Considering its glorious natural setting, it should come as no surprise that Sun Valley has a thriving arts and culture scene. Who could fail to be inspired, living in a place like this? In summer, the area’s many galleries spring to life, with meet-the-artist walks and curator-led tours. And if that’s not enough, there’s also live music, serious stargazing and a sheep parade.
You can quickly get to the heart of the visual arts scene here by making a beeline to the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that occupies a modern gallery space just off the main drag in Ketchum. The Center is not only an exhibition space, but also organizes all kinds of cultural programs across the valley, including a regular lecture series that draws big names such as food writer Ruth Reichl and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. It also holds drawing, painting and photography classes for kids, teens and adults. Several times each year the center mounts what it calls a “Big Idea” project – an intensive, multidisciplinary program that includes an exhibit at the Ketchum gallery space, docent-led tours, lectures, workshops and various other elements centered on one provocative idea. (Recent examples include The Unreliable Narrator, about the challenges of storytelling, and Bees, about the critical role of pollinators in the food chain. Actual bees included!)
About once a month on Fridays (check online for the current schedule), the Sun Valley Center and the local art-gallery association organize art walks that encompass new exhibitions in several galleries around town. The walks start at 5pm from the Sun Valley Center. For an even more in-depth look at the center’s exhibits, check out one of the Thursday evening exhibition tours, in which curators and other staff members discuss particular artworks in detail; tours start at 5:30pm, are informal and open to the public, and include a glass of wine.
The Sun Valley Center is also the force behind the annual Arts and Crafts Festival, a popular outdoor community event that takes over the valley in mid-August.
But the arts center is just one of many venues for fine arts in the area. Ketchum’s compact downtown is known for its distinctly cinematic, ‘Olde West’ feel, but in between (or sometimes inside) the beautifully weathered storefronts you’ll find galleries showing everything from modernist paintings to sculpture and photography. One not to miss is Friesen Gallery, whose 30-year history of consistently top-quality exhibitions include contemporary paintings, sculpture and glass. Exhibitions change monthly, and there’s an opening reception at the beginning of each new show. Of course, not all the art in town is highbrow. Just outside the Friesen’s front door is a yard full of fabulously wacky antiques and metal sculptures well worth perusing. If the adjoining antique store where they belong is open, definitely pop in.
Another excellent choice for fine-art browsing is Gilman Contemporary, frequently voted ‘Best in the Valley,’ with seasonally changing displays of painting, sculpture and photography. And fans of sculpture shouldn’t miss the Gail Severn Gallery – look for the large glass doors with various stone and bronze figures arranged out front. The building is huge, with four distinct exhibition spaces and a two-acre outdoor sculpture garden nearby. The gallery hosts ambitious exhibits of contemporary painting, sculpture and installations each month, with a strong record of showing work by female artists – including Alyssa Monks, whose paintings are featured in the final season of the FX show The Americans.
For something a little different, check out the Trailing of the Sheep festival, held each fall in Ketchum for the past 20-plus years. When was the last time you saw 1500 sheep strolling along Main Street? The parade and surrounding festival celebrate the sheep’s annual migration to winter pastures as well as the area’s long tradition of sheep ranching. There are sheep-shearing demonstrations, sheepdog championship trials, wool spinning and felting classes, craft vendors, live music and dance performances and, of course, all kinds of dishes made with lamb.
Another fun celebration of the area’s history and heritage is the annual Wagon Days festival, which culminates in one of the country’s largest non-motorized parades. Wagons, cowboys on horseback, marching bands and Basque dancers make their way along Main Street, and afterward everyone gathers for a party in the Town Square, with live music, cowboy poetry, arts and crafts and plenty of food.
Taking advantage of Sun Valley’s beautiful setting, one of its best cultural venues is outdoors. The Sun Valley Pavilion and Lawn, at Sun Valley Resort, is the setting for a wide variety of events and performances year-round. The pavilion is a 1600-seat permanent tent, with additional seating on the surrounding lawn, where the slight bowl shape of the meadow creates a natural amphitheater. It’s the main venue for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, which has given free concerts for 30 years. It’s also one of the places you can see performances by the Sun Valley Opera – not to mention dozens of live music acts throughout the summer, from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Citizen Cope. The pavilion is also the primary stage for readings and panel discussions during the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, which brings hundreds of literary types to the valley each year.
Nice as the pavilion is, it’s only one of several great music venues in the valley. On Tuesday nights mid-June through mid-August, the ‘Ketch’em Alive’ series brings free live shows to Forest Service Park (7-9pm). Summer concerts are also held regularly at River Run Lodge, at the base of the Bald Mountain ski hill. And there are regular shows at Whiskey Jacques, Ketchum’s liveliest pub, and at the Hot Water Inn, the area’s only hostel (usually free or a $5 cover charge). Keep an eye out too for the brand-new Argyros Performing Arts Center, opening in November.
One of the more fascinating features of this part of the United States has only recently gained widespread appreciation: darkness. That’s right: Central Idaho is the first region in the US to be designated a Dark Sky Reserve (and the town of Ketchum is a Dark Sky Community), meaning it’s one of the few areas in the country where there is very little interference from light pollution in the night sky. This makes it ideal for stargazing and night photography, and a prime destination for what’s known as ‘astro-tourism’. Pick up a star map and head out to the pavilion lawn to start hunting constellations, or check out the schedule of events on the visitor center website for periodic educational programs about the stars.