When it comes to art and culture, the big cities get all the buzz. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit… How can little towns compete?
But small town USA is brimming with culture to satisfy even the hungriest art buff. From museums and gallery walks to artist studios and fairs, don’t ignore these towns — they pack lots of art into small spaces.
1: Burlington, Vermont
Burlington WORKS at nurturing the connection between the community and the arts — and inspiring everyone in town to be creative. Like many art towns on this list, the first Friday of the month is dedicated to art: galleries and other venues open their doors to the public for free events and parties. Plus, every fall, Burlington hosts The Art Hop when tens of thousands of visitors flock to the city to soak in the local art culture. And the Vermont State Crafts Center is called, Frog Hollow — that name alone means this creative artist enclave tops the list for me.
2: Savannah, Georgia
Savannah sparks the imagination. Whether you’re taking a stroll down the waterfront or searching out Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Savannah will inspire you to creative depths you might not have reached on your own. The “Art and Soul of Savannah” is the City Market, the social and commercial center — also home to over 50 local artists who show off their work in a variety of galleries. The city is also home to a vibrant student population who flock to the Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the premiere art colleges in the US.
3: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe’s Canyon Road boasts more than 100 galleries with works by some of the best-known artists in the country. The city is also home to the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the incomparable Georgia O’Keeffe museum. If you’re there in summer, you can catch the Art Santa Fe festival, ranked as one of the top art festivals in the country. No wonder Santa Fe is often touted as the art center of the west.
4: Portland, Maine
Here, art falls like leaves off those famed autumnal trees. The Portland Stage Company offers world-class theater, art galleries host a free art walk on the first Friday of every month, and the Portland Museum of Art houses over 17,000 works of art. There’s the Maine College of Art, the Portland Maine Film Festival, and local musicians to round out the artistic experience. The “art-per-mile ratio” (according to the Visit Portland website) proves that this art mecca is not to be missed.
5: Aspen, Colorado
Known primarily as a world-class ski resort for the rich and famous, Aspen is also a swanky city brimming with galleries, festivals, and local Rocky Mountain artists. Catch a contemporary art exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum, attend the annual Arts Festival each summer, or pick up a masterpiece of your own at one of the city’s numerous galleries. This place and its art will make you feel like a million bucks — whether you are on or off the slopes.
This island off Massachusetts is a popular vacation destination — and one reason is its thriving art scene. The island is packed with art galleries (home to local and international artists), antique shops, and theaters. The Artists Association of Nantucket offers arts education programs for children and adults. Or if you’re more serious about your island-art education, you can study at the Nantucket Island School of Design and the Arts. There is something about the remoteness of Nantucket Island that seems to breed an independent, artistic spirit.
7: Asheville, North Carolina
Thousands of contemporary and folk artists, galleries, performance spaces, and music venues call Asheville — this city in the Blue Ridge Mountains — home. Twice a year, 180+ artists open their studio doors to allow visitors to walk through and view their work, and in the River Arts District, many artists welcome visitors into their studios any day of the year. While in the area, you can also visit the nearby Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, and indulge in some of Asheville’s culinary wonders in this self-proclaimed foodtopia.
Located in the Ojai Valley in Ventura County north of Los Angeles, Ojai is a mountain retreat boasting high-end resorts, golf courses, spiritual retreats — and some of the most unique art on the West Coast. From ecologically friendly locals to world-renowned painters, photographers, sculptors and musicians, Ojai is an enclave of artists where the public can wander through galleries, attend festivals (including music festivals and an Artist Studio Tour every fall), and nature hike to find inspiration of their own.
Home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College and surrounded by forests and waterfalls, this upstate New York haven attracts students, nature-enthusiasts… and artists. It boasts great local music, creative food choices, and myriad art galleries. The Ithaca Art Trail invites visitors to tour local art studios every fall while the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell offers an impressive permanent collection as well as inventive exhibitions. Come for school, stay for the artistic spirit.
I end this list where I easily could’ve begun: My hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Bentonville (in Northwest Arkansas) may boast Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, but Hot Springs is the real artistic hub of the state. Myriad artists have moved into the area, and in downtown (right next to the National Park and famed “Bath House Row”), artists have transformed historic buildings into studios and galleries. The first Friday of every month, galleries open their doors to show off local, regional, and international art during the city’s gallery walk. If you prefer a more natural kind of art, head out to Garvan Woodland Gardens, quickly becoming one of the top botanical gardens in the country.
These are MY picks. Where are yours?
(Photos from Bigstock.com)