Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West
[Courtesy of Scottsdale's Museum of the West]

The bonds that form along dusty trails in the West come to life in paintings, sculptures, saddles and other artifacts at a young museum in Scottsdale.

Those stories of relationships between explorers, cowboys and American Indians on display at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West are generating national buzz.

The museum, which opened in January of last year in downtown Scottsdale’s arts district, recently became certified as a Smithsonian Affiliate museum. True West Magazine named Western Spirit as this year’s best Western museum in the country.

“They have a very strong commitment to education and they want to show the West in its great variety and diversity,” said Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian Affiliations, part of the Smithsonian Institution. “This is just a wonderful museum. You can feel it as soon as you walk in the door.”

Western Spirit and about 200 other Smithsonian affiliates share resources and artifacts from the Smithsonian and benefit from educational programming and expert speakers.

Museum of the West director and CEO Mike Fox says he’s honored with the designations, but he and his team won’t rest on their laurels.

“We have to prove our worth,” Fox said. “The emphasis is to see that we use the art and artifacts, memorabilia, not to show pretty things only but to have it resonate with the visiting public.

“We’re not a museum of objects, we’re a museum of ideas,” he added. “We are a bridge to the Old West with the new West.”

The colorful collections represent the country’s 19 Western states including Arizona, from Texas to North Dakota, stretching west to Alaska and Hawaii. They’re in the main building on the site of the former Loloma Transit Station on North Marshall Way at 1st Street.

Fox attributes the museum’s success partly to the partnership between the city of Scottsdale and the Scottsdale Museum for the West, the non-profit organization that manages the museum. The city owns the main building and paid for its shell to be constructed, using hotel-bed tax money. Scottsdale is matching the money the non-profit organization raises, up to $400,000 a year for general operations, for a few more years.

The late former Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater came up with the idea for the museum and other city and Valley arts leaders pushed for its opening for about 30 years. The City Council approved the partnership to advance it under Fox’s direction in 2013.

Fox estimates 65,000 people visited the museum last year and it raised about $2.2 million in revenue.

On a recent weekday, the two-story museum was bustling as groups, including middle school French exchange students, checked out interactive exhibits with hundreds of paintings, bronze sculptures, guns, and other memorabilia. The art collections are on loan so visitors will have a chance to see a variety of changing artwork.

The museum has an outdoor sculpture garden and auditorium for talks, concerts and other events.

A popular exhibit, through Oct. 31, is Inspirational Journey: The Story of Lewis and Clark Featuring the Artwork of Charles Fritz. Contemporary painter Fritz illustrated the travels of captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark seeking a trading route to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s. Fritz retraced their journey and looked at their journals to create the artwork more than 200 years after their trip.

Fritz’s paintings reveal people who traveled with Lewis and Clark including Sacagawea, an American Indian woman who served as an interpreter.

“The thing that we love about the Spirit of the West is that it embraces our Western history,” said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine. “It’s becoming that everything’s politically correct; you have college kids who don’t know who fought in the Civil War.”

Another popular exhibition is “A Salute to Cowboy Artists of America and a Patron, the Late Eddie Basha: 50 Years of Amazing Contributions to the American West.” Work from Cowboy Artists of America organization members are featured, including a sculpture called “The Eyes of Texas,” by Bill Nebeker.

Letters from Cowboy Artists to the late grocer Basha are on display. Basha reportedly had the largest privately owned collection of contemporary Western American and American Indian art in the U.S.

Cowboy Artists of America past president Nebeker will talk about life as an artist on Feb. 25 at the museum.

Next year through a partnership with Arizona State University, the museum will offer workshops, lectures, fellowships and programs tied to Western American studies.

Also the museum, through a grant, will help pay for schools with many low-income students to visit.

Next year Western Spirit is planning a new exhibit featuring the best artwork from the Taos Society of Artists. The society formed in 1915 with artists, most of which trained in Paris and Munich, who loved Taos, New Mexico.

Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, 3830 N. Marshall Way.

Museum hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Admission: Adults: $13. Seniors (65 and older) and active military: $11. Students (Full-time with ID) and children (ages 6-17): $8. Members and children 5 and under: free.

Cowboy Artists of America member and past president Bill Nebeker will talk about life as an artist from 7 to 8 p.m. The event price is included in the cost of museum admission and it’s free for museum members. For more information, call 480-686-9539 or visit scottsdalemuseumwest.org.

• Colleen Sparks is a freelance journalist for GetOut and other publications. She also owns a marketing/public relations company, The Communication Connector, L.L.C. Learn more at communicationconnector.com.

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