The Ins and Outs of the Tucson Art Museum

My Dad often told me, “You’ve got a good Scots tongue in your head,” and that turned out to be lucky for me at the Tucson Museum of Art. Had I not been willing to ask directions — numerous times — I might have missed out on some fine art-viewing.

The problem begins with the street address shown on the museum website and on Google maps: 140 North Main Avenue. So intent were we on finding 140 North Main that we walked right past the “East Entry Plaza” on W. Alameda St. that leads to the main entrance of the museum.

LEFT: 140 North Main Entrance / RIGHT: W. Alameda St. East Entry Plaza

The doorway at 140 North Main opens into to a quaint, historic house — part of the “historic block” of five old properties — where one encounters a ticket seller (who I initially took to be a security guard), a multi-room gift shop, and two small gallery spaces. Although I had a floor plan pamphlet in hand, I had to ask where to go from there.

Across the open courtyard, a lucky guess as to which door was the right one got us into what felt like the lobby of an office building. Wandering, wondering, brought a man to our rescue from across the space, guiding us to the entrance to the “museum galleries.” Subsequent study of the teeny-tiny, where-are-my-glasses floor plan indicated that we had indeed found the “Main Lobby” off the “East Entry Plaza.”

My next visit will be a piece of cake! And now I’ve got that off my chest, we can get on with the good stuff …

From the 140 North Main entry, the first two small galleries we came to made an auspicious beginning, since my companions and I are all fans of the art of the American West. Favorites were two landscapes, by Kenneth Riley and Duane Bryers.

LEFT: Duane Bryers, Return of the Hunters, 1977, oil on canvas / RIGHT: Kenneth Riley, Wyoming Landscape, 1970–1980, acrylic on canvas

and a couple of contemporary pastel portraits by Harley Brown.

Harley Brown / LEFT: Crow Elder, 2013, pastel / RIGHT: Little Sister, 2014, pastel

Having whet our appetite for art, we decided to acquiesce to our appetite for lunch at the museum’s Café a la C’Art. Located in the adjacent 1865 Stevens House, and listed as one of the top ten museum restaurants in the U.S. by Food & Wine Magazine, it offers varied choices, friendly service and a casually classic atmosphere. A lovely respite, even though stormy weather forced us to forego the patio.

Café a la C’Art

Once we found our way into the “Museum Galleries”, we were presented with two special exhibitions, one of which has since closed. The other, Dress Matters: Clothing as Metaphor (on through Feb 14), examines clothing in art as symbolic of power and identity, with works by more than 50 well-known and lesser-known artists.

A standout for me in this show was a Nick Cave Soundsuit (2016). I’ve heard about Cave’s Soundsuits so often, but this was my first opportunity to actually see one. If you need a raison d’être, you might see it as a whimsical vehicle for intricate sequined surface detail.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2006; fabric, sequins, fiberglass & metal. LEFT: Front view / RIGHT: Rear view. On loan from Rubell Family Collection, Miami FL

From the Special exhibition space, a ramp leads down to a lower level, where selections from the permanent collection of more than 8000 objects are displayed. There’s a little bit of lots of different types of art, including Latin American folk art, photography, works on paper, Asian, European, modern, and contemporary art.

View to lower level, permanent collection galleries

Among the appealing works in the collection — providing a sense of the range of work in the museum’s holdings — was an unusual (to me) Andy Warhol screenprint,

LEFT: Andy Warhol, Details of Renaissance Paintings: Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, 1472, 1984. Screenprint AP 7/15, Feldman/SHellman #320

and an intricate bibilical narrative plaque produced in clay by Tiburcio Soteno Fernández (b. 1952, Metepec, Mexico). Fernández was taught to work in clay by his mother, Modesta Fernández, who is known for beautiful utilitarian pottery. In turn, he has taught his sons to work in clay, passing the tradition on to the next generation of artisans.

Tiburcio Soteno Fernández, Tree of Life, clay

In another Western-themed image, it was the play of light and shadow in this watercolor by William Matthews (b.1949) that captured my attention. Matthews is known for his paintings of everyday moments in cowboy life.

William Matthews, Tack Room, 2001, watercolor

I was particularly taken with a gracious, small Rodin sculpture, Jeune mère à la grotte / Young Mother in a Grotto, c. 1885. Rodin’s work is ubiquitous — especially recently, in recognition of the centennial of his death — and we’ve been seeing studies and casts of his magnificent, famous bronzes. But this piece was new to me, fresh and tender, carved in white marble, and evidencing Rodin’s traditional training and craftsmanship.

Auguste Rodin, Jeune mère à la grotte / Young Mother in a Grotto, c. 1885

Finally, it’s always a treat to discover new names, artists whose work captures my interest. The top candidate in this category for me was landscape artist, Merrill Mahaffey, whose monumental Rockfellow, 2002 stopped me in my tracks.

Installation view: Merrill Mahaffey, Rockfellow, 2002. Acrylic on canvas

Despite my griping about the non-intuitive layout of the facility, our visit to the Tucson Museum of Art rewarded us with a lovely lunch and a very pleasurable art-viewing experience. For good reason did True West magazine include the Tucson Museum of Art on its 2015 list of Top Western Art Museums in the United States.

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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