The impulse to make art is irrepressible, so irrepressible that it might as well be coded into our DNA. Think of what you know about ancient peoples, and what leaps to mind are not clay tablets or scrolls but cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Native American pots, Greek statues, Roman mosaics and archaic Chinese bronze vessels. The need to create art is impossibly old, and deeply human. It is also everywhere, and that includes places that aren’t trumpeted for their art scenes. These cities and towns won’t immediately jump out when thinking about art destinations, and they don’t pretend to rival New York, but each has its own treasures that are well worth exploring.
If Baltimore was located almost anywhere else in America, it might get more recognition for its museum scene. Sitting in the shadow of Washington, D.C., makes it something of a sleeper. Textile heiresses Etta and Claribel Cone bequeathed a jewel to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) in the form of their eponymous modern art collection. They devoted themselves to pursuing art and amassed a peerless collection of Picassos, Cezannes and Matisses. The two were particularly fond of Matisse; 500 of the 3,000 works that the sisters gave to the BMA came from his studio, including his 1907 masterpiece “Blue Nude.”
The BMA built upon the Cones’ contributions to form a Matisse collection that exceeds 1,000 pieces — the largest group of his works that are accessible to the public. The Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, due to open in 2021, will cement its reputation as a mecca for Matisse scholars. The museum also boasts collections of African art, Pacific Islander art and American art, including works by several members of the Peale family, America’s first celebrated dynasty of native-born artists.
Baltimore’s art treasures don’t end with the BMA. The 36,000 objects in the Walters Art Museum range from Egyptian faience amulets to Fabergé eggs to Gilbert Stuart’s last portrait of George Washington. And the American Visionary Art Museum lauds outsider art — works by people who have no formal art training but who feel a deep need to create.
Visitors don’t come to Denver to head inside, but maybe they should. The Mile High City’s wealth of museums presents a strong case for exploring the great indoors. The Denver Art Museum (DAM) curates one of the world’s best collections of art by native peoples, and its modern and contemporary works include pieces by Matisse, Juan Gris, Edward Ruscha, Nam June Paik and Robert Motherwell. But its most sought-after attraction was made by local sculptor John DeAndrea. Linda, a depiction of a sleeping woman, is so realistic that some find it hard to believe that she’s made of polyvinyl. Because the sculpture is highly vulnerable to light, the museum displays it infrequently, in a dark, climate-controlled space. Linda’s disappearances heighten the sculpture’s mystery and have made it that much more intriguing to visitors.
The 27,000-square-foot Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, founded in 1996, cements its dedication to contemporary art by refusing to keep a permanent collection. Past exhibits have showcased Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili and Paul Sietsema. Less than 2 miles away lies the Clyfford Still Museum, dedicated to the works of the late American abstract expressionist and color-field painter, ranks as one of the strongest and most comprehensive single-artist museums in the world. Latin American art takes the spotlight at the Museo de las Americas, and the American Museum of Western Art features works by Albert Bierstadt, N.C. Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton.
Fort Worth, Texas, is a freestanding city, with a history that dates to 1849 and a population larger than that of Boston. But it’s easy to believe that “Dallas–” is part of Fort Worth’s name, given how often the two are mentioned together. (Maybe that’s the unintended consequence that comes with naming the main airport Dallas–Fort Worth International.)
The region’s art attractions are generally spoken of in the same breath, too, even though Fort Worth’s offerings are strong enough to stand alone. The Kimbell Art Museum ranks among the world’s best small museums, hosting 350 powerful works by Rubens, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Modigliani, Michelangelo and Caravaggio within a Louis Kahn-designed building that was lauded as a work of art upon its debut. When it came time to expand, the museum followed Kahn’s long-ago suggestion to build a second, separate building nearby rather than an addition or a wing. Kahn’s former student Renzo Piano was chosen to create the new structure, which opened in 2013.
The Kimbell is one of three museums placed blessedly close to one another in the Fort Worth Cultural District. The oldest of the group is the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which traces its origins to 1892. Showcased within a Tadao Ando-designed building, the collection features pieces by Carl Andre, Jenny Holzer, Donald Judd, Roxy Paine and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as 21 works by Jackson Pollock and 50 by Robert Motherwell. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art completes the trio. The Philip Johnson-designed building contains formidable collections of works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, two seminal illustrators of scenes of the Old West, as well as pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Lewis Hine, Grant Wood and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. A fourth museum located downtown, the Sid Richardson Museum, celebrates Remington, Russell and other artists of the American West.
In the art world, staying relevant is a challenge. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, has risen to that challenge, over and over. It’s the country’s oldest continually operating public art museum, having opened its doors in 1844, and it has evolved with the times, even if its castlelike exterior has not. A savvy renovation, unveiled in 2015, proved that its stewards know how to keep things fresh without resorting to showy new wings or buildings designed by “starchitects.” Its collection includes Charles James evening gowns, a hyper-realistic Duane Hanson sculpture, an 18th-century Meissen porcelain bird cage that had to have been excruciatingly difficult to make, and paintings by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
About 10 miles away, in Farmington, Connecticut, sits the Hill-Stead Museum, which is home to a fine collection of impressionist art. Entrepreneur Alfred Pope traveled to Europe at the turn of the last century to acquire pieces by Manet, Monet, Degas and Cassatt, who stayed at Hill-Stead at his invitation in 1908. The 33,000-square-foot mansion is its own work of art. Pope’s daughter, Theodate, was one of America’s first woman architects, and the Colonial Revival-style home was built after her design. It earned National Historic Landmark status in 1991.
The Rhode Island School of Design’s namesake museum, in and of itself, justifies an art-centric trip. Its collection is huge — more than 100,000 pieces — and well-composed, featuring ancient Greek coins, the best collection of 19th-century Japanese prints outside of Japan and works by every modern master you can name. Agnes Martin, Lynda Benglis, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman, Wayne Thiebaud, Louise Nevelson, Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol all appear.
The RISD Museum also curates one of the best collections of costumes and textiles in America. It spans two millennia and seemingly every corner of the world, and contains more than 26,000 objects, or about a quarter of the institution’s total holdings. Local masterpieces make the cut as well. The most stunning is a Cubic coffee service created in 1927 by Danish designer Erik Magnussen for the Gorham Manufacturing Company, which was then based in Providence. Gorham chose not to produce the bold, visually striking silver set, but its prototype survives to serve the noble purpose of delighting visitors.
The Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) is an old-school encyclopedic museum, or an institution that acquires key artworks and objects across an ambitiously broad spectrum. Its holdings exceed 34,000 pieces and include the world’s largest collection of paintings by the 20th-century German painter Max Beckmann, whose art was labeled “degenerate” by Nazi Germany. Taking inspiration from its Beckmanns, SLAM expanded its vision to postwar German art, acquiring pieces by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. It’s also a stronghold of artworks by George Caleb Bingham, a 19th-century Missouri artist who often painted scenes of life along the Mississippi River.
SLAM is hardly the only game in town, though. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation, an art museum that debuted in 2001, boasts site-specific commissions from Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, an interfaith institution at Saint Louis University, explores how a once-dominant force in the art world lives on. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has mounted shows of works by Cindy Sherman, Marilyn Minter and Richard Artschwager. And the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum lauds a medium that once struggled for acceptance as fine art. Its Hall of Fame enshrines Richard Avedon, Lewis Hine, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray.
In 1872, politician and entrepreneur Leland Stanford asked photographer Eadweard Muybridge to examine a theory of his: whether all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground together at some point when it runs. Stanford was certain that they did. His peers were less convinced. Years of experimentation culminated in a tightly timed 1878 test at the racetrack at Stanford’s estate. With a bank of a dozen cameras attached to trip wires, Muybridge confirmed that running horses do in fact float above the ground, however briefly. Stanford enjoyed the sensation of being proven right. Artists and art historians had to grapple with the fact that centuries of paintings and sculptures had failed to capture how a horse truly moves. And the series of stop-motion images of Stanford’s horse in full stride hinted at a new industry to come: motion pictures.
The trove of Muybridge photographs at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center includes period shots of moving horses and images of the equipment used to take them. But they make for one highlight among more than 38,000 other items in the center’s collection, which includes Richard Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks, northwestern Native American art and a Rodin Sculpture Garden featuring 20 works by the French artist. The center isn’t the only art attraction on campus. Also worth a visit are the Anderson Collection of modern art and the Stanford Art Gallery, a teaching gallery. And where billionaires congregate, art galleries follow, hoping to turn entrepreneurs into collectors. The venerable Pace Gallery maintains an outpost in nearby Palo Alto.