Casino Art? Bingo!If you look past the slot machines and card tables at Casino Arizona, you'll see something unique: original art. In all, the casino is home to more than 175 pieces, and the woman responsible is Aleta Ringlero.
By Nora Burba Trulsson
Scottsdale It's easy to get sensory overload at Casino Arizona: the ding-ding-ding of the slots, the flashing lights, the crooning Elvis impersonators. But right next to the hype of the gaming and the lounges, you'll find art. Loads of it. All by Native American artists.
A huge canvas by Harry Fonseca anchors a wall next to a bar. A glass case near the elevators holds a clay figure by Virgil Ortiz. Another wall is covered with a Dan Namingha painting. In all, the casino boasts more than 175 artworks in various mediums.
The remarkable collection is the work of an equally remarkable woman, curator and art consultant Aleta Ringlero, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community, where the casino is located. "The casino people approached me about 'doing some art' for the building," recalls Ringlero with a laugh. "Ten years later, it's become an ongoing process to showcase museum-quality art by Native Americans, including members of this community."
The thing is, you don't just ask Ringlero to "do some art." It's her life's work — she lives and breathes it. "I got into art because I love museums," says Ringlero. "When I walk into a museum, any kind of a museum, I feel like I'm at home."
Born in Arizona, she moved with her family to Southern California in the 1950s, where her father, artist Mervin Ringlero, worked as a saddlemaker to the Hollywood cowboy stars. "My high school was across the street from the Disney Studios," says Ringlero. "I had my formative years on the Sunset Strip and in the Hollywood Hills."
Despite the temptations of the surrounding entertainment industry, Ringlero credits her parents for instilling an early interest in art, recalling playing among her father's elaborately crafted saddles (one of which is in the Casino Arizona collection) and going to art museums with her mother, a member of the Gila River Community.
A chance meeting with Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1969 at the Troubadour club raised Ringlero's awareness of Indian identity and politics. "I knew I was different from most other kids in Southern California," she recalls, "but I never really thought much about my heritage before that."
Armed with a degree in art history, Ringlero worked in art and archaeology before moving back to Arizona in the early 1980s. In 1989, she landed a job as the Native American public programs manager with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and has continued working on Smithsonian projects since coming back to Arizona again in 1993.
The Casino Arizona project is not just closest to her home, it's closest to Ringlero's heart, allowing her to put together works by her favorite artists. "The whole point of exhibiting art there was to challenge the notion of a traditional museum," she says. "This collection is in a casino, on a reservation. You can stop by and look at art at 3 in the morning. I love that."