America’s most artistic towns

Estimated reading time: 21 minutes

Getting artsy in America’s most creative places, year 2

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation.” –Lyndon Johnson

Why do you love to travel? Chances are, it’s not so you can do the same things over and over again, but to see, hear, and feel something new. Art also allows us to do this, to take journeys to new ways of thinking and experiencing the world, to see deeper and live richer through imagination and connection. Perhaps that’s why it is so exciting to visit places with thriving arts communities, where you may run across colorful graffiti and murals, talented street performers, inspiring museums, stimulating literary events, and world-class theater.

In our second-annual feature of the most artistic towns in America, we followed largely the same rules as last year, finding another wealth of places currently giving our large cities a run for their money with creative festivals, top art schools, cutting-edge productions, dynamic street art, and generous community support and patronage. As we know, the major cities of the U.S. are leading centers of art with bigger resources and tourist draws, but this country’s mid- and small-size places keep exciting, surprising, and thriving with their creative spirits and innovation.

As with last year, we’ve chosen cities with populations under 1 million in the city center, but this time we are presenting them from least populous to most. For all their efforts, both recent and historical, these are the cities we’ve found are most contributing to the artistic culture of our country.

Size by population:

  • Large: 350,000 – 1 Million
  • Medium: 100,000 – 349,999
  • Small: 20,000 – 99,999
  • Smallest 1,000 – 19,999

 

Smallest

Spring Green, Wisconsin

Population: 1,652

Why we’re inspired:
With strong theater roots, Spring Green maintains its passion for plays at the exceptional American Players Theatre. Founded in 1977, and with a brand-new stage in 2017, the company is constantly creating fresh takes on favorites. Productions span classical and modern, from Shakespeare to Chekhov. Autumn visitors should take the Fall Art Tour, which is part road trip, part leaf-peeping, but mostly an opportunity to meet some of Wisconsin’s most well-known artists, who open their studios for an insider view to the creative process. Visual arts also prevail at the local galleries like the Jura Silverman Gallery, The Opal Man, and Wilson Creek Pottery, and are supported by organizations like the Spring Green Area Arts Coalition and Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts. American master Frank Lloyd Wright made the area his home, and his Wyoming Valley School (the only public school in his repertoire) now provides space for workshops, performances, lectures, and exhibits that foster creative endeavors of the area.

 

Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan

Population: Saugatuck: 980; Douglas: 1,305

Why we’re inspired:
If you come to this area for the trails, beach, and other outdoor pursuits, you’d sell yourself short not to take part in the rich cultural offerings of the Art Coast of Michigan. Its artistic roots were planted a century ago, when Ox-Bow began as a haven for artists and grew into the school of art and artists’ residency that it is today, in affiliation with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The culture of creativity that sprang up from art students looking for more natural inspiration and outside-the-box thinkers settling in, has fostered the growth of galleries, live performances, and art events, making this region an exciting destination for creativity-seeking travelers. See live theater, attend workshops, or take in the exhibits at the bold Saugatuck Center for the Arts. Also, come in summer for the Waterfront Invitational Art Fair or Village Square Art and Fine Crafts Fair, pop into Amazwi Contemporary Art or Water Street Gallery, or create your own works at the Express Yourself Art Barn.

 

Ojai, California

Population: 7,585

Why we’re inspired:
Widely known for food, wine, and relaxation, this laidback Southern California town takes art into the spiritual and healing realms. And 2018 looks to be trending toward the need for both, so the time is right to hightail it to Ojai. See what is driving the local muses at OVA Arts, part teaching studio, part gallery owned by several residents. Housed in a former Mission Revival church, the Ojai Valley Museum will acquaint you with the history of area arts, as they live on at events such as the Ojai Storytelling Festival and the Ojai Music Festival. The Ojai Art Center has hosted the annual Art in the Park for 41 years, which is a juried fine-arts show that supports community artists. Don’t leave town without stopping in galleries like Tartaglia Fine Art, Human Arts Gallery, and Porch Gallery. And doubly do not miss Bart’s Books, the biggest independent outdoor bookstore in the country, where poetry nights, spoken word events, and author signings happen on the regular.

 

Beacon, New York

Population: 14,271

Top Left Via Yelp/ Valery C.
Top Right Via Flickr/1000zen
Bottom Via Flickr/ Chris Dignes

Why we’re inspired:
Aptly named, Beacon is shining like one in the art world with its well-worth-the-trip treasure, Dia:Beacon. The Dia Art Foundation has other sites, but the spacious galleries of the Beacon location house big installations, ambitious projects, and works from the 1960s to today. Oh, it also happens to grace many lists of best museums in the country. Perhaps due to its draw, other art spaces and galleries are really getting their legs here, and there is almost always something new to see. The Beacon Artists Union is in its 14th year, and hosts events in film, music, performance, and every variety of visual art. Matteawan Gallery focuses on boosting the careers of emerging artists with well-curated exhibits. An artist-run space where people can sell, exhibit, and promote their work, Catalyst Gallery also takes part in the city-wide Second Saturday event, when spaces stay open late and there are performances and tasty treats.

 

Small

Oxford, Mississippi

Population: 23,290

Why we’re inspired:
Music venues, art galleries, performance spaces: Oxford offers places to experience culture not found in towns twice its size. From the Southside Gallery’s monthly exhibitions and participation in the Oxford Arts Crawl to the exhibits at the galleries of the University of Mississippi, visitors and residents are not left wanting when it comes to visual pleasures. Lovers of literature should bookmark the Oxford Conference for the Book or the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference. At the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, audiences enjoy Broadway shows, concerts, and ballet. Annual events like the Double Decker Art Fest electrify the town with two days of live music, art vendors, food, and community. The city also benefits from programs like the Arts Incubator. Spearheaded by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, it helps grow local artists’ and entrepreneurs’ arts businesses with various workshops, peer learning sessions, and networking events.

 

Quincy, Illinois

Population: 40,531

Why we’re inspired:
The only town returning to the list this year, Quincy captured our imaginations once again for its commitment to the arts and support of the creators who contribute so much to the area. The arts are its blood, having hosted the first American community arts council when Quincy Society of Fine Arts was established in 1947. Today, the Quincy Art Center serves as museum, resource center, exhibition space, and educational institution. The District in downtown Quincy is home to the Blues in the District concert series, and they’ve introduced a new event, QFest, which celebrates all things creative in Quincy. The juried arts exhibition is the center of the festival, which also celebrates the musical and culinary arts with food vendors and live performance.

 

Minot, North Dakota

Population: 48,743

Why we’re inspired:
With organizations like the Minot Area Council for the Arts to bolster the scene with events like Arts in The Parks (which provides 24 free summer concerts), the Minot Street Art Movement, and the Minot Artspace project, this town is flexing real artistic muscle. Opportunities to engage in art can also be found at The Big One Art and Craft Fair events, exhibits from the art program at Minot State University, The Taube Museum of Art, and galleries like 62 Doors Gallery Studios and Heart of the Turtle Gallery. Music lovers are in luck, too, because Minot is the said to be the smallest city in the U.S. with a full-size orchestra, the Minot Symphony Orchestra, and venues like Pangea House hold intimate live shows where patrons can discover the best of the underground scene. Finally, the annual Why Not Fest is held over three awesome days of music and literature and is touted as a showcase for “everything that excites us locally and regionally.” 

 

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Population: 83,875

Why we’re inspired:
Santa Fe has been attracting artists for as long as it’s been around. In fact, the pieces collected in places like the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture include some of the oldest surviving Navajo textiles, as well as 17th-century pottery from Southwest tribal communities. Global folk art is celebrated at the Museum of International Folk Art, which has the largest collection of the genre in the world, and at the International Folk Art Market, which is the largest market of its kind, and benefits art communities internationally. Perhaps the most famous artist to call Santa Fe home, was Georgia O’Keefe, and the museum that bears her name holds hundreds of her works, along with that of other modernist peers. The Santa Fe Artists in Residence brings local artists to designer hotel events, which range from wine receptions to full dinners with the artists—connecting visitors to the local scene. Participating hotels include Hotel St. Francis, La Posada de Santa Fe, and Hotel Santa Fe. There are over 100 galleries in the city, and Art Santa Fe is a 4-day show of curated exhibitions by local and international artists. If moving pictures are more your style, visit during the Santa Fe Film Festival and get inspired during its lively panels, screenings, and workshops. Within the county also lies Madrid, a small village and arts community with a high gallery-to-people ratio (try Indigo Gallery, The Johnsons of Madrid, and Silver Day Trading Company), where art is quite literally a way of life.

 

Edmond, Oklahoma

Population: 91,191

Why we’re inspired:
Public art is one of the best ways for a community to fly its art flag, and Edmond has much to see, including dozens of sculptures around town. Standouts include: the graceful Destiny, on the corner of Broadway and Campbell; Unfolding Star on E. Edwards; Kinetic Air on N. University; and Woman with Shawl on N. Broadway, but public art aficionados should take a tour to see them all. Let creativity flow at the Conservatory for Classical Art, which holds workshops and open studios where community members can further their access and involvement in the arts. See world-class music and dance in the beautiful Armstrong Auditorium, from classical, jazz and folk music to theater, classical ballet, and folk dance. The performing arts also thrive at Upstage Theatre, which also provides classes in dance, music, acting and stage production. Looking to support the local community? The HÜE Studio Gallery is artist-owned, and features exhibits that are modern and innovative. Welcome spring’s muse at the Annual Arts Festival as it celebrates its 40th year in May.

 

Medium

Boulder, Colorado

Population: 108,090

Why we’re inspired: 
Boulder takes it cues from the intensely beautiful natural surroundings, but it doesn’t stop there, and this is no hotel landscape painting community. The art coming from Boulder is fresh and experimental, and there are countless ways to enjoy it—from bustling, large-scale events like Boulder Arts Week, with its multi-venue, multi-genre celebration of art to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, which breathes its own brand of innovation into classic plays. Boulder International Film Festival and Jaipur Literary Festival dive into new realms of both the written word and motion pictures from around the world. Visiting in between art events? There is still plenty to explore, from the NoBo Art District with its First Friday self-guided tours of art studios and creative shops and businesses to Pearl Street Mall’s street performers and galleries to the Art Museum at the University of Colorado—Boulder’s over 8,000-object permanent collection and rotating exhibits.

 

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Population: 110,651

Why we’re inspired:
Recognizable for its prestigious universities, Cambridge has a natural edge when it comes to cultural offerings. Through its intellectuals and innovators, the area sees support for the arts, with high degrees of creation and appreciation. Harvard and MIT naturally inform the artistic landscape, as do schools like the Longy School of Music of Bard College, which encourages students to impact the world with their art in new ways. First-rate museums, like the trio of Harvard Art Museums, which hold one of the largest collections in the country, are integral parts of the community. The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, opened in 2014, sees various curators and scholars at lively and engaging workshops, lectures, and performances. The sheer number of cultural events solidify its status as an art destination, with every manner of performance and exhibit imaginable, from spoken word to photography exhibits hosted by the Cambridge Arts Council and other groups.

 

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Population: 120,782

Top Left Via Flickr/ Catherine
Top Right Via Yelp/ Jennifer B.
Bottom Via Yelp/Beth C.

Why we’re inspired:
Ann Arbor prides itself on having the creativity, attractions, and drive of a big city, while keeping the vibrant connection of smaller communities. The Guild of Artists and Artisans has been bringing art to the public since 1970 through events such as the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, which is one of the largest art fairs in the country. The STAMPS School of Art and Design has a gallery where students exhibit, and the Ann Arbor Art Center has been supporting area arts for over 100 years, fostering community engagement at events such as ART NOW: Drawing. Ann Arbor Women Artists has been pushing boundaries since 1951, and it is organizations like this that give Ann Arbor its unique and authentic flair. University of Michigan Museum of Art’s diverse collection includes more than 20,000 works, from modern art by the likes of Franz Kline to photographs by Dorothea Lange, to pieces form Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

 

Berkeley, California

Population: 121,240

Why we’re inspired:
Berkeley has had a stake in the arts in major ways, from its proximity to Oakland and San Francisco, to the vibrant university community that informs the area. The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive screens films, produces shows, and houses lectures and other tours. The Berkeley Art Center also combines music performances, art shows, and literary events, and has been fostering the arts since 1967. Theater is vital to the community, as evidenced by Central Works: The New Play Theater and its commitment to producing and staging new and dynamic shows, and the Berkeley Playhouse with its multigenerational and multicultural interpretations that bring new viewpoints and energy. Music, whether it be via buskers in the parks or classically trained musicians, is also a vital vein of Berkeley arts. The Berkeley Symphony works to bring music into the community, making it accessible to wider audiences. Meanwhile, the California Jazz Conservatory is the only accredited independent college dedicated purely to jazz in the U.S.

 

Lafayette, Louisiana

Population: 127,626

Why we’re inspired:
Louisiana is a very unique state, and its cities are some of the most vibrant, bold, and defiantly boisterous. When you’re here, you feel the presence of a different kind of muse, something that speaks a multitude of ways: meandering jazz, sizzling Creole and Cajun notes, simultaneously railing against its worst and honoring its best traditions. Lafayette is special for institutions like the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where community involvement is part of its DNA, and the School of Music and Performing Arts is a center of social and cultural gathering. Creative people come together at festivities such as ArtWalk on second Saturdays, when art houses and studios open to the public in the Downtown Lafayette Cultural District. Southern Screen brings filmmakers and movie lovers together for a full weekend of screenings, music, screenwriting workshops, and parties. Cultures unite at the Festival International de Louisiane, which happens to be the largest international music and arts festival in the country. Champions of the arts, such as Acadiana Center for the Arts, the Lafayette Art Association, and Cité des Arts do their essential part in keeping art alive. 

 

Savannah, Georgia

Population: 146,763

Why we’re inspired:
Savannah’s artistic sensibilities span every genre, which can be experienced across the city at places like Jepson Center for the Arts. The beautifully designed space comprises 7,500 square feet of galleries where rotating exhibits as well as an interactive children’s museum stir the deepest set creative spirits. The “art and soul of Savannah” is housed in Savannah City Market, where working artists can be seen in the Art Center or exhibiting in the galleries. If you like your art with a side of celebration, make it to town for the increasingly popular SCAD Savannah Film Festival or the Savannah Music Festival, which combines genres from chamber to jazz, and is a must for any true music connoisseur. Savannah College of Art and Design hosts new perspectives by its talented students that explore various mediums in group and individual exhibits. It hosts the annual contemporary art showcase, deFINE Art Festival, a much sought-after event, and the school is one of the finer arts schools in the country with highly respected programs.

 

Cincinnati, Ohio

Population: 298,800

Why we’re inspired:
Cincinnati provides ample opportunity to take in the arts—from established museums to up-and-coming galleries, the artistic spirit is alive and well in this mid-size city. The Cincinnati Arts Association oversees the Aronoff Center for the Arts, which houses the Weston Arts Gallery, and the Music Hall, where the symphony and pops orchestras share the venue with touring acts, the Cincinnati Ballet, and the Cincinnati Opera (the second-oldest opera company in the USA). The CAA also oversees the Overture Awards, which recognize the talents of the city’s young artists in writing, music, dance, and visual arts. The Cincinnati Art Museum not only has exhibitions of more than 67,000 pieces, it also promotes visitor involvement through programs, events, and activities. For all things new in art, the Contemporary Arts Center’s rotating exhibits are must-sees, like the sculpture and performance of Glenn Kaino. Also, locals represent at Brazee Street Studios with galleries, open studio nights, and educational spaces.

 

Des Moines, Iowa

Population: 215,472

Why we’re inspired:
It seems as though Des Moines intends to bring inspiration to you at every turn, and the way the community helps the arts thrive, it may just well reach that goal. This city has all the trappings of successful creative spaces: interesting galleries, growing museum collections, diverse festivals, accessible public art, thriving theatre, and all forms of music—from opera to street performers. Des Moines Art Center helps shape aspiring artists through its school and inspire visitors with its museum holdings from Georgia O’Keefe to Edward Hopper. The Des Moines Arts Festival succeeds in its aim to “educate, inspire and engage audiences toward a heightened appreciation of the arts,” as evidenced by its nine IFEA Grand Pinnacle Awards. Des Moines Performing Arts focuses on world-class entertainment activities, staging shows at the impressive Des Moines Civic Center and other area theaters. Protecting and promoting art is noble work, and the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation does it well. It is responsible for much of the incredible public art through advocacy and funding, such as Jim Campbell’s whimsical LED-lit “Swirl” or the delicate giant, “Nomade,” by Jaume Plensa.

Madison, Wisconsin

Population: 252,551

Why we’re inspired:
Start your artistic journey on Madison’s Museum Mile with stops at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, where free exhibits and a peaceful rooftop sculpture garden transport you to a world of creative vision above the fray. For more culture from up high, Monona Terrace has a Concerts on the Roof series, as well as free art exhibits in the roof gardens. The Chazen Museum of Art’s collection spans multiple genres and time periods, and hosts talks and lectures and other free events such as Sunday Cinematheque art film viewings, and Sunday Afternoon Live monthly music shows. Spaces like Marzen, which means “of dreams” in Polish, are elevating established and emerging work as well as Madison’s reputation as a must-do for art collectors, lovers, and practitioners. Check out the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s art department exhibits at several galleries if you want to get insider knowledge on new generations of creators and visionaries.

 

Tacoma, Washington

Population: 211,277

Why we’re inspired:
Tacoma is investing in its arts in big ways, launching ArtFull Tacoma in 2016, which supports art institutions, projects, and initiatives to add to its already blossoming public art, museums, and galleries. The town has art in its history, too. Tacoma Arts Commission is one of the oldest of its kind in the state, and currently seeks to support underrepresented areas of the city to grow the reach and diversity of area arts. Tacoma Art Museum houses the world’s biggest collection of native Tacoman, Dale Chihuly, pieces, and you can also see his work and that of other glass masters at the unique and wonderful Museum of Glass. The art future looks bright at Northwest College of Art and Design, and students contribute to the wider community through projects, events, and other endeavors. If you’ve got the theater bug, head to Broadway Center for the Performing Arts for opera, symphony, ballet, as well as plays and musicals.

 

Large

St. Louis, Missouri

Population: 315,685

Why we’re inspired:
From the surreal to the hyper-real and everywhere in between, St. Louis art will take you on a visual and auditory journey that is as sweepingly grand as its famous Gateway Arch. Take the 24 larger-than-life sculptures at Citygarden, which include Keith Haring’s “Ringed Figure,” Igor Mitoraj’s “Eros Bendato,” and Erwin Wurm’s “Big Suit.” The Saint Louis Art Museum, established in 1879, houses over 33,000 pieces from all over the world and across five millennia. For the latest and greatest, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis creates ways for the public to engage with today’s art, from changing exhibits to First Friday gatherings to artist and author talks. Nature and art blend seamlessly at Laumeier Sculpture Park, with trails, green spaces, and sculptures throughout its 72-acre property. Definitely don’t leave town without seeing the Pulitzer Art Foundation museum, where you’ll find traveling exhibits and educational programs.

 

Honolulu, Hawaii

Population: 374,658

Why we’re inspired:
Hawaii is as rich in the tradition of art as it is in natural wonders, and Honolulu has the goods to prove it. The Honolulu Museum of Art’s works span 5,000 years, and the museum was founded in 1927, but it remains a vital hub of current artistic activity, from art workshops to lectures to dynamic events like the Bollywood Film Festival. Community arts centers are invaluable pieces of a thriving creative landscape, and Honolulu’s The ARTS at Marks Garage is revitalizing Chinatown and the city as a whole with shows, classes, festivals, and First Friday Honolulu. POW! WOW! Hawaii gathers contemporary artists for a week-long event celebrating murals and other forms of art. Commemorate your time in town and let the artists at Old Ironside Tattoo leave their mark on you. The parlor is the site of the original Sailor Jerry’s, the oldest tattoo shop in the state.

 

Mesa, Arizona

Population: 484,587

Why we’re inspired:
Mesa may be located in the arid desert, but its cup runneth over when it comes to access to the arts. Downtown Mesa is well worth exploring, with its over 200 sculptures and art hub. Mesa Arts Center is a veritable one stop shop of creativity with spaces for events like WordPlay Café (an open mic for poetry, storytelling, and music), performing and studio art classes, Broadway shows and concerts, and exhibits in the museum. Mesa Contemporary Arts is a free, five-gallery complex that hosts changing exhibits by today’s working artists. The MCC Performing Arts Center stages a wealth of music, dance, and theater, and the new art gallery at the school showcases student art. What’s more, discovery blossoms early at the i.d.e.a. museum, which promotes children’s exploration of creativity and learning.

 

Baltimore, Maryland

Population: 621,849

Top Via Flickr/RJ
Bottom Via Yelp/ Ruth L.

Why we’re inspired:
With one of the top-rated art schools in the nation, world-renowned museums and galleries, emerging underground scenes, and a packed calendar of events, this harbor city is piquing a lot of interest as one of the top art towns in America. We simply couldn’t leave out its stellar contributions. The Maryland Institute College of Art’s list of tenets is an impressive vision for an art-shaped future, including the sentiments, “we assert the centrality of artists, designers, and educators in society,” and “we model a community of care,” which are very worthy endeavors. Maybe you’ll get a glimpse of additions to the Open Walls Baltimore project, which brings street artists from around the world to revitalize public spaces, or you can guarantee a view through a tour with the Greater Greenmount Community Association. Street artists are also displaying their talents at spaces like Graffiti Alley and Graffiti Warehouse, which are can’t-miss experiences for lovers of the genre. For a great inside scoop on artistic happenings around town, keep your eye on BmoreArt, an essential print and digital publication of all things local art. Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts hosts the largest free arts festival in the country, Artscape, in July, and brings together over 150 artists and vendors that include dance, street theater, multiple genres of live music, film, visual art exhibits, and sculpture/installation.

 

Washington, D.C.

Population: 681,170

Why we’re inspired:
As the capital of the nation, D.C. symbolizes many things, and one of the most important is the deep connection to art and culture that our forefathers so valued. It was George Washington who wrote, “The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” Those sentiments ring true in all the spaces art thrives in the city, such as the National Gallery of Art, National Museum of African Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. America’s first museum of modern art, The Phillips Collection, is alive and well, and you can experience works by Manet, Picasso, Adams, Gottlieb, Rodin, Kandinsky…the list goes on. While galleries like CONNERSMITH are exhibiting some of the greatest new works in the Washington, D.C. art scene, cutting-edge art schools like Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, Howard University, and Duke Ellington School of the Arts, are fostering bright new voices. Events such as the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the DC Shorts Film Festival are icing on an already incentive-heavy cake of reasons to visit.

 

Charlotte, North Carolina

Population: 842,051

Why we’re inspired:
Charlotte’s current art events calendar brims with ballet, theater, cultural gatherings, opera, museum exhibits, and myriad shows and scenes. The Arts and Science Council makes sure the community stays aloft with grants, programs, and educational opportunities. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art features the family-built collection that encompasses a lot of midcentury modern European art. The Mint Museums, both Uptown and Randolph, are internationally and domestically focused, with pieces that range from modern sculpture to decorative arts to its exciting fashion collection. Blumenthal Performing Arts has been bringing top-notch performances to Charlotte since the early 1990s, and offers a potent infusion of culture into the community through its education department, staged works, and collaborations with area programs.

 

Indianapolis, Indiana

Population: 864,771

Top Left Via Yelp/Jessica Y.
Top Right Via Yelp/Megan B.
Bottom Left Via Flickr/Jordan Ewbank
Bottom Right Via Yelp/Tank G.

Why we’re inspired:
Indianapolis has the largest concentrated population on our list, and it brings its A-game in the art department, too. Even quirky winter traditions have an artistic bent, like Veal’s Ice Tree, for instance. This family-built local attraction has been consistently recreated since 1961, and it’s nothing short of an artistic feat in all its colorful, icicle glory. More permanent collections can be found in the Mass Ave. Arts District or the Fountain Square Cultural District, where theaters and galleries have bloomed amid music venues, cafes, and restaurants. The Athenaeum lifts up the arts through programming and lively events within the beautifully gilded walls of a National Historic Landmark. Writers find their voice at Indiana Writers Center, where classes, workshops, and readings elevate the written word. Theater lovers unite through IndyFringe, whose efforts culminate in the popular festival, where “every imaginable genre of live theater” is on display. The deservedly highly acclaimed Indianapolis Museum of Art recently unified its campus areas into a sweeping oasis for art and nature, called Newfields, and it’s a revelation of artistic harmony. It’s a calm, centering, and inspiring place to visit, with garden paths, art in the park and the galleries, and even a beer garden on site.

Where have you seen amazing art?


Click here to see our 2017 list
Art has the power to move us in ways we didn’t know were possible. It can evoke unexpected emotions, expand our world view, and connect us to new perspectives. Art lovers, travelers, and the curious among us have much to explore across this country, as great art can be found from corner to corner. Major metropolises consistently deliver, but other large cities house their share of masterpieces, both old and new. Mid-size cities can also surprise with way above average collections, but it’s in the smaller cities where you’ll perhaps discover something truly unexpected.

We gathered a group of places that embrace the art world in active and interesting ways. Broken up by population*, into small (10,000 – 100,000), medium (101,000 – 350,000) and large (351,000 – 1 million), these towns hit the mark when it comes to creativity. Also, we only considered cities with populations under 1 million (we had to stop somewhere, after all). From thriving art districts to international festivals to vibrant public art, there’s plenty to soothe your creative soul. Highlighting the best of what these places offer, from most populous to least, here’s our list of the most artistic cities in America.

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Austin, Texas

Via Flickr/Nan Palmero

Population: 885,400
As the capital city in the center of a border state, Austin has no excuse for a boring art scene. Lucky for us, no excuses are necessary here. Even the hotels have cool collections, and a visit to Austin is inspiring from the moment you check in. Take Hotel Ella for instance, which features an array of modernist Texas art. Your visit isn’t complete without seeing the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a community art park that features ever-changing murals and street art. If you’re in town the first weekend in April, add Art City Austin to your itinerary. Art Alliance Austin, which throws the event each year, also puts on ARTBASH in fall, touted as “Austin’s biggest and craziest contemporary art party.” Sign us up.

San Francisco, California

Via Flickr/Bob Doran

Population: 805,235
San Francisco’s reputation precedes itself. Not only does it have some of the best art museums in the U.S., the SFMOMA expansion was recently added to its arsenal. Cutting edge galleries densely dot the city, and the street art is a force to be reckoned with. Find yourself in the thick of galleries galore in the Yerba Buena neighborhood, which hosts the annual Yerba Buena Night in October. The Mission is the place for the most colorful street art, but every corner of the city has a unique flair of its own. Head to SOMA and pop into ArtHaus, considered one of the best galleries in the city. When gallery hopping has got you hangry, grab coffee and a snack at Sight Glass--part coffee bar, part community gathering space.

Seattle, Washington

Via Flickr/ctj71081

Population: 652,405
No need to ask what to do in Seattle to find art, the art will find you. From the more buttoned-up Seattle Art Museum and Asian Art Museum to the interactive Frye Art Museum, you can’t toss a stone without hitting a place of creativity. Multiple neighborhood art walks bring beauty and aesthetics to the streets. Capitol Hill Art Walk, on the second Thursday of each month, is especially inspiring. The Seattle Art Fair in August will give you so much to tell your friends at home about, with its stimulating collections and thought-provoking talks. Even when hunger strikes, art is never far away: Seattle has some of the most colorful and creative restaurants and cafes in the country. Take Capitol Cider, where you can partake in “Drink and Draw” on the second and fourth Thursdays, with art supplies and live models provided for your sketching needs.

Denver, Colorado

Via Flickr/Dhaval Shreyas

Population: 600,158
Denver is miles ahead when it comes to the best cities for art. Denver Art Museum houses diverse permanent collections from across the globe, and attracts world-class exhibits on the regular. Night owls should join Untitled Final Fridays (January through October), which include special programs, workshops, and “tours with a twist” after the sun goes down. RiNo (or the River North Arts District, if you’re fancy) transformed warehouses and factories into galleries, working studios, and more than a few places to catch live music and a good drink. When you need a place to crash, hit up the ART Hotel, which seriously stays true to its name.

Portland, Oregon

First Thursday photo via RobFinchPhoto.com

Population: 583,776
The Pacific Northwest has long been a haven for outside-the-box thinkers, and no city embodies that spirit more than Portland. Music, film, performance art, graffiti, installation, fine art, tattoo, there’s nothing this town hasn’t tried…and succeeded at. If your body is your canvas, don’t miss the Portland Tattoo Expo in October, where some of the best gather to show off their talent. Cinema 21 hosts the Portland Queer Film Festival in September, a perfect time of year to visit. Portland Saturday Market runs weekly, March through December, where you can support the city’s artists and add to your eclectic collection. The Pearl district is the place to be during First Thursday Artwalk, when galleries are open late, and happy hour menus are at their best.

Kansas City, Missouri

Via Flickr/Thad Zajadowicz

Population: 459,787
In search of experimental art? Crossroads Arts District has you covered with dynamic First Fridays that introduce local artists to the masses, and innovative galleries that are changing the definition of Midwestern culture. Historical Southmoreland is the district to explore if you want to see art in the making. Here, you’ll find the Kansas City Art Institute, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the private collection at the Oak Street Mansion. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is especially active every third Thursday of the month, when performers, vendors, and a happy hour bar enhance the artistic spirit of this ever-evolving space.

Omaha, Nebraska

Via Flickr/Raymond Bucko, SJ

Population: 408,958
Omaha is no stranger to public art, community engagement, and award-winning museums. Murals, sculptures, and performance art can be experienced any time around the city. Visit North Omaha for the murals project, which has been connecting the community with public art since 2005, or for the more recent Sidewalks Talk, which stamps local poetry into sidewalks. Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market neighborhood offer the chance to view modern and classical masterpieces up close. See how art is made during an open house at Hot Shops Art Center, which hosts bi-annual events where more than 80 artists open their working studios to guests.

Wichita, Kansas

Via Flickr/Brant Danley

Population: 387,000
In true hipster fashion, if you want the insider scoop on the best art towns in America while they’re still under the radar, there’s no better place to be than Wichita. Of course, locals already know their city has some major cultural cred, with 33 museums, including Wichita Art Museum and Ulrich Museum of Art. Final Friday art crawls offer the chance to meet and mingle with artists at galleries and eateries around town. Mark Arts, the oldest visual arts organization in the area, showcases regional and national artists in its 14,000-square-foot gallery. If you’ve caught the theater bug, the Theater League brings Tony-winning live performances to town, or you can catch classics such as “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Hairspray” at Musical Theatre Wichita.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Via Flickr/Travis Wise

Population: 378,715
New Orleans breathes art. It exudes it from its pores. Gritty, challenging, soulful, exciting, beautiful, complex: The city is art. It embodies all the things art is supposed to be. Mostly, it’s vividly alive. Start your cultural immersion at The McKenna Museum of African American Art, which boasts pieces from the likes of Clementine Hunter and Henry Ossawa Tanner. NOMA is a feast for the eyes, offering nearly 40,000 items in its collection, as well as international visiting exhibits. Arts Council New Orleans’ monthly Art Market gives you the chance to meet local artists selling paintings, photography, and more in Palmer Park. For art that is practically spilling into the streets, go to Julia Street (aka Gallery Row).

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Santa Ana, California

Via Yelp/Dan D.

Population: 334,227
Its proximity to Los Angeles can overshadow the fact that Santa Ana is a great art destination in its own right. The Santa Ana Artists Village is a cobblestone-paved, brick building-clad enclave of galleries, festivals, and live/work artist studios. Go for the First Saturday Art Walk, and stay for the vegan delights at Gypsy Den. The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art pushes the envelope with conversation-starting exhibits, and Bowers Museum supports world cultures and arts with exhibits such as the collected photographs of Frida Kahlo. It’s also a bright spot in early education through Kidseum, which offers interactive tours for young children. True art appreciation clearly knows no age.

Providence, Rhode Island

Via Yelp/Providence Athenaeum

Population: 178,042
As the creative capital of Rhode Island, Providence has some things to prove. Fortunately, this eclectic and colorful town has plenty up its sleeve. As one of the best cities for artists, it boasts programs such as AS220, which supports live/work studios, galleries, education, and performance spaces. The Rhode Island School of Design houses the RISD Museum, featuring must-see displays from ancient times to today. Book lovers will find their happy place at Providence Athenaeum, a beautiful library and cultural center with walls of books and wooden desks tucked into reading nooks, comfortable chairs, and rolling ladders to access the harder to reach masterpieces.

Topeka, Kansas

Via Flickr/Doug Kerr

Population: 127,473
Culture aficionados love a good art walk, and Topeka’s First Friday Artwalks deliver with dozens of shops and galleries showing new pieces from local talent. The Mulvane ArtLab at Washburn University invites you to get messy while creating a masterpiece of your own. In North Topeka Arts District, historical buildings house shops, galleries, and studios that are especially lively during First Friday Artwalk. The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library is itself a work of art, designed by world-renowned Michael Graves, and includes the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery. The Topeka Performing Arts Center hosts touring shows, as well as local dance and music.

Allentown, Pennsylvania

Via Yelp/Jeff H.

Population: 118,032
Allentown embraces its creative history as well as the present in its many museums, including the Allentown Art Museum, which is home to more than 13,000 works. The Baum School of Art is a non-profit organization that is bringing a new generation of artists to the fore—from photographers and painters to metalsmiths and ceramics sculptors. Downtown joins the movement each month during Destination Arts: Third Thursday when the happy hours are prime and the studios and retailers are open late. At the Museum Café, enjoy dramatic readings at Theatre Café events, put on in partnership with the Allentown Public Theatre.

Columbia, Missouri

Via Flickr/KOMUnews

Population: 108,500
From music to film to the visual arts, Columbia ranges the full spectrum of creative endeavors. The True/False Film Fest, for instance, promotes independent film and media art as the town transforms into a hands-on makers’ paradise. The art of fashion thrives at Stephens College, one of the top 50 fashion schools in the world. See what the hype is about at the Costume Museum and Research Library. North Village Arts District is full of shops, cafes, and galleries that will introduce you to some of the best that Columbia offers. Be sure to experience it during the first Friday of the month—it’s the perfect time to meet locals and seek treasures.

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New Bedford, Massachusetts

Via Yelp/Joe B.

Population: 95,072
New Bedford knows a thing or two about good art. The New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! mixes contemporary displays with traditional exhibits, and is always surprising with shows such as The Passions photography series by Judith Thorpe. The Seaport Art Walk transforms the waterfront with local sculptural creations. AHA! (art, history, architecture) is a cooperative event featuring the best of New Bedford’s cultural scene with a variety of events. Find a unique work to take home with you at Alison Wells Fine Art Studio & Gallery. If performance is your passion, Festival Theatre is the place to be for musical productions.

Joplin, Missouri

Via Flickr/Joanna Poe

Population: 50,150
Joplin prides itself on being one of the best small art towns, and with all the galleries, theaters, and creative spaces it comprises, there’s no false modesty needed here. Inspiration is everywhere. From the bustling Sunshine Lamp District to Downtown’s Third Thursday, art, music, food, and entertainment is never far away. The George A. Spiva Center for the Arts features touring exhibits in the historical Cosgrove Building. TANK: Public Art created the iconic geometric mural on the building’s façade, and has several others throughout town. For a truly moving musical experience, Heartland Opera Theatre performs classics such as “La Traviata,” and features musicians from around the world.

Quincy, Illinois

Via Yelp/Quincy Art Center

Population: 40,633
As the home of America’s first community arts council, Quincy has a relationship to the arts that covers a lot of history. Quincy Art Center hosts an annual fall art festival, as Quincy Museum’s Folk Life Festival is also in full swing. Collaborative murals and live figure drawings are among the activities. Arts Quincy’s events calendar is packed with items such as art exhibitions, live performances, and a Sunday music series. The Midsummer Arts Faire blends art, food, music, and Restaurant Week for a jam-packed schedule of activities that will feed your soul and your stomach.

Northampton, Massachusetts

Via Yelp/Lauren K.

Population: 28,549
In Northampton, even winter’s chill doesn’t deter from the creation and veneration of art. Take the Ice Art Festival, which invites the public to see multiple ice sculptures in the making. Throughout the year, Arts Night Out, on the second Friday of every month, is a gallery walk highlighting visual and performing arts. Paradise City Arts Festival brings together food, art, and design for an unforgettable weekend in May. Some of the best art is still yet to come, and there is no better place to witness fresh perspectives than at Smith College Museum of Art, one of the leading academic museums in the country.

Helena, Montana

Via Yelp/Mark R.

Population: 28,190
The art scene in Helena is as varied as the surrounding landscapes. The Holter Museum of Art is a free way to view works that encapsulate the spirit of the region. Downtown Helena brings art into public spaces with sculptures, murals, and architecture. The Fall Art Walk offers a unique opportunity to enjoy free food and drinks while celebrating the creative process throughout the venues downtown. The Montana Shakespeare Company brings the art of performance to full-length productions of the bard’s best.

Paducah, Kentucky

Via Flickr/EarlRShumaker

Population: 25,018
Designated a UNESCO Creative City, Paducah is one of those quintessentially artsy towns you happen across unexpectedly. The National Quilt Museum brings folk into the fine art realm. Lower Town Arts District was revived and restored by an artist relocation program that created a thriving community in a neighborhood that was previously in decline. Experience it for yourself during Second Saturdays and the arts and music festival in May, or visit the dozens of galleries any time. The Yeiser Art Center provides education and activities to bring art into the lives of locals and visitors alike. The creatively minded will find much to cherish here.

Naples, Florida

Via Yelp/Gardner Colby Galleries

Population: 20,537
Naples has more to offer than picturesque beaches—the art scene is fresh and lively, too. The Baker Museum hosts music and entertainment after hours on the last Wednesday of each month. If you’re more of a daytime traveler, visit Origami in the Garden while the sun is high to view the delicate nature of origami captured in giant metal sculpture. For innovative installations and exhibitions, head to Gardner Colby Galleries in the Third Street South district. After a day of art appreciation, enjoy the culinary arts with a craft cocktail and some masterfully seasoned fish at D’Amico’s the Continental.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Via Flickr/Harley Flowers

Population: 17,442
Charming, colorful, idyllic—Ocean Springs is the perfect place to slow down and notice the finer things…and to create them. The Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center is a hub of creative activity, featuring classes, events, gallery exhibits, and more. The Peter Anderson Arts and Crafts Festival sees more than 400 artists and 100,000 people each November, as the streets teem with musicians, artists, vendors, and art lovers at the largest event of its kind the state. If you’re inspired by seeing art in action, visit Labor Day weekend for the Ocean Springs Artwalk. Artists and local businesses collaborate to fill the sidewalks with painters, sculptors, and mixed media artists as they do their work. Downtown shops, galleries, and restaurants are bursting with activity—don’t miss it.

Peterborough, New Hampshire

Via Flickr/Cliff

Population: 6,284
Great things can come in small packages, and Peterborough is living proof. As the seat of inspiration for prominent American musicians Edward and Marian MacDowell, the art colony they founded in 1907 is still flourishing today. It has been instrumental to many artists since its inception, providing funding and creative spaces for the likes of Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Michael Chabon. That spirit thrives throughout Peterborough at places such as Depot Square, which hosts book signings, musical performances, and art exhibit strolls in its shops and galleries. For a day of education and inspiration, visit the Mariposa Museum and World Cultural Center. Beginning in April, see the traveling exhibit, Kopanang Community Trust, which features embroidered tapestries of the women of South Africa’s Kopanang community and their relationship as witness to the unfolding universe. It will take your breath away.

Woodstock, New York

Via Flickr/Linda Champanier

Population: 5,884
Woodstock’s commitment to art didn’t start at the eponymous music festival, but the iconic event certainly put it on the map. Art has been thriving in the area since 1903, when the Byrdcliffe colony (now Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild) was formed. From the Woodstock Playhouse to the Center for Photography at Woodstock, this small artsy town has more cultural institutions than cities many times its size. WoodstockArts offers numerous readings, events, and book fairs throughout the year, and Woodstock Film Festival introduces independent films to audiences from around the world. Woodstock Artists Association & Museum hosts monthly exhibitions, solo shows, and works created by students and area children. Further fostering the love of innovation is Woodstock School of Art, which houses events and exhibitions in its galleries.

Homer, Alaska

Via Yelp/Rob W.

Population: 5,003
As Alaska’s art capital, Homer has the weight of a big state on its shoulders. With a solid foundation of art councils, museums, and galleries, it’s more than up to the challenge. Performances, art education, and community involvement are fostered through the Homer Council on the Arts, which aims to ensure that art remains at the heart of the Homer experience. The Pratt Museum is inspired to promote local works, stories, and objects of the surrounding region, and its collections are a testament to a rich cultural heritage. Homer’s galleries and shops host receptions and talks on the first Friday of each month, when visitors can meet local artists and purchase pieces to take home.

Hanapepe, Hawaii

Via Yelp/The Bright Side Gallery

Population: 2,638
As the smallest art city on our list, Hanapepe packs a big punch. Its per capita gallery count is impressive, and the natural hues of the landscape lend extra vibrancy to the art of the region. Every Friday from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., over 16 galleries open to the public, who can meet the artists while listening to local live music and sampling the flavors of the town. Grab a book of your favorite art prints at Talk Story Bookstore, and if you’re lucky, store cat Celeste will greet you at the door. (Word to the wise: she loves to have her nose scratched.)

*As of the 2010 census

Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.

Lily Rogers

Lily is a Southern California-based writer, editor, and traveler. She aspires to never be too far away from her next adventure, whether it be exploring the deserts of SoCal or the mossy forests of her native Pacific Northwest. She also loves international travel and always looks forward to crossing another destination off her bucket list.

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18 thoughts on “America’s most artistic towns”

  1. No list of artsy cities can be taken seriously if they don’t include Santa Fe. They have 3 big art festivals in the Summer that draw tens of thousands of people each, including the Indian Art Market, where the attendance tops 100,000. That, by the way, doesn’t count the smaller “event”-type art festivals they have in the summer as well as off season festivals like the Spanish Colonial Art winter market. And you don’t need official “art walks” in Santa Fe because you literally can’t walk anywhere in the center of town without it being an art walk – there are several galleries on every block, and that’s not even mentioning Canyon Road, which is basically just one long road of galleries. There are 240 galleries in Santa Fe, a city of 70,000 people. Outside the art galleries (literally), on any given day you can find people selling art in the Plaza and on the street corners, in addition to the native americans on indian row selling hand crafted native american items. There are 2-3 small juried shows every single weekend in the summer. It has several large art museums including the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, The New Mexico Museum of Art, the International Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, as well as smaller museums like the Georgia O’Keefe museum. It’s also home to the Santa Fe Opera as well as small concerts that happen on the Plaza frequently throughout the summer. If you’re looking for cities with a lot of art, Santa Fe should occupy a prominent place on the list.

  2. Can someone rank at least 5 best institutes / universities in US offering any one of the following disciplines at Graduate Degree levels : Digital Art / Photography / Animation ? Please also give reason for your rating.

    My e-mail : bhupeshlittle@gmail.com

  3. Asheville NC should be on here. It is like a mini east coast version of Portland Oregon. I could also argue that Philadelphia is missing since everywhere you go there is some kind of art but it is mostly much older and not really a modern art place.

  4. Please add Marfa,Texas. It’s a well-known art town, in the middle of the West Texas desert. The Prada Marfa storefront is a must.

  5. I find it ironic that people commenting below seem miffed or disappointed that their cities disn’t make this list. Don’t be. People are moving to these cities in large part because they’ve been priced out of other places, like NYC and LA. Despite what Thrillist and likeminded websites tell you, being displaced from where you grew up because you can no longer afford it is anything but fun and glamorous.

  6. Washington DC is a great city for families. It is easy to explore on public transportation and the options are limitless. As a mom with two kids, I was able to easily engage my kids and we all had opportunities to delve deeper into our interests. Here I’ve laid out two solid days of exploring the city highlights with several options to chose from for the third day.

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