A Mid-Century Modern Marvel: The Palm Springs Art Museum

by Rebecca Kearney
Friday May 4, 2012

Palm Springs is the quintessential incubator for all things mid-century modern. It permeates the architectural landscape and the laid back yet avant-garde vibe of the city. The result is a desert gem where art and culture collide for an experience that will excite both the artophile and the leisure seeker.

When you hear the phrase "art museum," cities like New York and Boston may come to mind. Surprisingly, you should consider adding the Palm Springs Art Museum to your list. The Palm Springs Art Museum is an amazing and impressive gem in the California desert whose collection, though small, is a fresh and exciting.

While MOMA in NYC has Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, the Palm Springs Art Museum has Warhol's Brillo Box Dress, 1964 - an amazing piece of rare three-dimensional Warhol art. The Museum hosts an exceptional array of eclectic contemporary art pieces from masters ranging from Roy Lichtenstein and Helen Frankenthaler to Anish Kapoor and Dale Chihuly, strewn throughout its upper and lower galleries. The pieces are demurely marked so be on the lookout for amazing art pieces.

The crowing piece of this collection, just acquired by the museum, is a Louise Bourgeois, Spider II, 1995, placed ceremoniously in the middle of the upper gallery. This classic Bourgeois piece is one of the pinnacle works of her portfolio and the excitement of having her classic work radiates through the gallery.

The photography exhibit detailing the Southern California pool culture from the 1930s - 1970s fixes the museum’s place in the world. Favorite shots include Tab Hunter and Liberace by pools- with their respective "friends"- and some of the last shots of Marilyn Monroe (who, according to Hollywood legend, was discovered in Palm Springs).

The Museum also pushes limits with a new installation by openly gay contemporary artist, Michael Petry. Golden Rain is an exhibit of golden colored, blown glass raindrops are sprinkled throughout the installation gallery’s rafters adjacent to the Museum’s front lobby. It is imbued with double entendres beyond its reference to Zeus impregnating Danae in the guise of a golden shower.

Petry reinforces the "golden shower" meaning by intentionally putting queerness into his art to both shock and educate about queer fetish. The provocative nature of the exhibit is tantalizing and can only be called Mapplethorpe 2.0. Check out more of Michael Petry’s work here.

Anchoring the downtown area in a mid-century modern/brutalism style building, the Museum is truly a must see opportunity for all visitors. Anyone who loves the combination of art, architecture, and history should find time to take a day trip to Rancho Mirage and visit the estate of the late Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

The Annenberg estate is aptly named Sunnylands. The tour is a whimsical experience that takes you on a journey through the 20th century political landscape via a unique mid-century modern estate adorned with modern masters, ancient Asian motifs, and a palpable history air that permeates the visitor’s psyche.

As you enter the elegant foyer of the A. Quincy Jones (the architect, not the musician) designed main home, the room opens into a large sitting and dining main area where you are greeted by a centered Rodin sculpture surrounded by modern art masters. Light pours into the room from windows, which extend along three walls and from a teepee-like centered glass dome centered above the Rodin, allowing light to cascade onto the sculpture and into the foyer to greet you.

Past the ancient Asian arrays and motifs, is the Memory Room. The room, with its pink mid-century modern furniture, hosts floor to ceiling displays of the Annenberg’s life- photographs of presidents, first ladies, queens, and prime minister with the Annenbergs decorate the walls. From Eisenhower to Clinton, the Annenberg’s were trusted advisors and ambassadors. You can feel the presence of history in this room and throughout the estate and timelessness transports you into their inner circle in world affairs

It’s not stuffy, though. The room is just as they left it, with some frames askew. It’s also not without a certain hominess. An entire wall is dedicated to Christmas cards-from the Queen Mum.

As you walk out of the room and down a short hall to the Annenberg’s bedroom and further into the formal dining room past sitting areas, the guide details the world leaders who chatted, dined, and stayed at Sunnylands. Our guide pointed to where Princess Diana sat and a rather humble dining table where Queen Elizabeth sat with Mrs. Annenberg.

Tours are only open to groups of seven and tickets are limited and go quickly- so plan ahead. If you cannot get tickets, visitors can wander the estate gardens which are meticulously manicured with desert bloom. The visitor’s center also hosts displays on the Annenberg’s and a cafĂ© with fabulous ice tea. Grab a glass and stroll the gardens -and remember to visit the labyrinth. Truly an adventure for everyone.

Local Art
I would be remiss if I did not mention the vibrant local art scene of Palm Springs. One of the cornerstones of the community is the 50-year-old Desert Art Center located on historic North Palm Canyon Drive. I stumbled upon this hidden gem of a gallery as I strolled down the Drive looking for art and bargain shopping.

This accessible and unique art collective hosts monthly juried shows for the collective’s members where the art is not only good but affordable and would rival any large city in talent. Mediums range from landscapes to glass to jewelry and the collective’s members staff the gallery and are extremely friendly and happy to walk you through the gallery.

Nature Tours
Make sure you leave a day for a journey to see the landscape and wildlife of the desert. With national parks and fault lines nearby, take advantage of the miles of hiking trails and set out for a day of exploration and adventure. Need a tour guide? Call the experts-Desert Adventures Eco-Tours.

Our guide took us to on a hike through Andreas Canyon on the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indian Reservation where he identified flowers, herbs, and plant species of the desert. Desert Adventures leads eco-tours not only on the reservation but also to the Joshua Tree National Forest and onto the San Andreas Fault. Make sure you leave the pool and see the natural beauty of Palm Springs.


Palm Springs Art Museum:
101 North Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA

Desert Art Center
550 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA

Sunnylands - Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s Mid-Century Modern Estate
Sunnylands Center & Gardens
37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA

Desert Adventures



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