Everyone plans on visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art when visiting New York City or The Art Institute when vacationing in Chicago, but some amazing art awaits in museums that may be off the radar. Whenever I travel around the United States, I spend some time exploring the local art museum and am frequently awed by the quality of the art and design of the buildings.
I often find myself entranced by an exhibit or two and surprised by the breadth of the collections. Many of these museums are the product of art lovers who yearned to share their passion with all. The following are collections that I have visited in the past year and I am sure I will find more in my future travels.
1. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Although the exterior of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is grand, it did not prepare me for the Venetian paradise within. After walking through the corridor, a lush, intimate courtyard drew me into the elegance and artistry of the place. On the ground floor, brick arches atop stone columns provide a view from the portico that surrounds the yard. On the second and third floors, tall arched windows open to stone railings to further enjoyment of the courtyard.
As I moved through the rooms, I was a bit overwhelmed by the opulence of the furnishings of the palace. No detail was overlooked. The artworks included not only paintings, sculptures, and furniture, but extended to the flooring, ceiling tiles, fireplaces, and wall dressings. Each room is named for the type of art and furnishings that compose it.
As Raphael is my favorite painter, I was naturally drawn to the Raphael Room. The art and decor did not disappoint. The bright red damask wallpaper reflected the sunlight streaming in through the windows. The artwork reflected Raphael’s neoclassical style and included the first of his paintings brought to the United States. Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased the portrait of Tommaso Inghirami in 1898 and created a room around it.
Mrs. Gardner inherited a fortune from her father and used it to travel extensively and collect artwork and rare books. She planned a museum to showcase her treasures and was personally involved in the design. She gathered architectural fragments to include in the building. When the construction was complete in 1901, she moved into the fourth floor to direct the arrangement of the first three floors. At her death in 1924, she left an endowment to preserve the museum intact as she left it.
Pro Tip: You must buy tickets in advance for a timed entry. Thursday evenings, the museum stays open until 9 p.m.
2. Carnegie Museum Of Art
While visiting Pittsburgh for a conference, I snuck out to explore the Carnegie Museum of Art. I wandered into the Hall of Sculpture not expecting to find a devastating photo exhibit. Each frame of the Hiroshima Collection portrayed a personal item along with a description of the owner and where they were during the nuclear explosion. I couldn’t look away and was reminded of the ruin of the Genbaku Dome that I saw in Hiroshima.
The Hall of Architecture was filled with dozens of plaster casts of well-known monuments and statues. The museum has the largest collection of architectural casts in the United States. I enjoyed counting how many of the original masterpieces that I had seen on trips to Europe, such as the Winged Victory and the sculptures from the pediment of the Parthenon.
As I roamed the rest of the galleries, I found room after room of intriguing art. An exhibit of revolutionary journals used sound and visual projections to demonstrate the fight against colonialism, slavery, and genocide. The contemporary galleries included paintings and digital prints as well as a glass and aluminum sculpture that divided the room and a grouping of lava lamps, iron pots, and digital clocks. A room of impressionists included Water Lilies by Monet and Young Girl in Pink by one of my favorite artists, Renoir.
At the end of my journey, I moved around room-filling artworks that offered many perspectives. In Ruins of Two Cities: Mosul and Aleppo, 2019-2021, Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi portrayed the destruction of these cities. In Oyonik (The Calling), Edgar Calel has arranged 75 ceramic vessels filled with water, petals, and branches.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but is closed on Tuesdays.
3. The Ackland Art Museum
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
On the lovely campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a lightly adorned brick building contains a collection of over 20,000 pieces of art. William Hayes Ackland wished to create a place for Southerners to experience fine art and searched for a university to host it. The Ackland Art Museum opened in 1958, long after his death. However, it established his legacy.
Although the space is small compared to most museums, I was impressed by the art inside. The Asian Art collection featured gorgeous China ceramics and Japanese woodblock prints. A range of American and European art spanned the time from medieval to contemporary. African statues, masks, and jewelry boasted intricate details. The second floor contained works that students use as inspiration for their classes.
My favorite gallery was Peace, Power, & Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa, which illuminated the complex works of sub-Saharan Africa. These objects bound communities and improved ties with neighbors. The jewelry and ceremonial pieces demonstrated the strong yet malleable mystical power in people and their divine inspirations.
The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Pro Tip: Down the street you can refresh at a hip café and bookstore called Epilogue.
4. Legion Of Honor
San Francisco, California
The goal of my day was a hike on the Lands End Trail to view the Golden Gate Bridge. I assumed the Legion of Honor was a memorial that I would stroll past but was very pleasantly surprised by the amazing art collection inside. Marble Roman and Greek sculptures quickly drew me in. A range of European art from medieval times through the 19th century included an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures. A sculpture of Venus by Renoir rests near Monet’s paintings of water lilies and the grand canal of Venice. Rodin sculptures filled three rooms and The Thinker welcomed me in the entrance courtyard.
A special fashion exhibit accented many of the galleries with stunning ensembles. Guo Pei combined the traditional culture and craft of China with European fashion and art to create elaborate dresses, shoes, and headwear. Staging these pieces within French rooms loaded with accompanying furniture and in the art galleries filled with paintings highlighted their cultural significance.
Visit the Legion of Honor Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m to 5:15 p.m.
5. Blackhawk Museum
As I approached the Blackhawk Museum, a charging bull elephant statue appeared to dwarf the museum. I had read that the museum’s main appeal was its collection of unique classic cars and, not being much interested in cars, figured it would not be that enjoyable of a visit. I was blown away, however, by the elegance and charm of the cars shining in the light reflected off the black, polished floor. An array of over 40 vehicles spread out across the room, from the 1910 Stanley Steamer that didn’t look much different than a horse buggy with wheels to the 2017 Lamborghini that resembled a rocket ship.
Upon entering the Art of Africa gallery, I became engrossed in a ten-foot-tall piece of ebony intricately carved with dozens of Tanzanian species. Vietram Vicent Dila spent 33 years carving this piece that depicted the interdependence of animals. Farther into the space, drums and stringed instruments in various amusing and interesting shapes showed the importance of music in the culture of Sub-Saharan Africa. A display of masks sporting different expressions and adornments further revealed the spiritual practices and amazing artistry of African people.
The spectacular details of the works in Into China began with “Fortune Comes From Blooming Flowers” made of yak bones and rosewood. It was difficult to imagine how the artist could carve such a delicate, detailed piece. My awe increased as I surveyed Dreamland, a wall-length depiction of a fable, made out of fossilized wood. The exhibit continued with the golden Dragon Throne, a line of terracotta soldiers, and a room filled with a complete set of bronze chimes.
Blackhawk Museum is open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m to 5 p.m.
6. Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum Of The West
When I first visited Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, I expected to learn about the history of the American West and see cowboy artifacts. The A. P. Hays Spirit of the West Collection certainly delivered that with 1,400 items, including saddles, spur, rifles, and facades of an old west town. The other galleries, however, feature paintings, drawings, sculptures, and pottery worthy of any art museum.
I lost track of time in the Canvas of Clay exhibit poring over the descriptions of the Hopi pottery that had been collected by Allan and Judith Cooke during their travels. The innovative geometric designs of Nampeyo of Hano led to the stunning colors and patterns in the works of her descendants.
In a gallery featuring Paul Calle’s portraits of history and stamps he designed, I enjoyed perusing his works depicting mountain men and Native Americans. The exhibit displays his drawings alongside the finished paintings in an interesting look into an artist’s process.
Western Spirit is closed on Wednesdays and the hours vary on the other days. Check the website for tickets.
Pro Tip: Through April 2023, a special show encompasses the life-long pursuit of Edward Curtis to capture the culture and history of the North American Indian. Over 30 years, Edward Curtis visited more than 100 tribes from Alaska to New Mexico and California to North Dakota. His portraits capture the spirit of his subjects and his other photographs reveal their living conditions and spiritual lives.
The size of an art museum certainly doesn’t predict the quality of the artwork or the enjoyment of exploring the space. Many amazing museums await across the United States filled with paintings, sculptures, fashion, and furnishings from around the world. The next time you travel, check out which art museums are nearby to inspire and entertain you.
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