Despite being an artist, I am not fond of art museums. This can be frustrating for my poor husband when we travel together. Typically, he can get away with dragging me to one or two museums per trip (sometimes more depending on the location). But there’s one kind of art museum that I can’t get enough of- Immersive Art Experiences.
What is an Immersive Art Experience?
I consider Immersive Art Experiences to be those in which you are surrounded by the artistic work. The best versions of immersive art might involve entire rooms where you can see, hear, and feel the piece. In the modern age, VR might be incorporated as well, transporting you to another world. And when it’s not possible to do either, I count some kinds of interactive art to be immersive as well, partially because this form of art engages with multiple senses.
Wonderspaces can be found in three US cities, Philadelphia, Austin, and my very own Scottsdale. It’s at the top of my list, because basically every element of Wonderspaces’ display is immersive. And each piece accomplishes this in different ways. Before COVID-19, this included some very cool VR experiences. My favorite was a journey on the river between the living world and the next. While my husband was more drawn to a more scary alien abduction VR experience. The rest of their space is primarily devoted to room-sized experiences.
A favorite for Instagram is a room of rainbow lights that you can walk through as they softly change color. There have also been massive floor mirrors that you can walk over, changing their shape as your weight shifts across the installation. Finally, they often have art pieces that you can be a part of- like a wall of secrets penned by the visitors. What’s also cool about Wonderspaces is that they change up their art with fair regularity, so you can return after they shift to new art installations for an almost totally new experience. (Last time they kept the room of lights, which I appreciated, but everything else was different).
The other thing I love about Wonderspaces is that it is tucked right in the foodcourt of Arizona’s best mall (imo). So, if you are interested in grabbing food there are lots of good options. In particular, I love getting ice cream at the poke place (crazy as that sounds). They do tend to close their ice cream down when it gets too busy though. But there is boba and more to enjoy if ice cream isn’t on offer when you visit.
Plan Your Visit
COVID-19 note: While I haven’t been able to return to Wonderspaces since the pandemic started, I am guessing they will need to make changes for safety. Keep this in mind when planning your visit.
Cost for adult Wonderspace tickets in Scottsdale, AZ are $24 with kids (3-12) being $15 and seniors (60+) $20. There are a few other options, so be sure to ask about discounts if you work in healthcare or are military, a teacher, or a student! Parking is free at the mall.
Address: 7014 E Camelback Rd #584, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
#2 The Phoenix Art Museum
The Phoenix Art Museum is a traditional art museum, but they have both permanent and visiting installations that are immersive (and they are great) so I have to include it on my list of immersive art experiences. Specifically, when you visit, find your way to Yayoi Kusama’s You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies piece. Even though I have seen it a million times, I still love getting lost in the darkness, surrounded by flickering lights. It really is magical.
After visiting the museum, you will be very close to Phoenix’s downtown area. This is the closest thing we have in the area to a real downtown. You might find it quite small depending where you come from, but there is a lot of amazing food in Phoenix downtown. So, please be sure to check out some spots. In the summer, don’t plan on walking too far. But in the winter, be sure to give the city a little walk. There is some very cool architecture as well as a beautiful church. You can also take the lightrail to and from the museum. The lightrail is also a great way to get from the museum to downtown if you don’t want to drive. (Check out our 24 hour Phoenix itinerary for ideas on coupling a visit to the Phoenix Art Museum with other unique attractions).
Plan Your Visit
Phoenix Art Museum tickets are $23.00 for adults, and $14.00 for kids (6-17). They also have discounts for seniors and students as well as a military access program. Parking is free.
Address: 1625 North Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004
COVID-19 note: The Phoenix Art Museum is closed for the time being. They have no yet announced when they will reopen.
Of these three immersive art experiences, this is my least favorite as of 2020. Candytopia uses candy to create themed rooms with various interactive elements. Much of this place is geared towards little kids and the Instagram crowd. There are lots of neat little elements for photographers and their posing partners. I was a little too shy to pose with some of the coolest props, but my husband was willing enough. In any case, for people that really enjoy being photographed, this place has tons of potential. There is also a marshmallow pit (not real marshmallows) that makes for some cute photos.
If I were being a little harsh, however, I would say that this place reminded me a little more of a luxury, roadside attraction. The most common element of the whole experience are statues made of candy. It’s a bit odd.
If you give Candytopia a visit, you might also enjoy walking around Scottsdale Quarter. It’s a bit like a swanky outdoor mall. There are some nice places to eat as well as some high-end stores to peruse.
Plan Your Visit
At the moment Candytopia in Scottsdale is only open Friday-Sunday. Tickets are $28 for adults and $20 for kids (4-12). Parking at Scottsdale Quarter is free.
Address: 15147 N. Scottsdale Rd. Suite 180, Scottsdale, AZ 85254
For more ideas on Arizona Travel, check out our in-depth state guide!
The Lavatory: A Cautionary Tale
Sadly, the world of immersive art experiences isn’t all fun and games. (But it should be!) The Lavatory is a lesson in what can go wrong in. As responsible travelers, this particular case can also teach us what to be aware of, as we’d like to avoid supporting shady people/institutions.
So, first thing’s first…
What was The Lavatory?
It’s no surprise based on this post, but the Lavatory was an immersive art experience in Phoenix, Arizona. In a few words, some might describe the experience as “underground.” But I would say that the Instagram hype attached to this place stole the genuine “undergroundness” from this attraction. We visited before we were aware of the controversy attached to the company. It was run by a man named Bill Tonneson, who has been influencial in the Phoenix art scene and made his fortune as a landscape architect. He turned that passion for art into The Lavatory. Eventually, however, Tonnesen was known for something else… controversy and accusations of sexual harassment.
What was it like to visit?
There were two parts to the experience. First, there was a ball pit, and this was a photography favorite. Bill Tonnesen, described this as kind of a cleansing ritual. I didn’t experience it as such, however. The first thing everyone did upon entering was take off their shoes. (If you didn’t have socks, you were forced to buy an overpriced pair). Then, we were all packed into a small basement space until we were shoulder to shoulder with so many strangers that barely anyone could move. The smell of feet was overpowering.
Bill would then arrive and shake hands with everyone. (This all sounds insane in the age of COVID-19, but it was an acceptable situation back then). We were told to sit, and then the balls would pour down from the center of the room, filling every nook and cranny. Music would play and colorful lights would transition through the rainbow. At this point, it was a bonanza of Instagramming.
I found it gross and stifling. At one point, I sank beneath the balls and almost felt as though I wouldn’t be able to resurface. My feet couldn’t find the floor. People fell on top of me. The smell of feet continued to be powerful. I crawled out early.
The second half of the experience was more of a traditional art museum experience, although it was quite immersive and included volunteer actors. Much of the installation was inspired by the name- bathrooms and toilet paper were everywhere. It took extreme patience to make it through the line for the ball pit and then a second, slow-moving line for this second experience. We didn’t end up wanting to wait twice.
What killed this “underground” immersive art experience?
A local #MeToo movement.
Mr. Tonnesen has been accused of sexual harassment and abuses of his power for sometime, but this came to a head after he had launched The Lavatory. A story about his bad behavior went viral on Facebook in the second half of 2019. Then, as more accusations came to light, The Lavatory at first temporarily shut down… then permanently (https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/arts/2019/09/06/bill-tonnesen-me-too-scandal-lavatory-art-phoenix/2213610001/).
Later in 2019, another immersive art experience attempted to open in the space. However, there were suspicions that this new installation was connected to Tonnesen as well. It was vandalized, and since then, it is not clear what will happen with the space (https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/imaginarea-vandalized-replace-the-lavatory-bill-tonnesen-art-11371391).
From what I can find, no official criminal charges or civil suits have yet been submitted in regards to the alleged misconduct of Mr. Tonnesen. More information on the story can be found here (https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/women-accuse-art-bill-tonnesen-sexual-misconduct-phoenix-11353902), but trigger warning for stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
Immersive Art Experiences for Responsible Travelers
Supporting problematic (alleged) people with tourism money isn’t something I would consider “responsible.” That being said, I did buy tickets for The Lavatory and I went before I realized what I was supporting. So, how can responsible travelers avoid the same mistake?
Just keep your eyes and ears open as you plan for your trips- especially as the day of your visit draws nearer. In particular, pay attention to the running news stories and how a location is trending on Twitter. If there is a big name person attached, learn some more about them and see what Google picks up on when you do a search. For company-run installations, find out what the company is named and research them as well. In either case, Google will be your friend (as always).
I wish I had done my due diligence.
Because even if the allegations against Tonnesen aren’t true, I regret spending money on a night spent in a sweaty-feet room. Not even cool immersive art experiences can make up for that bad memory.
Save This for Later