Travel | Under the Desert Sun

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Are snow and ice turning your back yard into frozen tundra right about now? We have the perfect artistic balm for the wintertime blues: Head to Palm Desert, CA, home to some 30 galleries, an impressive public arts program, and 350 sunny days a year. A rapidly growing resort, the town has 44,000 permanent residents and 22,000 snowbirds who flock here during high season, which is roughly from January through April. Located about 110 miles east of Los Angeles, the desert oasis is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains and offers an incredible treasure trove of big-city-worthy art delights.

For years, Palm Desert was known mainly for the 100 lush green golf courses in the area. They are still a main attraction, but in their midst, an amazing crop of galleries has sprung up. Visitors can find just about any style or genre of painting, sculpture, studio art glass, jewelry, or photography they desire.

The hub of all the art action is El Paseo Drive, a mile-long strip sometimes dubbed the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert” because of all the glitzy designer shops that reside here (among them are Tiffany’s, Ralph Lauren, and Escada). But El Paseo could also be called the “Canyon Road of the Desert,” since galleries flourish along both sides of this pedestrian-friendly street, just as they do on Santa Fe’s famous lane.

Put on your walking shoes and begin your art crawl on the west end of El Paseo at Coda Gallery, a sprawling space that features rooms bursting with eclectic artworks at every turn—paintings, sculptures, glass pieces, and hand-painted functional furniture. Owner David Katz, who has been in business since 1988, still gets excited about emerging artists. On a recent visit he enthusiastically pointed out a new painting by Wendy Chidester, a nostalgic rendering of a well-worn typewriter. “She’s hot right now,” Katz declares. Nearby there’s a stunning photorealistic still life by Christopher Young; other rooms contain sleek bronze figurative sculptures by John Kennedy and colorful abstract works by Peter Burega, just to name a few of Coda’s more than 100 stellar artists.

Stroll across the street and say hello to the newer kids on the block: Josh Otten and Joshua Paquette (“the two Joshes,” as they are known around town) opened J. Willott Gallery in late 2007 to represent a select group of artists from across the West. During our visit, a show of Melissa Chandon’s paintings was on view, including works from her new swimming pool series. Chandon, a Northern California artist who studied with Wayne Thiebaud, was Southwest Art’s cover artist last May. “We are selling nice western work to a group that is coming here from around the country and the world. They have contemporary homes, and they are finding out that western and Native American artwork fits in anywhere,” Paquette says.

If you collect Southwestern and Latin American art, be sure to stop in at Adagio Galleries, another newcomer to El Paseo. For years the gallery was located in nearby Palm Springs, but in October the owners decided to join the action on Palm Desert’s thriving boulevard. Adagio’s new space has 20-foot-high ceilings that provide needed breathing space for an array of large-scale paintings, including works by Miguel Martinez and R.C. Gorman, as well as animal bronzes by Joshua Tobey.

A welcoming red awning and director Howard Schepp greet visitors to Jones & Terwilliger Galleries, located across the street from Adagio. Schepp likes to describe the art in his space as walking the line “between cutting edge and contemporary realism.” The gallery has a good selection of works by prominent California painters such as Brian Blood, who captures some of the Golden State’s awesome landscapes, and Ken Auster, who creates lively impressionistic interior scenes of cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Speaking of cafes, you’ll find a good place for a break just a few blocks from Jones & Terwilliger at Café des Beaux-Arts. It offers patio dining for lunch and dinner, and it’s a great people-watching spot.

After a caffeine fix or lunch break, your next stop is Desert Art Collection, located just off El Paseo on San Luis Rey Avenue. The gallery, a former 1950s motel, is a classic example of mid-century modern architecture and boasts a spacious courtyard sprinkled with sculptures, cactus, and a riot of bougainvillea. Inside you’ll find a wealth of sculptures, paintings, and mixed-media works. The gallery represents sculptor Aiko Morioka, a former Southwest Art cover artist. Another of our favorites here is Michael Battaglia, a mixed-media artist known for his mysterious, ragged-edged Venetian plaster murals and large-scale paintings. A show of Battaglia’s works is on view through March 19.

Back along El Paseo, visit R E Welch Gallery, which features American and European artists and includes a standout sculptor, Jean-Louis Corby, who fashions elegant, and often whimsical, figurative bronze pieces that bend and twist as if they were made out of paper. One of Corby’s pieces, DANSEUR, is also installed at the corner of Monterey Street and Highway 111 as part of the city’s Art in Public Places display.

For reasonably-priced contemporary works, A Gallery Fine Art, a few blocks from R E Welch Gallery, offers a nice selection of paintings, glass, and fine art jewelry. The gallery also represents top sculptors based in the West, including Jane DeDecker, Shirley Ruuska-Brown, Richard Pankratz, and Mark Hopkins, all regulars at the annual August sculpture shows in Loveland, CO.
Continue walking down the east end of El Paseo and turn left on Portola Avenue. Heather James Fine Art, located in the iconic building that until recently housed Buschlen Mowatt Galleries, is a must-see. Polished concrete floors, high ceilings, and stark white walls evoke the feeling of a New York gallery—except that the first painting we saw was a large-scale depiction of a palm tree by Jim Dine. The gallery features blue-chip art by both living and deceased masters with genres that include impressionistic, modern, and postwar art. A show of Latin American art is on view through March 20.

Now a word about public art. This desert retreat is well-known for its dedication to sculpture, thanks to a 20-year-old Art in Public Places fund and the palpable civic-cultural spirit afoot here. So, consider rising early one morning for a walking tour of the incredible array of sculptures that dot the grassy ribbon slicing down the center of El Paseo. The visual feast changes every two years.

Also, the 72-acre Civic Center Park across from the Palm Desert City Hall features more than 25 sculptures interspersed among roses, wildflowers, and jogging paths. If you happen to be in town on March 14, you can catch a guided tour of the El Paseo sculptures; on April 11 there’s a tour of Civic Center Park. For more information on the public sculptures, maps, and tours, visit

If your art thirst is still not quenched, head for the Palm Springs Museum of Art. Located about 25 minutes from Palm Desert, the museum is a marvel. Just inside the entrance is a reclining figure by Henry Moore; the eye then travels to a signature bronze spider by renowned sculptor Louise Bourgeois and a bronze horse by Deborah Butterfield. On the same floor, the newly remodeled Denney Western American Art wing is now home to a Native American basket collection and works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Fritz Scholder, Dan Namingha, Thomas Moran, Charles Russell, and Merrill Mahaffey. Count on spending a morning or more at this amazing museum.

A few final words of advice for your trip: Remember your comfortable shoes. Avoid planning your journey in the summer months, when temperatures can climb to a sizzling 120 degrees. And finally, if there is something in particular you are looking for, you’re in luck—this is the place where, as the locals say, “you can find everything under the desert sun.”

Featured in March 2009