The Desert Blooms

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In 1985 the city government of Scottsdale, Arizona, quite remarkably set aside one percent of its capital improvement budget to acquire and display public art. The fund this created has also helped support the magnificent, airy Museum of Contemporary Art, itself a work of art, and its neighbor the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Both are located on the parklike Civic Center Mall in the heart of the area known as Old Scottsdale. These attractions, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and more than 125 galleries, achieve thegoal so many cities are striving for these days: keeping downtown alive.

Art and Scottsdale have been tied together since the first painters drifted into the area in the early 1900s, when Scottsdale was really no more than the outskirts of Phoenix. In 1973, around the time it became a separate municipality, Scottsdale launched what became a popular continuing tradition called Art Walk. On Thursdays year-round, dozensof galleries on two thoroughfares stay open into the evening.

On the night of my visit the scene was festive, as theatrically lit palm trees and greenery poked spiky silhouettes into the darkening sky, and the gentle splash of a fountain mingled with notes from jazz groups set up on several corners. The welcoming atmosphere makes the art approachable. Youcan examine the work of a wide range of masters of Western art like the Native American artist Fritz Scholder or ponder such mysteries as the shimmering blue glass vase at least eight feet tall that I spotted in the shadows of aninterior courtyard.

In one of the galleries I noticed some unusual art lovers clustered around the cookies and punch: a dozen or so preter- naturally subdued and highly groomed teenagers, the girls in black cocktail dresses, the boys in suits. This, it turned out, was a Scottsdale social institution called a Cotillion Group, being exposed to art and manners at the same time.

I was part of a group too— journalists who were learning about Culture Quest, Scottsdale’s newest and perhaps most creative art initiative. Benefiting once again from public funding, this is a plan to lure visitors with a variety of art and cultural offerings in the area. Another entrée to Scottsdale’s art scene is provided by a company called Painted Desert Tours.They work primarily with corporate groups of 10 or more to offer visits to artists’ studios and the homes of private collectors, plus cocktail receptions at museums and chats with prominent localarchitects and gallery owners. The idea behind this and Art Walk is that such backstage social occasions will help people overcome any hesitation about wandering into a gallery or museum andengaging a stranger in talk about art.

Of the several excursions I went on, the jewel in the crown was a half-day visit to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter headquarters. This is considered one of Wright’s true masterpieces and still functions as a school for architects. My guide was the expert and outspoken Jeffrey Cook, a professor of architecture at Arizona State University. “This was a cultural center when there was no Scottsdale,” Cook remarked, explaining thatuponWright’s first visit in 1927 he fell in love with the desert.

By 1937, when Wright bought land on the lower slopes of the McDowell Mountains from the proceeds of earlier triumphs, his work had pretty much fallen out of favor. Cook explained: “He rejuvenated himself by coming to this place in the Sonoran desert, and his philosophy of organic architecture was inspired by the nature hefound here.”

Wright wrote of his fascination with “the dry, clear sun-drenched air, by the stark geometry of the mountains.” As we drove onto the property that sprawls across a mesa pocked with desert vegetation, Cook mourned the changes that man has wrought upon the landscape. “It has been slowly destroyed by the most awful houses by developers with no vision.” Wright witnessed this same march of progress, and when he spied newly installed ranks of electric power lines bordering his property,“he threw a fit,” said Cook, “reversing the orientation of his living room so he wouldn’t have to see that.”

Whatever Wright would make of today’s fashionable Scottsdale or the developmentthat crowds the once empty desert, a visit to his paradise still holds magic. I never before came closer to a Wright house than glossy spreads in books and the reconstructed room that’s on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here I wandered through a half-dozen rooms, low-slung structures luxurious in their simple fabrications of stone, canvas, and glass. I sank into surprisingly comfortable, brightly cushioned banquettes, marveled at the elegance of the partly underground dinner theater, with its ranks of stone benches and windows set high and tilted up toframe the brilliant Arizona sky.

Near the back of the theater, I’m embarrassed to admit, I imagined for a momentthat I spied Wright’s ghost, wearing his brimmed hat and half-smile. Or was it a look-alike? Perhaps, I thought, it was a Taliesin re-enactor of whom I’d be urged to ask architectural questions. Then I turned my head, and “Wright,” surely a visitor like myself, had vanished. Ghost or no, the architect’s spirit is indelible, inhabiting every corner of this place. “We have met the desert, loved it and lived with it,” he wrote. “The desert is ours.”