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I’m grateful that my national book tour for Oil and Marble took me to the Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina… Because if I hadn’t gone with my novel, I might never have visited. And then I never would’ve seen Spartanburg Art Museum, one of the nicest, most community-engaged museums I’ve ever encountered.

I haven’t seen this museum on a bunch of “best small art museum” lists… Yet. But with all this museum is doing, I think their reputation will grow quickly. So here are a few reasons why I love SAM! (and you should too):

1: Small Town, Big ART:

I was born and raised in a small Southern town (Hot Springs, Arkansas). Spartanburg reminds me a lot of my hometown… only Hot Springs doesn’t have an art museum. We have wonderful galleries and an energetic art community, but I didn’t grow up with an art museum in the middle of my city, and I wish I had. I wish, as a kid, I had seen art as part of my life, instead of some dream separated from me by time and distance. So, I love this museum for being IN SPARTANBURG and for spreading the gospel of art to the people of this small southern town.

2: Chapman Cultural Center

Chapman Cultural Center2011

The Museum is housed inside the Chapman Cultural Center, which is also home to a theater, science center and the local artists’ guild. The center is dedicated to promoting arts education within the local community. I love that this museum doesn’t stand on its own, but exists as a part of this broader cultural center that feels like a cornerstone of creativity in the area.

3: ART2 (Art Squared)

Art2 is one of the best museum programs I have ever seen. The museum partners with a local artist — a playwright, musician, actor — and then that artist uses the museum as inspiration to create a work of their own — a play, a song, an interactive experience… I love it because it brings art off the walls and into our current cultural conversation. I love it because it mixes all the arts together; it doesn’t separate the visual arts away from other forms. I love it because it feels young, new, right, different, exciting.

4: Colors

I love museums that reach out into the community, but this one impressed me with its focus on raising up underserved youth through its after school program, Colors. This program gives students a chance to express themselves, to solve problems in creative ways, to have a voice in a world that doesn’t always give them one. If every museum took on the responsibility to help our communities like this, our world would be a better place.

4: Hands on Art Programs

The museum offers classes for all ages and skill levels — it doesn’t matter if you’re a preschooler or an adult, you’ll find some way to practice art with your own hands. Plus, I love their tech(nique) night, a BYOB event where people can show up to learn a new art technique while enjoying a little drink of choice. Art and wine. That’s my kind of museum.

5: Art Parties

I’m sure some of you like a black-tie art gala, but it’s not my style. I’m more a jeans and tennis shoes girl, than a fancy ball gown lady. So, I appreciate SAM for often stripping away the tuxedoes to throw “art parties” instead of museum galas. This is indicative of their attitude: take down the intimidating walls of a museum and open the doors to the community — to art lovers and novices alike.

6: Introducing Contemporary Artists

Orr Ambrose, Living on a Frog, Mixed Media on Canvas

In their main exhibition space, the museum rotates the work of contemporary artists, and on their walls, I was introduced to several new artists. And I found one artist I had never seen before and with whom I am now obsessed: Orr Ambrose, a South Carolinian artist now living in Charlotte, North Carolina whose work was brilliant, funny, thoughtful, beautiful… I love when I walk into a museum and meet some new artist… and this museum does a great job of exposing this small town to a range of work.

7: The Collection Downstairs

The space upstairs shows off the temporary exhibits, but in the bowels of this museum is the permanent collection. I loved getting to walk through this treasure trove of old paintings. I’m always amazed that the general public wasn’t already familiar with the rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo — before my novel, most people I met didn’t realize they were contemporaries. And I always feel like, if that story about two of the most famous artists in history could nearly be lost, how many more stories are there to be discovered? Walking amongst an old collection like the one in the basement of SAM, I thought there must be HUNDREDS of stories down there, just waiting to be told…

And isn’t that the point all museums? To pass the stories forward.


Why do YOU love SAM?