Nothing quite surpasses nature’s design in southern California’s inland desert plains of cacti and boulders, bordered by rose and ochre mountains. At the same time, the modern world has contributed creatively in the flourishing towns that lie just off Highway 111 in this region. One such development on the human side that stands out these days is within Palm Desert, a desert community attuned to the civic and commercial benefits of a diverse art presence. For anyone visiting Palm Desert, here are some ways to access some of that local artistic and cultural innovation:
- Downtown Public Art – Palm Desert became the first in Riverside County to institute a public art program over two decades ago. Since then, city law has required all developers to place art in a publicly visible area or to pay a fee to the Art in Public Place fund for each new structure built. The result has been that the city—and most notably the El Paseo shopping strip and 72-acre Civic Center Park—is nowadays dotted with large-scale sculptures of various styles and mediums. Take a stroll along the main section of El Paseo and you encounter the latest exhibitions, some of which are occasionally curated by internationally recognized artists. Among the 18 works to be found along the stylish main drag during our own visit: a seven-foot dancer made of bronze, a hammered aluminum tree trunk, and a giant steel paintbrush
- Downtown Gallery Scene – Additionally, El Paseo is home to more than 20 galleries in the span of one mile. With this wealth of downtown galleries, the wide-ranging outdoor art program, and busy calendars of art events and organized tours, there is a rich menu of points of interest and activity for any traveler to explore year-round. The ideal starting point to work from may actually be the city’s public art department: you can request online or pick-up their Art and Architecture City to plan out your own local art itinerary.
- Group or Private Art Walks – The largest concentration of art works, however, remains those clustered on and around both the stretches of El Paseo and at such public institutions as the Civic Center Park, College of the Desert, and the Palm Desert Library. The City has designed its schedule of monthly (except July and August) one-hour long Public Art Walking Tours around these art-concentrated urban points. On the second Saturday of the month, each of these three locales serve, in turn, as the focal point of a tour that commences at 10 a.m. If you are part of a group of four or more, you can also schedule a free private tour based on your group’s particular interests. Yet another easy viewing option is the monthly El Paseo Art Walk (for more information, Tel: (877) 735-7273) , organized by the city in collaboration with local galleries and studios. Participants stop off at the latest gallery exhibits for the opportunity to view current exhibits, occasionally meet the artists, chat with local gallery owners and mingle with other aficionados.
- Other Art Events – For those who might have time to attend a sit-down educational or indoor event, the Palm Desert Community Gallery has both occasional seminars and exhibit openings throughout the year. Check also with individual gallery locations for their own calendar of hosted talks or appearances by visiting artists and art historians and commentators.
- Encounters with Art/Culture in Commercial Spaces – Meanwhile, examples of aesthetic resourcefulness in transforming commercial spaces into art and culture-friendly enterprises also dot the landscape. Take the Desert Art Collection (45-350 San Luis Rey Ave. at El Paseo; Tel: (760) 674-9955): this former motel building has been brilliantly renovated into a diversified series of floor spaces that encompass a fine art gallery with periodic new exhibits; an interior design business with art objects and materials from around the globe; and a sculpture garden that now sits in the former small hotel’s center court. You can even tune into the hip desert vibe by staying over at a smaller rehabbed area hideaway like the Mod Resort (73758 Shadow Mountain Drive, Palm Desert, Tel: (760) 674-1966), where mid-century architecture revival based on Hollywood period style comes together with Sixties wit and fun. It’s all part of the wider rediscovery of this type of period design in buildings as you roam through the cultural dynamism here.
It could be an encounter with an abstract creation in bronze or metal, a whimsical interpretation of human or other natural shapes in wood, plastic or glass, a rendering that reflects the desert’s ancient cultures, or even a building that reflects the artistic spirit of this community. For the frequent visitor or first-time explorer, each new direction you take around Palm Desert becomes part of your own local discovery of an ever inventive urban landscape.