Be forewarned: It’s not easy to get through the doors of Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
The two-year-old, award-winning museum is only a 10-minute walk from our hotel, W Scottsdale, but there are distractions on the way: distinctive public art at every turn, tasteful Southwestern landscaping bordering buildings and walkways, and the unique exterior of the museum building. These are my excuses for being several minutes late for our appointment with communications and marketing manager Rebecca Heller.
My first question references the fairly tight lineup of relatively young saguaro cactuses standing guard near the museum’s front door.
“What happens when they all start to sprout arms?” I ask. “Will there be room?”
Probably not the kind of question Heller is used to, but she has an answer.
“It’s the city’s problem,” she says with a smile.
And thus one of the benefits of the unique relationship between this small-but-mighty museum, operated by a nonprofit, and the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, which owns the building and grounds.
The museum is unusual in another way, says museum director Mike Fox.
While it is not an active collecting institution like most other museums in the West, “it will selectively accept … collections which help the museum fulfill its storytelling mission, while continuing to predominantly exhibit loaned collections from generous individuals and institutions.”
True to this creed, the museum has only one permanent exhibit, “The A.P. Hays Spirit of the West Collection.” It is impressive; Hays, a longtime resident and devotee of all things Western, began collecting in the 1940s. He has amassed more than 1,400 authentic Old West artifacts that include an amazing array of holsters, handcuffs, hats, badges, belts, posters, saddles and spurs. Many demonstrate the exquisite craftsmanship of the times. Designs from these saddles are sandblasted into building’s sidewalks and courtyards.
The current temporary exhibit, “The Taos Society of Artists” (runs through April 30) is a breathless collection of privately owned works by artists who came to know, love and live in Taos, New Mexico, in the early 20th century. Society membership, by invitation only, totaled a mere 19 artists (only 12 were considered full members). The group evolved only after its two founding members, on their way from Denver to Mexico, were sidetracked by a broken wagon in the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico. Mesmerized by the clear air and brilliant colors, they decided to stay put.
“(This exhibit) provides a one-time opportunity to see these 80 artworks together, as they are all on loan from a number of private collections and institutions, as opposed to being a traveling show or part of the museum’s permanent collection,” Heller explains.
Taos Society artists favored New Mexico landscapes and stunning portraits of Native Americans and pioneers.
Also part of the exhibit is a never-seen collection of photos, letters, scrapbooks and seven paintings that an early Arizona family collected on a 1924 trip to Taos. All provide vivid images of the people and New Mexico’s way of life a century ago.
Opened in January 2015, Western Spirit was the fulfillment of a longtime goal of former Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater (now deceased) to establish a place to display the art and artifacts of the American West (defined as the 19 states west of the Mississippi River and adjacent areas of Canada and Mexico).
In its short life, the museum has accrued several distinctive accolades, and visitors on social media have given the museum consistently high ratings, including the building itself.
The contemporary architecture melds well with the desert environment and an interior Zen Garden provides a peaceful place for contemplation. The 43,000-square-foot building also is certified LEED Gold, a designation that recognizes its environmentally conscious and sustainable design.
Situated in the heart of Downtown Scottsdale, the museum is a perfect complement to the district’s hotels, eateries and bistros, galleries and boutiques.
Visit scottsdalemuseumwest.org/. Stay in the heart of Scottsdale: wscottsdalehotel.com. Visitor information: experiencescottsdale.com. For more photos of Downtown Scottsdale and the museum, visit facebook.com/elouise.ondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@ coastnewsgroup.com