The Wildsam List: 33 Small(ish) Art Museums With Masterpieces on Their Walls
Nino, ca.1919 - Armin C. Hansen
Art-loving travelers know the big names. It's a wonderful thing to wander the endless halls of Boston's MFA, or duck from one Smithsonian to another in D.C. But sometimes the true finds take fine-tuned radar: all across the country, small and specialized museums do the good work of championing culture and beauty. Here are a select few.
This jewelbox of classic American creativity in an all-charm Maine Coast town is, especially, the place to learn about the Wyeth art dynasty, notably painters N.C., Andrew and Jaime. In addition to extensive Wyeth works, the Farnsworth owns the Olsen House, famously painted by Andrew. Bonus: the small-but-striking Maine Center for Contemporary Art is a two-minute walk.
Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts
Down a long country road, this bright workshop, gallery space and cultural anchor on Oregon’s Umatilla Reservation champions printmaking, Indigenous art and often the meeting of the two. An artists-in-residence program backs up a collection of vivid, high-craft work.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad Has Found A New Way Through The Snow, 2002 - Nathan Carter
San Antonio, TX
To find the meeting-point of San Antonio’s vibrant scene and international contemporary art, check out the stunning, angular building designed by Tanzania-born architect Sir David Adjaye. Local spirit, global ambitions–the best, as they say, of both worlds.
Alice Moseley Museum
Bay Saint Louis, MS
A treasure trove of this self-taught, Alabama-born folk artist’s work. Housed upstairs in the historic Bay St. Louis train depot, it holds more than 80 of her storybook paintings, all completed after Moseley turned 65.
Museum of Museums
This project is not shy about what it wants to do in the world, and we love that. In a renovated medical building, a riotous collection of galleries, pop-up event spaces, installations and murals comes alive with classes and shows. The mission: to bolster the population of artists in a rapidly gentrifying city.
Hey Diddle Diddle, c. 1945. - Walter Inglis Anderson
Walter Anderson Museum of Art
Ocean Springs, MS
Celebrating the life and work of “Mississippi’s most elusive artist,” over a thousand of Anderson’s works are on display in this cathedral-like museum. Through his art, he explored connections with nature and aimed at aligning makers from across human civilization–not separating “fine” from “folk.”
Sheldon Museum of Art
This may skirt the “small” category [a major university is involved] but what a cool place. Building by noted architect Philip Johnson–he said it was his best. Organizational roots in the 1880s. A luminous Great Hall. And, most on point, a tradition of ambitious collecting and curating–for example, this year’s show of photographs commissioned to honor the late environmental writer Barry Lopez.
Hammonds House Museum
Tucked into a quiet neighborhood, Hammonds House is a 35-year-old Atlanta institution. The Victorian-style mansion holds pivotal Black art. Don’t miss the earliest work of Robert S. Duncanson–perhaps the only African-American Hudson River School artist.
Crane and Tortoise Box, 1894 - Japanese
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
There’s just something so Bostonian about the Gardner. It could only happen here. This is the former mansion of an eccentric high-society benefactress: a “millionaire Bohemienne,” someone said. Art runs wild on its walls and halls, a delirious jumble, a world away from white-walled formality. A wander [and a vibe session in the Courtyard Garden] imparts an enchanted feeling. And, of course, there’s that heist story...
Monterey Museum of Art
Not a plain city-art-museum place, MMA goes deep on California. The collection’s roots are in works and artists from before 1945, but present-day creators get their flowers, too. Puts an up-close lens on the rich aesthetic history of the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur regions.
Gibbes Museum of Art
Among the oldest art institutions in the country , the Gibbes tells Charleston’s story through American art. A must see: the over 600 miniature American portraits. While you can’t actually hold them, most are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Buffalo Bill Center for the American West
A complex of five museums explores American West art and heritage from many angles. Of note: the Plains Indian Museum embraces both traditional and ceremonial work and contemporary art by Indigenous creators; the Whitney Museum of Western Art sets up a parade of big names: Bierstadt, Remington, Moran and other classic hitmakers who helped forge the image of the West in the world’s mind.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Side Profile of David Theodore, 2019
Palm Springs Art Museum
Palm Springs, CA
An ambitious arts presence in California’s desert cultural center, PSAM is notable for its insights on modern design and architecture. The stand-alone Edward Harris Pavilion is dedicated to that broad strand of subjects, and the museum owns Frey House II, a landmark among Palm Springs’ galaxy of stunner midcentury homes.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Walk into this 175-room mansion to experience Americana at its richest. The 90,000-piece collection of historic decorative and design objects is displayed much as it was when founder Henry Francis du Pont lived here in the early-to-mid 20th century. Make a day out of it in the world-class garden and thousand-acre estate.
Clyfford Still Museum
Clyfford Still represented the West in the Abstract Expressionist movement, otherwise very East Coast. His large-scale canvases, smashing use of color and wild geometry remain a jolt for the eyes, here at the biggest museum dedicated to a single artist.
Above the Clouds I, 1962-1963 - Georgia O'Keeffe
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Santa Fe, NM
Queen of them all. This is the place to immerse yourself in O’Keeffe’s world of desert color and dreamscape shapes and her work’s ineffable sense of wild air and morning light. Exhibits, archives, programs, all of the things.
Parrish Art Museum
Water Mill, NY
Some places, small though they may be, hold an outside place in American art history. The East End of Long Island is one of those–which means a museum in Water Mill, pop. less than 2,000, holds work by modern painting icons like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, and mounts special exhibitions on the likes of Frida Kahlo.
Charlie M. Russell Museum
Great Falls, MT
Poll 1,000 Montanans on their favorite artist, and Charles Marion Russell will win by a landslide even now, 100 years after his death. A multi-talented interpreter [and imaginer] of the Wild West, Russell painted, sketched and sculpted a seemingly unlimited catalog of iconic frontier imagery. This dedicated museum also explores other dimensions and makers of Western art.
Orange Functional, 2022. - Alexandre Arrechea
Maybe wear tennis shoes for this 120-acre Hudson Valley park filled with large-scale contemporary sculptures. While you can’t climb on the works, some of them are interactive, allowing you to view the landscape and breathtaking views in different ways.
The Hess Collection
A rarified stop: the private collection of an art-loving wine family resides within one of Napa’s fancier wineries. Make an appointment to see work by British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy [a special focus] and other modernist masters. Then, wine. We don’t hate the idea.
None Worthier Than Thou in the Eyes of a Broken Man, 2019 - Katrina Andry
New Orleans, LA
If you’re into Southern art, this five-story building in New Orleans’ Warehouse Arts District is your place. This Smithsonian affiliate honors the past and present of the American South, even through the architecture: the 19th century, church-like Patrick F. Taylor Library contrasts with early-2000s, five-story glass and stone Stephen Goldring Hall.
San Juan Islands Museum of Art
Friday Harbor, WA
Board the ferry–or, pro move, a seaplane–to visit a proud, remote nexus for creators from around the Salish Sea of Washington and British Columbia.
Ansel Adams Gallery
Yosemite Village, CA
Okay, this is not technically a “museum.” But what better place to contemplate the dean of landscape photography than his longtime base in Yosemite National Park? Rotating archival prints are a revelation of the man’s aesthetic sensibility and technique: an original silver-gelatin print made by Adams’ own hand has about as much in common with an Ansel Adams wall calendar as a panther does with a house cat.
A city that nurtures many young artists through SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) also houses the oldest public art museum in the South. Telfair Museums crosses history in three separate buildings: Telfair Academy and Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, both built in the early 19th century and housing collections of the era; and the contemporary Jepson Center for the Arts, opened in 2006 with forward-thinking and interactive exhibits.
VLM (Virginia L. Montgomery), Pony Cocoon (video still), 2019
Blanton Museum of Art
Venture onto UT Austin’s campus to see Ellsworth Kelly’s final work and only freestanding building. Austin is an immersive experience full of color, patterns and light, in a structure that reminds onlookers of a chapel. But as Kelly once told the New York Times, “It’s a chapel really dedicated to creativity. That’s how I see it: It’s a secular chapel.”
Theodate Pope Riddle, the fourth woman registered as an architect in the country, designed a grand Colonial Revival Mansion as the country house for her parents in 1901. Today it houses a landmark collection of Impressionist paintings with the greats of the movement–Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet.”
Maryhill Museum of Art
For something purely … unusual, consider Maryhill. Perched above the Columbia River, an ornate mansion hosts a rambling collection. “Eccentric” doesn’t even begin to describe it. But there is beautiful stuff: 80 Rodins, French art nouveau glassworks, Orthodox icons. [Maryhill has a link to the Romanian royal family–you’ll just have to visit to get the story.] Painting. Sculpture. Historic miniature fashion mannequins. All told, it’s an art destination that more than fulfills the description “unique.” There’s a full-scale replica of Stonehenge. You have to go!
Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum
For beauty and adventure in an unexpected place, hang a right at Omaha and keep going deep into southwestern Iowa. An elegant small-town library now serves as a bold contemporary art gallery, with a strong collection and sharp curatorial voice with an international outlook. This, in a town home to fewer than 5,500 people. This spot is truly a find.
A Reduction, 2020 – Kara Walker
Focusing on post-World War II artists, the Glenstone interweaves art, architecture, and nature. Check out Jeff Koons’s “Split-Rocker,” a towering 37-foot-tall, flowered-covered sculpture.
The Noguchi Museum
Long Island City, NY
Some artists call for a singular study–they, themselves, are worthy of a day. Definitely in that category: Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor with proud Indiana roots, a globetrotting biography and long, complex story in New York City. This gorgeous, spare center for study and contemplation brings visitors deep into Noguchi’s world of shape, form and material.
Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth, TX
The only Michaelangelo on American soil is in Fort Worth? Better check it out.
The Butler Institute of American Art
The first museum dedicated specifically to American art. Tickets: free of charge since 1919. Come see big-time works by Homer, Motherwell and other bright names across our creative history.
Study for The Problem We All Live With, 1963 – Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell Museum
The name conjunes a distinct style, and a sense of familiarity: Rockwell’s illustrations truly telll part of this country’s story. Expect greatest hits (such as his iconic Saturday Evening Post covers, now a slice of bygone human experience), and some surprises too.