Located in south central Arizona 40 miles south of Tucson in a valley along the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River, Tubac describes itself as a place where “art and history meet.” This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options. Tubac was established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, the first colonial fortress in what is now Arizona.
Tubac started to develop as an art colony in the 1930s and ’40s. Dale Nichols, a painter and illustrator best known for his rural landscape paintings, played a significant role in shaping Tubac’s evolution into an art center. In 1948, he bought and restored a number of Tubac’s historic buildings and opened an art school.
Today, this village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high quality selection of art and artisan works that includes paintings, sculpture, pottery, metal work, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.
It’s not just the goods inside the shops that are beautiful. The village of restored buildings and landscaped walkways is a delight to walk through. Old, red brick buildings and adobes with wood beams jut out near the top. Wood pillars support terracotta-tiled roofs to create covered walkways in front of buildings. Pillars as well as door and window trim are painted in bright hues of blue, turquoise, yellow, or red. Mexican tiles decorate buildings. Hidden courtyards contain more shops or bits of historical information.
High-desert vistas and views of the Santa Rita Mountains form a backdrop. Scenic views to inspire the creative spirit! It is easy to see how artists would be drawn to Tubac’s combination of stunning landscape and history.
Tubac Festival of the Arts debuted in 1964. The annual five-day February event attracts thousands of visitors each day. The juried show features 150 to 200 artists from all over the country. Booths line village streets that are blocked to vehicular traffic. The festival also features musicians and roving entertainers. The festival is free but there is a charge for parking. Horse-drawn trolleys ferry people to and from parking lots and throughout the town.
Visiting and resident artists display their works in harmony. You can weave your way past temporary booths and into and out of permanent shops as you walk through the village but you may also want to consider visiting at another, quieter time to properly appreciate the resident galleries and shops.
The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is located on the site of the former fort. This is Arizona’s first state park hosting a world class museum and bridging Tubac’s past life to its destiny as an artist colony.
Excavated portions of the walls, foundation, and floor of the Commandant’s quarters can be viewed from an underground archaeological exhibit. Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona; Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.
A Museum on the grounds showcases the timeline of human settlement with information about the Native American, Spanish Colonial, Mexican Republic, and Territorial Eras. Among the variety of artifacts, you’ll find ancient pottery, Spanish cookware, mining tools, nineteenth century costumes, and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859.
If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park reserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities and is less than five miles from Tubac.These abandoned ruins include San José de Tumacácori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, and San Cayetano de Calabazas.
The mission San José de Tumacácori first was listed in 1691 as an outlying visita by Father Kino, and is one the oldest in Arizona. Tumacácori contributed a herd of cattle to the Anza expedition and Father Font, a member of Anza’s colony, stayed here while Anza marshaled his forces at Tubac. The mission San José de Tumacácori is open to the public. The other two mission ruins are much more fragile and are only accessible through special guided tours. The Park also offers a visitor center and museum.
Crafts make us feel rooted, give us a sense of belonging and connect us with our history. Our ancestors used to create these crafts out of necessity, and now we do them for fun, to make money and to express ourselves.