Getting artsy in America’s most creative places
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.
Via Flickr/Nan Palmero
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.
Via Flickr/Bob Doran
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.
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.
Via Flickr/Dhaval Shreyas
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.
First Thursday photo via RobFinchPhoto.com
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.
Via Flickr/Thad Zajadowicz
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.
Via Flickr/Raymond Bucko, SJ
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.
Via Flickr/Brant Danley
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.
Via Flickr/Travis Wise
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).
Santa Ana, California
Via Yelp/Dan D.
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.
Via Yelp/Providence Athenaeum
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.
Via Flickr/Doug Kerr
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.
Via Yelp/Jeff H.
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.
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.
Via Yelp/Joe B.
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.
Via Flickr/Joanna Poe
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.
Via Yelp/Quincy Art Center
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.
Via Yelp/Lauren K.
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.
Via Yelp/Mark R.
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.
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.
Via Yelp/Gardner Colby Galleries
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.
Via Flickr/Harley Flowers
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.
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.
Via Flickr/Linda Champanier
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.
Via Yelp/Rob W.
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.
Via Yelp/The Bright Side Gallery
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
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