In 1946 artists Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning left New York for Sedona in North Central Arizona. There, they painted and socialized with everyone from local cowboys to visiting art-world luminaries, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller and fellow Surrealists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.
Like Tanning and Ernst, many artists traveled to Arizona’s scenic small towns, finding inspiration in the landscapes and rugged histories. Some of these rural communities evolved into well-known Arizona artist enclaves, where the intrepid wanderer can find everything from galleries and studios to arts festivals, concerts and film screenings.
Sedona’s arts scene
Though Ernst and Tanning decamped to France in the late 1950s, Sedona remained a vibrant arts community.
With nearly every corner sprouting an art gallery, Sedona is a mecca for art enthusiasts. Visit the Sedona Arts Center, established in an old apple-packing barn in 1958, for exhibits and events such as the annual Sedona Plein Air Festival in October and Sedona Photofest in June.
Weekend guests can kick off their art tour at 1st Friday in the Galleries, a monthly event organized by members of the Sedona Gallery Association, during which galleries open their doors for special art receptions and special exhibits.
Want more history with your art? Have a cold one at Cowboy Club off of Route 89-A. It was here, in 1965, over cold beers and handshakes, that four artists founded Cowboy Artists of America, an organization that serves to preserve and promote western life in fine art.
Creativity flows through the hills of Jerome
Not far from Sedona, Jerome’s buildings cling precariously to Cleopatra Hill.
This former copper-mining boomtown became a vaporous ghost town more than a decade before 1960s flower children discovered the town’s cheap rents and killer views.Today Jerome maintains its artsy, bohemian vibe. Listen to live music over liquid refreshments at the Spirit Room, and half the locals you talk to will tell you they’re involved in the arts.
If you don't get a studio invite then, the best way to see many of Jerome’s 20-plus artist studios and galleries is to browse the Jerome Art Walk on the first Saturday of the month. Look for artist receptions, new shows and live music. Ride the free shuttle if the steep streets and crooked sidewalks are daunting.
Jerome also shares Sedona’s Plein Air Festival for a day in October. Artists set up their easels outdoors and paint those awesome vistas.
Tubac – a Southern Arizona arts center
In Southern Arizona, Tubac’s reputation as an artist enclave got its start in 1948. That year, landscape painter Dale Nichols established an art school just a stone’s throw from a historic landmark – the ruins of an 18th century Spanish presidio.
The school attracted other artists to town, and, before long, artists were hanging their work on garden walls for tourists to buy.
Things are a tad more organized now, with events such as February’s Tubac Festival of the Arts, which dates to 1959 and is the granddaddy of Arizona’s art festivals; and the open studios and special gallery shows during the spring and fall art walks.
Another must-stop is the Tubac Center of the Arts for exhibits by area artists, plus film screening and concerts. And, because Tubac has been called the town where art and history meet, don’t leave without visiting Tubac Presidio Park, where you can learn about Arizona’s Spanish past and also enjoy concerts, exhibits, talks and films.
Patagonia’s artistic side
Across the Santa Rita Mountains from Tubac, Patagonia occupies a lush green valley, cooled by creeks.
Though its early years were marked by mining, ranching and railroad activities, the small town has morphed into an arts community whose residents include painters, jewelry-makers, musicians and a novelist or two.
Get a taste of the local arts scene at the Patagonia Holiday Walking Tour in November, when galleries, shops and even restaurants feature works by local artists. Later, during winter and spring, the Santa Cruz Foundation for the Performing Arts hosts public concerts in Patagonia-area homes and ranches.
If you prefer art on the big screen and stage, check out the Tin Shed Theatre, an intimate venue for everything from plays to an international film festival. (It’s literally a tin shed behind the Patagonia Creative Arts center).
In October, the town’s largest art event, the annual Patagonia Fall Festival, features more than 140 arts exhibitors under the trees of Town Park.
The arts are abloom in Bisbee
Farther south and east from Patagonia and Tubac, Bisbee boomed as a major copper-mining town until the ore played out in the 1970s. Artists then discovered its charms, and, today, visiting Bisbee is like participating in an ongoing performance piece.
In this quirky town, you’ll see free-spirited residents dressed in vintage attire, watch art cars – autos festooned with everything from toys to painted images of palm trees and hula girls – cruise the streets, and hear live music spilling from old saloons. Soak up more bohemian ambiance at signature Bisbee arts events, such as September’s Bisbee Blues Festival or March's Return of the Turkey Vultures.
Every second Saturday of the month, the Bisbee after 5 art walk spotlights more than 30 galleries, restaurants and shops that stay open late with new shows, receptions and live music. Their website sports an event calendar with even more artistic goings-on, such as concerts and art workshops.
With so much going on, don't forget to stop by Bisbee’s Central School Project, a community arts center located in a historic school that hosts art exhibits, poetry readings, comedy shows, theater and more. Vintage dress optional.
This story originally ran on October 2011. It was most recently updated in February 2018.