Arts and Culture in Arizona
Now greater than that of Philadelphia, the population of Phoenix barely topped 100,000 60 years ago. Despite its beautiful natural setting, the city’s summer heat and great distance from other major urban centers limited its appeal. But the advent of cheap energy and air conditioning turned Phoenix, as well as its southern neighbor, Tucson, into a magnet for people with allergies, asthma or an aversion to the crowded, muggy cities of the East.
Of course those immigrants brought with them a taste for the arts, and over the years both metro areas, as well as other cities around the state, have developed a vibrant cultural scene that includes theater companies, ballet, opera, symphony orchestras, art galleries, museums, and major festivals dedicated to the arts.
With more recent immigration the state has taken on a distinctively Hispanic flavor, bringing robust elements of Mexican visual art and music to the state’s cultural scene. But predating both the American and Mexican migrations to Arizona by thousands of years, the arrival of Native Americans—including groups that would later become the Navajos, Hopis, and Apaches—marked the beginning of an artistic tradition that has come down through the centuries in the form of sand painting, jewelry, and textiles. To this day, Native Americans influence the look and feel of almost all Arizona art.
Symphonic music is thriving in Arizona. The state’s two biggest symphony orchestras, the Phoenix Symphony and the Tucson Symphony (the oldest in the state), are complimented by several smaller symphonies, including the Arizona Symphony Orchestra of the University of Arizona, the Mesa Symphony Orchestra, the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, the Chandler Symphony Orchestra, the Tempe Symphony Orchestra, and the Scottsdale Symphony Orchestra. Overall, a spirit of voluntarism marks the state’s symphonic scene. Among all the state’s orchestras, only the Phoenix Symphony is a full-time professional organization with the resources to produce an extended season.
One of the state’s most important cultural institutions, Phoenix-based Ballet Arizona was created in 1986 when arts patron Allen Rosenberg persuaded three struggling young ballet companies to merge. Today, the company is considered, as the Arizona Republic newspaper recently said, "probably the most consistently excellent arts organization in the state." In 2004 Ballet Arizona took a big step toward assuring its future when the Arizona Ballet School merged with the company. The re-christened School of Ballet Arizona is now the region’s most prestigious school of its kind.
Ballet Yuma has positioned itself as a "pre-professional" ballet company that acts as an academy for aspiring dancers and presents a series of exhibition dances designed to hone students’ skills while giving them exposure to an appreciative public and representatives of major U.S. and international ballet companies.
The state has several other schools devoted to teaching dance. The School of Dance at the University of Arizona in Tucson offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in ballet, modern and jazz dance. In Cave Creek, a Phoenix suburb, the non-profit AZDance Group teaches ballet, jazz and modern dance techniques to people of all ages. Its distinctive MEM program ("Movement E-Motion") is an outreach to people aged 13 and older who have autism, Down syndrome or other challenging conditions.
Arizona Opera, originally the Tucson Opera Company, began in 1971. Within five years it was playing regularly to audiences in both Tucson and Phoenix, and began dividing its time and resources between the two cities—a practice that continues to this day. A large feather in the company’s cap is its twice-successful completion of Wagner’s formidable Ring Cycle, a feat matched by only four other North American opera companies. In 2000, the company created the Arizona Opera Orchestra, with professional musicians drawn from the state’s major symphonies and universities.
Arizona has more than 90 museums, focusing on everything from aviation, police memorabilia, and children to American Indians, cowboys, and science. Thirteen museums are devoted to the fine arts, each with its own distinctive focus. The Phoenix metro area has the Heard Museum (American Indian culture), the Phoenix Art Museum (global art), the Fleischer Museum of American and Russian Impressionism, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arizona State University Art Museum (regional, contemporary, and the Americas), and the West Valley Art Museum (ethnic dress and textiles).
Tucson boasts three major museums, the Tucson Museum of Art (western, Latin American, and contemporary), the University of Arizona Museum of Art (European and American paintings and visual arts), and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Flagstaff is home to two important regional museums, the Museum of Northern Arizona (historic and prehistoric American Indian art and artifacts) and the Northern Arizona University Art Museum (lithographs paintings and etchings).
Prescott’s Phippen Art Museum (western and American Indian art) and Wickenburg’s Desert Caballeros Western Museum round up the state’s top fine arts museums. In early 2001, the latter museum paid tribute to the state’s 20th-century women artists with its landmark exhibition, "In Celebration: A Century of Arizona Women Artists." The exhibit took an in-depth look at paintings, sculptures and photographs produced by more than 50 artists. It was the first show of its kind in state history.
The state has given country and western music some of its most memorable singers, including Rex Allen ("The Arizona Cowboy"), Marty Robbins, Tanya Tucker, and three Country Music Hall of Famers, Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings (although the latter was Texas-born, he spent much of his formative career in Phoenix).
In rock music, Arizona has given the world Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac’s lead female vocalist, and the seminal shock rocker Alice Cooper. Other rockers include guitar maestro Duane Eddy and Megadeth co-founders David Ellefson and Dave Mustaine. Pop notables include Jordin Sparks, winner of the 2007 American Idol competition, and singer/songwriter Michelle Branch. From the world of "lounge," Arizona native Wayne Newton dominated Las Vegas in the 1980s as the city’s biggest singing act, paving the way for later mega-star acts like Celine Dion.
Linda Ronstadt, a Tucson native, burst on the pop scene in 1967 as the plaintive lead singer on the Stone Poneys’ only hit single, "Different Drum." Ronstadt went on to several decades of success as she explored a gamut of genres. She returned to her Mexican-American roots in the landmark album,Canciones de Mi Padre, tried torch songs on for size (her version of "What’s New" introduced a new generation to jazz’s ability to render heartache and longing as poignantly as the most earnest aria), sang country and "roots" music, and made duets with an impressive array of vocalists, including Billy Eckstine, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Frank Sinatra—and even Homer Simpson and Kermit the Frog.
With 30 percent of its population now of Hispanic origin, Arizona has become a major center for several kinds of Mexican music, including banda (a brass-based, polka-esque genre), corridos (a ballad form), mariachi (string ensembles) and conjunto (small bands often playing norteño or Tejano music).
Arizona’s most famous jazz musician was Charles Mingus (1922–1979), one of the best bassists ever to play in the genre. Mingus was a complex man, not only a player but also a bandleader, who impressed his peers with his masterful improvisational abilities. "The Angry Man of Jazz" was also heavily involved in the black struggle for civil rights
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
Founded in Tucson in 1967 and now dividing its seasons between Tucson and Phoenix, the Arizona Theatre Company is the largest theatrical troupe in the state. ATC usually offers five major productions each year, ranging from such traditional plays as The Glass Menagerie, to more contemporary plays, like The Kite Runner, to original offerings, such as The Second City Does Arizona, or Close, But No Saguaro.
Other theater companies include the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company in Phoenix, founded in 1988, which, although it produces Jewish-themed plays, has a tradition of welcoming multiethnic and multi-religious casts, crews, and audiences. Begun in 2004, the Phoenix-based, all-volunteer Arizona Women’s Theatre Company is noted for its Friday and Saturday evenings Playhouse in the Park and its annual Pandora Festival where Arizona women playwrights stage readings of 10-minute one-act and full-length plays.
In Tucson, the non-profit Invisible Theatre has been a local icon since 1971. Originally a venue for local playwrights, IT has expanded since to present its own adaptations of classical productions as well as off-Broadway plays and musicals. For a company that presents its plays in an 80-seat converted laundry, IT has some considerable clout, drawing such notables as actress Lynn Redgrave (Rachel and Juliet) and chanteuse Amanda McBroom (April in Paris).
Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, founded in 2001 and located in downtown Tucson, is another non-profit theater troupe. The company’s name is intended to evoke the tradition associated with the ancient Anglo-Saxon story Beowulf and the edgy, contemporary vibe associated with an urban alley.
FILM AND TELEVISION
With Hollywood only a few hundred miles to the west, Arizona was never destined to become a major filmmaking center. But the state’s incredible desert and red rock canyon landscapes have been catnip to numerous Hollywood moviemakers and TV producers who have trekked there over the years, making it a distinctive locale for westerns, comedies, sci-fi films, and thrillers. Perhaps the most famous use of Phoenix as a movie background is the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which Janet Leigh’s soon to be utterly horrified character commits the felony that sets the film’s gruesome events in motion.
Notable films shot wholly or partially in Arizona have included the counter-culture hit Billy Jack (1971), the slacker delight Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), the slapstick fish-out-of-water comedyRaising Arizona (1987), and the poignant nice-guy alien meets beautiful Earth girl Starman (1984). Phoenix shows up again in The Gauntlet (1977), a Clint Eastwood film that uses an eerily deserted downtown as the backdrop for its climactic scene.
Even a partial listing of other memorable films with Arizona locales is impressive. Among them: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974); Cannonball Run (1981); Easy Rider (1969); Forrest Gump(1993); Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); Lilies of the Field (1963); Little Miss Sunshine(2006); Mars Attacks! (1996); Midnight Run (1988); Natural Born Killers (1994); Ocean’s 11(1960); Oklahoma! (1955); Planet of the Apes (remake 2001); Rio Bravo (1959); Stagecoach(1939); The Big Country (1958); The Exorcist (1973); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); The Mummy(1999); The Nutty Professor (1963); Three Amigos! (1986); Three Kings (1998); Traffic (2000);Transformers (2007); and Wayne’s World (1992).
Although filmed in Hollywood, Alice, the TV sitcom version of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was set in Phoenix. The New Dick Van Dyke Show was also set in Arizona, as well as various episodes ofCOPS and America’s Most Wanted. Film industry notables who grew up in Arizona include film director Steven Spielberg, comedian David Spade, comedy and dramatic actor Ted Danson, and actress Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman).
While Arizona has been home to some famous writers, it has not yet produced a fiction writer with the fame and appeal of a Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) or the literary merit of a Willa Cather(My Ántonia). The closest the state comes to a "grand writer in residence" is Alan Dean Foster(Starman; the Chronicles of Riddick), whose versatility has gained him enthusiastic readers among fans of science fiction, horror, fantasy, westerns, detective stories, contemporary fiction, and historical novels.
Edward Abbey (1927–1989), whose 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired a generation of radical environmentalists, was born in Pennsylvania but spent his later years in Tucson. This graduate philosophy student turned national park ranger turned nature writer also penned Desert Solitaire, a rumination on both the majesty and despoliation of the U.S. Southwest that some people compared to Thoreau’s Walden and the lyrical nature writing of Aldo Leopold.
Payson, Arizona, was the home of Zane Grey, the most famous writer of westerns in U.S. history. HisRiders of the Purple Sage was the biggest-selling western of all time. Two of his other novels, The Lone Star Ranger and King of the Royal Mounted, later inspired two TV series, The Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Grey, who wrote 90 books before his death in 1939, not only wrote westerns but also wrote books on baseball, hunting, and fishing, as well as children’s stories.
Perhaps the best-loved modern Arizona writer, in terms of her appreciative audience if not her deathless prose, was humorist Erma Bombeck (1927–1996). The Paradise Valley resident’s 4,000 newspaper columns and 15 New York Times bestsellers (including Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession and When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home) explored the joys, travails, and humor of motherhood, marriage, family life, and writing.
While Arizona hasn't really produced any world-class artists in its own right, many have been inspired by the striking landscapes while spending time in the Grand Canyon State. In the late 1940s, German painter and sculptor Max Ernst and his wife, Dorothea Tanning, lived in Sedona. Ernst was one of the prime movers behind the Dadaist and Surrealist art movements of the early 20th century.
Philip Curtis, who lived in Arizona from 1947 until his death in Scottsdale in 2000, was a noted Surrealist whose casually created, rarely seen watercolors of the state’s outdoors continue to astound art lovers for their brilliant stroke work. Lebanon-born Paul Coze, who settled in Phoenix in 1951, founded an art school and created nine pieces of public art throughout the city, most of them based on Native American themes.
The Grand Canyon, as well as Arizona’s other stunning red-rock landscapes, has inspired a tradition of landscape art that extends back to the 19th century. Noted contemporary landscapists include Tom Murray, Francis Koch, Lynn Baker, Chris Fanning, Tom Haas, landscape impressionist Lois Griffel, and colorist Johnathan Harris.
Perhaps the state’s most beloved source of landscape art is its world-famous Arizona Highwaysmagazine, which over the years has employed the services of dozens of illustrators, including Hopi Indian artists and Ettore "Ted" De Grazia, who for a time in the 1940s and 1950s was the most reproduced artist in the world. Illustrator William Ahrendt later succeeded De Grazia as the magazine’s most prolific and best-loved artist.
Modern artists have been heavily influenced by the state’s landscapes, producing abstract or Impressionistic paintings that are saturated with vibrant colors. These artists include Myrna Harrisonand Joseph Bellacera.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
One powerful folk-art movement, started in the 1970s, was the appearance of Chicano-themed murals in Tucson’s Mexican-American neighborhoods. ("Chicano" is a slang pronunciation of "Mexicano," although it refers to an American of Mexican heritage). The murals, often collaborative efforts among artists and neighbors, celebrate Chicano history and political victories. Among the most active of the early muralists were Antonio Pazos, David Tineo, Luis Gustavo Mena, Martin Moreno and Robert Castillo.
To this day, one of the most exquisite art forms in Arizona is Navajo sand painting. Using colored sands for what is essentially a religious ritual, Navajo artists strew the sands within a square patch of ground, creating colorful retellings of creation stories through the juxtapositioning of ceremonial symbols of humans, plants, animals, and the cosmos. By tradition, the paintings cannot be preserved and are destroyed after a short time. One of the best collections of sand painting reproductions, compiled by art collector Morton H. Sachs, can be found online at www.navajosandpainting.org.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
An interesting late 20th-century art movement that had its beginning in late 1960s and early 1970s Arizona and neighboring desert states is Earth art (also called Land art and Earthworks). The genre created ephemeral sculptures from of natural materials, such as leaves, dirt or stones, and placed them on the landscape in out-of-the-way places. Since erosion eventually destroyed them, the only record of their existence is in videos and photographs.
-World Trade Press