22 Small Towns with Vibrant Art Scenes
Art lovers flock to big cities for amenities like world-class museums, major performing arts venues, and funky districts full of galleries, studios, and hip boutiques. But don't assume small-town America is an artistic wasteland -- in fact, there are plenty of tiny towns that punch far above their weight when it comes to the arts. In these 22 places, you can soak in some culture while enjoying small-town charm, too.
Beacon, perched on the Hudson River north of New York City, has transformed from "sleepy working-class community to popular weekend getaway," according to Conde Nast Traveler. That's in large part thanks to Dia:Beacon, a contemporary art museum housed in a former Nabisco cracker-box factory, which spurred a wave of gallery openings. Check them out during Second Saturday, when businesses stay open late, holding receptions and other special events.
Ashland, home to the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is just off Interstate 5 just north of the California border. The performing arts have spurred on the visual arts, too, and the city hosts more than 30 galleries and working art studios within a few blocks of one another. An art walk on the first Friday of each month gives visitors a chance to enjoy music and refreshments while checking out the galleries.
South of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer offers an art scene equal to its seaside Alaskan scenery. There's a wide range of visual and performing arts, and during the summer, the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference attracts writers honing their craft. You'll find pottery throwers, stained-glass makers, mural artists, and even wooden-boat builders scattered around town, according to the real estate company Movoto.
In Cape Cod's Provincetown, art has deep roots. A turn-of-the-century art colony for impressionist painters spurred other artists to come set up shop, and the tradition continues today as painters, sculptors, writers, photographers and others work alongside one another. Visitors can explore more than 50 galleries throughout the summer, though most stay open into October.
The colorful knit sleeves on Yellow Springs' "knit-knot tree" are your first clue that this southwestern Ohio city fully embraces its quirky art scene, a natural extension of its counterculture past. Though there are galleries, you'll also find cars spray-painted with kaleidoscopic colors, funky street art, and yes, plenty of tie-dye. For a true taste of the "small-town hoopla," visit during Street Fair, held every June and October.
Home to the 25,000-square-foot Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea hosts a number of working artists and craftspeople that welcome visitors in their studios. Broadway Street's Artisan Village hosts weavers, glass blowers, jewelry makers and more, and the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen's Fair is held every October.
Vibrant, scenic Taos has been worth a pilgrimage for artists of all kinds since the turn of the century, notes Fodor's, and the town has hosted luminaries including Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and D.H. Lawrence. Today, the town hosts several museums and dozens of galleries. The Harwood Museum of Art is a must-see, providing a comprehensive overview of art in Taos and the Southwest, past and present.
Marfa bills itself as "tough to get to" and "tougher to explain," and that's a big part of its allure. Far from just about everything in West Texas, Marfa became a hub for contemporary art in the early '70s when minimalist Donald Judd filled an old army base with permanent installations. One of the most famous works? "Prada, Marfa," a faux Prada boutique erected in 2005 to stand alone on the desolate Texas horizon.
Carmel's storybook architecture and seaside setting is worth the trip alone. But look closer and you'll find a staggering 100 galleries in one square mile, many of which can be explored during the Carmel Art Walk on the second Saturday every month. No matter what you like, you'll find it -- there's everything from modern sculpture to classic European art to contemporary watercolors.
Art has been a driving force in the transformation of Delray Beach, where a formerly "dilapidated main drag" is now a gallery-lined hotspot, Fodor's says. Old School Square, a cluster of restored school buildings, leads the way as a host for a contemporary art museum, performing arts venues, and the Creative Arts School, which hosts a range of visual and performing arts classes.
Nashville is in the heart of Indiana's Brown County, known as the "Art Colony of the Midwest" after landscape artists flocked to the picturesque region in the late 1800s. Smithsonian.com recommends checking out one of the oldest and best galleries, Brown County Art Gallery, and touring the home of colony founder T.C. Steele, a notable impressionist.
Portland's nonprofit SPACE Gallery is a big driver of the town's art scene. Not only does it host musicians, film screenings, exhibitions, and lectures, but it rents studio space to working artists as well. On First Friday Art Walks, venues and galleries open their doors, and the streets fill with performers, artists, food trucks and more.
Fairfield, with its cute town square, looks like your standard little Midwestern town, but residents tell NPR that there's a thriving arts community within. Visitors can tour 25 galleries on the Fairfield 1st Fridays Art Walk, and the city's Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts regularly hosts national acts despite the city's small size.
While jaw-droppingly scenic Sedona is an obvious hotbed for Native American and Southwestern art, it's also hosted artists as diverse as German surrealist Max Ernst and Egyptian sculptor Nassan Gobran. Visitors can hop a free trolley on the first Friday of each month to visit a wide range of galleries showcasing everything from Navajo to New Age works.
The Grand Marais Art Colony has been nurturing artists in its wilderness setting since 1947, and it still offers classes for both beginners and advanced practitioners. Visitors to this town on Lake Superior can find studios displaying North Shore-inspired woodworking, photography and jewelry, as well as Native American art.
Since 1933, the heart of Abingdon in southwestern Virginia has been the historic Barter Theatre, which claims to be the nation's longest running professional theater. The Barter has featured everything from major plays and musicals to kids' productions and locally produced Appalachian projects. The town also has several visual arts galleries, and the William King Museum of Art showcases a range of local and international works.
Cowboy culture may be the first thing that impresses visitors about Jackson Hole, but the arts also have a strong foothold in this Grand Teton town. The National Museum of Wildlife Art, which overlooks an elk refuge, examines the history of wildlife in art, from 2500 B.C. to the present. Another must-visit is the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, which presents a range of performances and exhibitions. The Fall Arts Festival, held every September, is also worthy of a trip.
This once-strapped waterfront city's comeback is in large part thanks to the arts, notes Time Out New York. The Count Basie Theater allows locals to see big-name acts in an intimate venue, while the Two River Theater Company showcases plays and hosts free readings and other events. Downtown hosts several galleries, and the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Festival is a yearly draw.
Hot Springs boasts its very own Fine Arts District, where historic buildings have been remade as galleries that are open late for music and lively conversation during Gallery Walks on the first Friday of the month. Travel & Leisure recommends checking out the historic Ozark Bathhouse, reopened in 2014 as a cultural center.
Abundant art makes Vail a destination for something besides just skiing. An Art in Public Places initiative has peppered the town with 45 public artworks, from sculptures and murals to interactive playground installations. Galleries line town streets, and a number of high-profile festivals draw dancers, jazz artists, orchestras and more throughout the year.
Easton, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has two top-notch art attractions considering its modest size: The Academy Art Museum, a community hub for arts programming, and the historic Avalon Theatre, built in the early 1920s. April through December, Easton's galleries host an open house on the first Friday of each month. If you love wildlife art, don't miss the Waterfowl Festival in November, which features painters, carvers, photographers, sculptors, and others.
Tiny Saugatuck in southwestern Michigan has been branded "the art coast of Michigan," and it's easy to see why -- there are at least 35 galleries between Saugatuck and nearby Douglas, according to the Chicago Tribune. That's despite a combined population of just over 2,000. The Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists' Residency adds to the area's allure and hosts open-studio nights throughout the summer.
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