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Since my bestselling novel, Oil and Marble, is art historical fiction, a lot of fans ask about my favorite museums.
I was born and raised in the South, and yet, I do not associate great art with the South. I picture the Old Masters in Europe, the great moderns in New York or Chicago, rare finds in Los Angeles.
But while on national book tour for my debut novel, I have had the privilege of visiting some phenomenal museums — including many in the South. And last week, I stopped at the Birmingham Museum of Art and was stunned by the vastness and quality of their collection.
So, in honor of my amazing day in Birmingham, here are my top 10 museums of the south:
1: Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama
I begin with the museum that inspired this post. When I think of Birmingham, I think of the Civil Rights struggle (and rightly so; a visit to the Civil Rights Institute changed my perspective forever), but I never thought of high art. Now I do. The BMA houses an impressive collection of Italian Old Masters, great Impressionists, and an expansive Wedgewood Gallery. This museum surprised and delighted me at every turn.
2: Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth
The Kimbell is home to the only Michelangelo painting held in an American Collection, so of course I rank it high on my list. (It’s a small copy Michelangelo made when he was only 12 or 13. Not representative of his style or interests, but an impressive example of his prodigious talents). Their permanent collection is also home to works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Titian… I love the Kimbell for focusing on quality over quantity — it’s small, but for quality of works, it can’t be beat.
3: The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida
When a replica of Michelangelo’s David watches over your museum, I am — of course — a fan (this is the last in the Michelangelo theme, I promise. But you know I can’t help myself). The Ringling (in affiliation with Florida State University) is housed on a 66-acre bayfront estate and displays a collection of rare antiquities, Old Masters, and modern masterpieces… It’s a magnificent find in sunny Florida.
4: Dallas Museum of Art in Texas
I love the Dallas Museum, not only for its world-class art, but because it works hard at making art relatable to the general viewer. The museum welcomes the art novice; not just the art aficionado — and that’s the most important thing to me: making a great collection relatable to regular people and getting the public excited about engaging with art.
5: Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville
When I attended Vanderbilt University twenty years ago, Nashville didn’t have a proper art museum, so I am pleased that the Frist has filled that void. It doesn’t house a permanent collection, but showcases rotating, world-class exhibits and is bringing the art community together in downtown Nashville. Look out for this museum to continue to grow in clout.
6: New Orleans Museum of Art in Louisiana
I love this museum for capturing the spirit of one of my favorite American cities — NOMA embraces both Southern AND French culture, just like the Big Easy. This museum has been open for over 100 years and has helped its city survive tough times. It also has one of the best sculpture gardens I’ve ever visited. This museum is well worth a special trip down to Louisiana.
7: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina
This museum is small. It’s young (barely a decade old). But the Nasher still has serious heart. It’s home to a Medieval, African, Russian and Asian works, but I love it because it embraces contemporary masterpieces — not only as part of its permanent collection, but also part of their inventive rotating exhibits. Durham may not come to mind when you think of art, but it should. And this hot spot is only growing.
8: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in Texas
Every time I visit, MFAH surprises me with its size and quantity of great works — it is comprised of two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, visitors’ center, library, café, movie theater, two art schools, two house museums, and two gift shops. Don’t try to see it in one day; it takes several visits to enjoy it all. This museum isn’t just one of the best in the South. It’s one of the best in the country.
9: High Museum of Art in Atlanta
Yes, the High Museum has a great collection of American, Old Master, and African masterpieces. Yes, it’s housed in a beautiful, modern building in a bustling downtown. Yes, it has great lectures, events, and educational opportunities. But I love the High for collecting and supporting Southern artists and for reaching out of its walls and into Atlanta’s community. The High is the voice of Atlanta and that makes it worth a visit.
10: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas
I end with one of my favorite places in the South — Alice Walton’s museum in northwest Arkansas; home to a brilliant collection of American art located on arguably the best grounds of any art museum in the country. This is one of those museums that fills the soul — with great art (Durand’s Kindred Spirits; Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, masterpieces by O’Keeffe, Johns, Pollock), beautiful architecture, and an inspiring mix of nature and art.
These are my favorite art museums in the south.
What are yours?