Tucson Art Scene | Time-Out in Tucson

The Wind Whisperer by Ron Riddick,painting, southwest art.
The Wind Whisperer by Ron Riddick

By Leslie Busler

Until I came to Arizona, I always be-lieved that somehow brown air was a way of life,” says painter Ron Riddick, referring to his prior life in smog-filled Los Angeles. But when Riddick moved to Tucson in 1979 he realized it didn’t have to be that way—the stark blue skies and stellar sunsets were just what he was looking for. “Moving here was a wonderful change for me,” says Riddick. “It’s so much more relaxed than California’s constant rush hour. Tucson slowed me down and helped me to appreciate the enviroment—to realize there’s a lot of beauty around us.”

Tucson is a great location for artists like Riddick, many of whom have made it their home, and also a good destination for collectors. It’s about a two-hour drive from Scottsdale, so if you’re touring the galleries and museums there you can easily tack on a day trip to Tucson to round out your Arizona art excursion. Once you arrive, though, you may decide to stretch your visit into two or more days. The city has its own southwestern charm and a good selection of galleries, events, and museums—as well as what Riddick likes to call the best outdoor art in southern Arizona: the mountain ranges to the north, south, east, and west of the city.

“There’s such a hub of cultural exchange here, with Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and an eclectic gathering of people from the East Coast. There really is a lot going on in the arts,” says Riddick.

Limit of Desert by Maynard Dixon,painting, southwest art.
Limit of Desert by Maynard Dixon


That’s evident in the number of galleries sprinkled around town, mainly north of down-town. “We have several very fine galleries,” Riddick says, most of which specialize in representational art. “Settlers West ranks among the top galleries in the country for representational western art. They do a phenomenal business and host a number of shows throughout the year.” Joni Falk, William Acheff, Bob Kuhn, Herb Mignery, and Bonita Roberts are just a few of the many well-known artists Settlers West represents.

Sanders Galleries is in the same complex in the foothills, says Riddick. It houses works by contemporary artists, namely John Fawcett, Jim Norton, and Buck McCain. About a 10-minute drive from there is Rosequist Galleries on Fort Lowell Road. In business since 1946, it is one of the oldest galleries in Arizona and specializes in works by artists past and present, including Joseph Orr, Ross Stefan, and Frederick Hambly.

Venture Fine Art on Tanque Verde Road is another of Riddick’s picks; works by Paul Baca, Daryl Poulin, and Bill Anton adorn the walls of this bright but cozy location. Down the road are El Presidio Gallery and Scotch Mist Gallery, located in the Santa Fe Square shopping center on Tanque Verde Road; both specialize in con-temporary, representational painters and sculptors. Find works by Cheryl English, Chuck Mardosz, Sue Krzyston, and Jerry McKellar at El Presidio; Scotch Mist represents several members of the Oil Painters of America such as Zhiwei Tu as well as artists Poteet Victory, Susan Kliewer, and Marilyn Bendell.

De Grazia Gallery shows works by well-known Arizona painter Ted De Grazia. His paintings were promoted for many years in Arizona Highways magazine, gaining him popularity around the world. “He takes an expressive and original approach to art,” says Riddick. Then there’s Covington Fine Arts Gallery, “for those interested in high-quality historical work,” he says. The gallery has paintings by 19th- and 20th-century artists such as Gustave Baumann, Maynard Dixon, and Thomas Hill. Finally, Etherton Gallery carries photographs almost exclusively, including many 19th- and 20th-century images by the likes of Edward Curtis and Paul Caponigro; the gallery also shows some paintings and graphics.


Tucson has its share of museums, many leaning toward the con-temporary and avant-garde. “The University of Arizona has a number of galleries,” says Riddick. “Perhaps the best known is its Center for Creative Photography, which houses the complete Ansel Adams collec-tion.”  Changing exhibits taken from the center’s collection of more than 50,000 contemporary photographs are scheduled throughout the year. The university’s Museum of Art includes European and American works from the Renaissance to the present, including early pieces by Fernando Gallego and Giovanni Piazetta and 20th-century works by Pablo Picasso and Andrew Wyeth.

Yet another art locale is the Tucson Museum of Art. “It’s a lovely, modern facility in downtown Tucson,” says Riddick. “Exhibits have a tendency to lean toward contemporary, but sometimes you see shows on Maynard Dixon, women artists of the West, or the Tucson 7 [Kenneth Riley, Don Crowley, Howard Terpning, Harley Brown, Tom Hill, Duane Bryers, and Bob Kuhn].” The museum sits in El Presidio Historic District, which is full of all the grandeur of Tucson’s early architecture.


Annual art shows are a seasonal attraction in Tucson. Settlers West Galleries packs in the crowds with three annual sales. The Summer Show opens May 15, kicking off Tucson’s hot desert season (in the coming months galleries and museums will be the few cool places to seek respite). The Great American West Show in November and the Miniatures Show in February draw even larger crowds. You’ll find artists who are at the top of their class in these shows, from Kenneth Riley and Michael Stack to Riddick himself, as well as some rising stars like Michael Albrechtsen and Scott Burdick.

Another popular exhibit in November is the Mountain Oyster Club Art Show. “The Mountain Oyster Club show is an annual favorite of collectors here in the Southwest,” says Riddick. “The club started out as a cattlemen’s and horsemen’s club. The founder, John Goodman, has been a real champion of emerging artists.” The show includes more than 200 works by well-knowns like Gerald Balciar and Duane Bryers as well as emerging artists.

As for year-round art activities, the downtown Tucson Arts District comes to life every Thursday evening from 5 to 7:30 for an art walk; museums, galleries, and outdoor murals show Tucson’s diverse artistic influences: folk art and Native American, regional, and contem-porary works. Another art walk, Downtown Saturday Nights, is held the first and third Saturdays of every month. “It’s primarily on-the-fringe, alternative art,” says Riddick, who ventures down occasionally, “but sometimes you run across a representational piece.” Mainly it’s chock-full of street perfomers, installation art, kinetic art everything avant-garde, says Riddick.

Just 45 miles south of Tucson is the small art colony of Tubac, which holds the annual Tubac Festival of the Arts. “It’s kind of a center for arts and crafts,” he says. “It’s really worth the drive. In addition to the show, there are a number of small galleries to visit including Michael Gibbons Galleries, Hugh Cabot Gallery, and Hal Empie Gallery & Studio.”

Off the Art Path

Riddick suspects all that art-viewing works up an appetite, so he’s taken the liberty of suggesting a few restaurants that tempt his palate. Janos at the Westin La Paloma resort has four-star flair in its French-influenced southwestern cuisine; Riddick says the view of the Tucson Basin is quite lovely. Another restaurant with a view, the Grill at Hacienda del Sol, is high on Riddick’s list. “This is a wonderful little hidden resort in the Catalina foothhills. It used to be one of those getaways for Hollywood’s finest.” The patio offers a great look at the mountains. The Olive Tree serves up Greek fare. “You can get the best lamb chops in Arizona,” muses Riddick. Two more not to be missed are Cafe Terra Cotta in St. Phillip’s Plaza, with its trendy southwestern menu, and Mi Nidito’s Cafe on Fourth Avenue. “That’s some of the best authentic Mexican food just a little bitty place on the barrio.” According to Riddick, rumor has it that President Clinton satisfied a south-of-the-border craving there while visiting Tucson.

If you have a little extra time to brave the outdoors, Riddick re-commends touring the San Xavier Mission south of town, called the “white dove of the desert,” which was founded in the 1700s. “It has recently been fully restored by the team that worked on the Sistine Chapel,” says Riddick. “It’s truly a must-see and a must-paint.” The mission hosts numerous Hispanic and Native American events throughout the year, including one of the largest mariachi festivals in the country.

You can also trek the trails of Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains; the saguaros, cool stream, and rolling hills will captivate you. Riddick says Agua Caliente Park is also gorgeous—almost a desert oasis. “It’s a popular place to paint en plein air.” Or take a 30-minute drive to the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley to seek shade beneath the pine and aspen. Skiers beware: the desert mountain can be a little bumpy. Lastly, visit the Ari-zona–Sonora Desert Museum, where you can learn all about the life and geography of the desert. It’s rated one of the top museums for natural habitat in the country. “Talk about education!” Riddick says. “It’s unequaled. You can come away with a whole new understanding of desert life.”

Featured in February 2004