renaissance period was a time of cultural, artistic, political, and economic rebirth following the Middle Ages. In the art world, artists used their talents to express big, new, bold ideas; they were often thought of as geniuses.
So when I heard about the Original Chopped Salad at the Citizen Public House Restaurant in Scottsdale I knew this was the work of a genius! The salad’s Facebook page (yes, it has its own Facebook page) does claim this chopped salad as the original and it has made Public House famous in Scottsdale. Made of corn, couscous, smoked salmon, asiago, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, arugula, and currants and all dressed up in a sassy buttermilk pesto dressing. This may seem like some strange combo of ingredients – but it tastes incredible! It has achieved fame and notoriety taking its place in the great debates of ‘who is the original’ food history.
But it’s not just about the original chopped salad, the whole menu at Citizen Public House is a ‘rebirth’ of the classic American pub-style food with a kick in the ass. Like the heirloom popcorn popped in bacon fat. It’s no wonder that Citizen Public House was named one of the top 10 restaurants in Scottsdale by USA Today in 2016.
Hopefully, I’ve been able to capture your attention in my Scottsdale Art History lesson. I can’t give you college credits, but I can ensure if you try experiencing Scottsdale through the lens of art, you’ll definitely have a great time.
Have you ever been to Scottsdale and visited the art scene there? What was your favorite (and what art movement would you categorize it as)? Let me know in the comments!
I was a guest of Experience Scottsdale during this trip, but all opinions expressed here are my own!