Small Towns, Big Exhibits

Exploring America’s hidden treasure of museums.

The Met. The Smithsonian. The Getty. Everyone knows these national treasures; the museums themselves as well as the works of art within. But what about the smaller museums located off the beaten path?

Museums with less foot traffic and popularity often make up for it in the experience and the freedom that being a smaller establishment affords them. Besides the fact that skipping the overcrowded museums saves you valuable time, there’s also something charming about a more exclusive collection. The artworks are often more curated, with an overarching theme and feel.


Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont

The 220-foot steamboat, Ticonderoga, displayed at the Shelburne Museum. It is a National Historic Landmark. FRED MURPHY/Courtesy Flickr


Vermont’s Lake Champlain Valley isn’t just an area of incredible beauty, but also an area of rich culture. And nowhere is this more evident than at the Shelburne Museum. Here, the historical works aren’t just in the buildings, but are the buildings themselves.

The Shelburne Museum is a shrine to American history, with over 150,000 works of art. Twenty-five of the museum’s 35 buildings are historic and were relocated to the museum grounds to house a dazzling array of Impressionist paintings, folk art, quilts and textiles, decorative arts, furniture, American paintings and 17th- to 20th-century artifacts. It has been called “a haven for the handmade objects of another era.” A general store, a meeting house, a log cabin and a 220-foot restored steamboat, named Ticonderoga, dot the museum grounds.

The Shelburne Museum was founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb, a pioneering collector of American folk art. One of the off-beat items this eclectic museum boasts of is an entire collection of circus posters, figures and costumes. According to the museum’s website, this expansive collection “offers an integral contribution to the themes of American and European design, domestic life and material culture.”

The Shelburne Museum doesn’t feature only Americana. The personal collection of Webb’s art-loving parents has also made its way into the museum. So, there are French Impressionist paintings mixed into the halls of quilts, toys, dollhouses and carriages.

Recently, local Vermont businesses such as the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company have started sponsoring outdoor concerts at the museum.


Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island, Washington

The Bainbridge Island Museum of Art displays 12 to 16 exhibits every year. Photograph by Art Grice


While the Shelburne Museum highlights America’s past, the Bainbridge Island Museum focuses on the future of art in the United States. Founded in 2009, it showcases artists and collections from the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas and the broader Puget Sound regions.

The museum’s collection reflects the geography of the area. It displays 12 to 16 exhibits every year, featuring paintings, printmaking, book art, photography, sculpture, metal, wood, ceramic, glass and fiber art, jewelry and furniture. Recent exhibitions include “The Art of Furniture,” which showcased works by local photographer Raymond Gendreau; a group show called “Cut & Bent,” featuring tin and other cut metal pieces; and an exhibition on miniature books.

Film buffs also go to the museum for its “SmARTfilm Series” of movie screenings. The museum believes that screening art-centric movies such as “Amélie” and “Tim’s Vermeer” stimulates conversation through the merger of visual art, film and narrative. After each screening, audience members are invited to participate in moderated discussions, which serve to anchor the film in the art and craft of the region and the time.

In addition, it is the first art museum in the state of Washington to apply for LEED Gold status. It utilizes solar and geothermal energy, recycled materials like denim insulation provided through a grant from Levi Strauss, sustainable and rapidly renewable building materials, water-efficient bathroom fixtures and lighting efficiency measures like sun louvers and compact fluorescent lamps.


Rahr-West Art Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Outdoor art at the Rahr-West Art Museum. V'RON/Courtesy Flickr

In a small lakeside town called Manitowoc, sits a stately Victorian mansion built in the Queen Anne style. The 13-bedroom house is large and elegant and was constructed between 1891 and 1893 for a railroad and mining entrepreneur, who eventually became the mayor of this Wisconsin town.

In 1910, Reinhardt Rahr, president of Rahr Malting Company, purchased the mansion and the Rahr family lived there till 1941. The mansion was then donated to the city with the hope that it would one day become a great museum.

This wish came true in 1975, when John and Ruth West turned it into a museum. The mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The museum is home to priceless works of art and is the center of the local art scene. A modern exhibition wing has been added, which features two large galleries. It hosts about 10 exhibitions every year.

The Rahr-West Art Museum is dedicated to promoting the development of young artists in the area. It features exhibits by elementary schoolchildren as well as those on modern art, photography and even about “The Art of Tablesetting.” Every holiday season, the museum comes alive with the Christmas spirit as visitors are transported back in time and given a glimpse of the mansion’s Victorian holiday heritage.

But, perhaps, the most famous event the museum hosts is an annual festival called “Sputnikfest,” to celebrate the time in 1962 when a 9.1 kg piece of the 7 ton Sputnik 4 crashed on North Eighth Street, east of the museum. The impact location is marked with a ring. A cast was made from the original piece before the Soviets claimed it, and the cast was displayed at the museum.

Talk about an art collection that’s out of this world!


National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Bart Walter’s “Wapiti Trail” sculpture at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. LINDADEE2006/Courtesy Flickr

You might miss this museum if you don’t look closely enough as you drive by the mighty Grand Teton mountains. That’s because the National Museum of Wildlife Art, much like the paintings of the camouflaged animals inside, has been designed to merge into its surroundings—the rocky hills of Jackson, Wyoming.

The museum was constructed of rough-hewn stone, which blends seamlessly into the natural terrain. The building was inspired by the ruins of Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and sits on a cliff overlooking the National Elk Refuge. At the National Museum of Wildlife Art, you can observe wildlife both in the museum and in their natural habitat outside.

Founded in 1984, its original building was a much smaller exhibit space. The current building was constructed in 1994.

Every year, over 80,000 people visit the museum, which represents the culmination of a lifetime of study and collection of wildlife art by its founders, Joffa and Bill Kerr. Over a period of 30 years, the Kerrs have developed a collection of wildlife art unsurpassed in the United States.
The museum boasts of over 51,000 square feet of gallery space, including a 23 feet tall, hand-carved totem pole that greets patrons as they enter the main hall.

Its permanent collection of over 5,000 cataloged items includes paintings, sculpture and works on paper by over 100 distinguished artists, ranging from early Native American tribes through contemporary masters.


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

A view of the Crystal Bridges museum. TIMOTHY HURSLEY/Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas


Nestled in Arkansas’ picturesque Ozark Mountains, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a creative oasis set on 120 acres of native Ozark forest. The museum takes its name from Crystal Spring, a natural spring on the museum’s wooded site that feeds into its ponds, and the unique bridge construction incorporated into the building design.

The museum represents all eras of American heritage and boasts of works by Roy Lichtenstein, James Turrell and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as iconic paintings such as Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” and Andy Warhol’s “Dolly Parton.”

With its sophisticated architecture, lecture and concert venues, meeting places, walking trails and educational spaces, the museum hopes to turn this part of the United States into a premier venue for art in the country.

The museum opened in 2012 and has been designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. The chairwoman of the board and the driving force behind the museum’s success is Alice Walton, leader of The Walton Family Foundation—the same family behind the retail chain Walmart. Admission to the museum is free, courtesy of the big-box store.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.