The first significant new museum of American art in nearly half a century debuted in 2011. But to view Crystal Bridges’ collection—from a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington to Jackson Pollock canvases—you don’t travel to New York, L.A., or Chicago. You head down a forested ravine in a town in northwestern Arkansas.
As museum founder and Walmart heiress Alice Walton scooped up tens of millions of dollars’ worth of art from across the country, thinly veiled snobbish rhetoric began to trickle out from the coasts. Most notably, when she purchased Asher B. Durand’s 1849 Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library for $35 million, some culturati bristled at the thought that this famed Hudson River School landscape would be leaving for Bentonville. The controversy raised the question: who deserves access to great art?
Yet a small town is precisely the kind of place where a stellar art collection fits in. After all, coastal hamlets, mountaintop villages, and desert whistle-stops have inspired American artists for generations, among them, the Impressionists of Connecticut’s Old Lyme Colony and the minimalist installation artists who more recently gentrified Marfa. Where else can you find the mix of affordable rents, access to inspiring natural vistas, and enough peace and quiet to actually get work done?
Many small towns also offer detour-worthy museums, some housed in spectacular historic spaces—old factories, former army bases, Beaux-Arts estates, Victorian mansions—and others built from scratch by internationally renowned architects like Zaha Hadid and Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. And with works inside just as varied, from landscape paintings at the Taos Art Museum to minimalist installations at Dia:Beacon to American folk art at the Shelburne, you’re sure to find a small-town art museum to suit any artistic taste.
When iron industrialist Alfred A. Pope began buying French Impressionist masterpieces, the movement was still stirring outrage across Europe for its radical departure from tradition. But you’d never know it from the intimate, even cozy, atmosphere at the Hill-Stead Museum, which places these works in the same context in which Pope would have enjoyed them—surrounded by antiques and period Federal-, Chippendale-, and Empire-style furnishings in his hilltop estate outside of Hartford. Like the works you’ll find inside, by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, and Édouard Manet, the house itself now seems lovely and genteel. But it also comes with a radical backstory: the Colonial Revival mansion, completed in 1901, was designed by Pope’s own daughter, only the fourth registered female architect in American history. $15; hillstead.org.
Biloxi’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum raises many questions. You might wonder what an avant-garde museum is doing in a Gulf Coast beach town known for its casinos and sunshine. Or how starchitect Frank Gehry got involved in a project dedicated to obscure 19th-century ceramicist George Ohr. Or how this place is even still standing. During construction, Hurricane Katrina slammed an unmoored casino barge directly into the unfinished buildings. Any lack of logic seems appropriate in honoring Ohr, a true eccentric who dubbed himself the Mad Potter of Biloxi and was known for his delightfully misshapen, brightly colored pottery. Opened in 2010 in a thicket of live oaks, the museum encompasses brick-and-steel pavilions, twisted egg-shaped pods, and examples of 19th-century vernacular architecture, with galleries on African American art, ceramics, and Gulf Coast history. $10; georgeohr.org.
San Marino is named for the tiny republic on the Italian peninsula. And it’s an appropriate connection for the Huntington, where the vibe is distinctly European, thanks to 120 manicured acres (reserve ahead for the Tea Room, surrounded by a rose garden) and a collection skewed to Old World classics. The Huntington Art Gallery has the largest collection of 18th- and 19th-century British art outside of London—including works by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. Other galleries within this Beaux-Arts estate cover Renaissance paintings and 18th-century sculpture as well as the furniture of Frank Lloyd Wright and paintings by Mary Cassatt and Edward Hopper. A Gutenberg Bible from the 1450s and an illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are among the library’s gems. $20.
College towns offer more than beautiful campuses, tradition-rich bars, and football. Many can also brag about world-class art collections. Case in point: Michigan State University’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. It’s the first-ever university building designed by Pritzker Prize–winner Zaha Hadid and only her second project in North America. The corrugated stainless steel and glass facade juts sharply like a ship—or perhaps more accurately a spaceship—run aground. While the collection is primarily contemporary, the curators included some classic works to better contextualize the newer acquisitions. So you can expect Old Master paintings, 19th-century American paintings, and 20th-century sculpture, along with artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, and the pre-Columbian Americas. Free; broadmuseum.msu.edu.
Low-slung and shedlike, with its corrugated tin roof and parallel 615-foot slabs of poured concrete, Eastern Long Island’s newest art museum features a style that might be called Modern Agricultural. Surrounded by a meadow of tall grasses on the long road to Montauk, the museum is a minimalist stunner that’s perfectly suited to its surroundings: the long horizontal space speaks both to the uninterrupted horizons of the region’s famed beaches and to the unfussy simplicity that first attracted artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning. Inside, under an ever-changing glow from skylights above, the collection honors the generations of artists who called this area home, such as American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and mid-century realist Fairfield Porter. In 2014, it won Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron a T+L Design Award for best museum. $10; parrishart.org.
More from Travel + Leisure: