15 Unexpectedly Amazing Art Museums You Need to See Now

David Landsel, June 17, 2015
Fares from Washington DC:

    The United States boasts a large number of spectacular museums, but all that glitters is not necessarily all that glitters – from coast to coast, smaller institutions in cities that don't enjoy serious notoriety among culture vultures are also doing us proud, with specialized collections, unique exhibitions and one-of-a-kind venues. Here are 15 unexpectedly amazing art museums you need to see now.

    Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN

    No time for a trip to Spain? Frank Gehry's miniature Bilbao-on-the-Mississippi is a highlight of any visit to the Twin Cities, despite its diminutive size (it's just over 8,000 square feet small). A museum-led public art program turns the entire University of Minnesota campus into an extension of its gallery spaces.

    Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT

    There are many reasons to visit Shelburne Farms, a sprawling education center and working farm on the shores of Lake Champlain – but the museum created from the unconventional collection of Shelburne founder Electra Havemeyer Webb is at the top of the list. From quilts to folk art to dolls to Impressionist paintings, it's all here – the striking new Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education allows the museum, known for its historic round barn home, to retain a year-round presence.

    Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA

    Of the many museums in beautiful Balboa Park, the Mingei ("folk art," or "art of all people" in Japanese) is perhaps the most seductive, bringing a tricky genre alive in a way that few other institutions seem to be able to manage. Surprising exhibits manage to elevate everything from surfboards to Indonesian children's toys to art form.

    Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, MO

    Housed in a work of art by Japanese starchitect Tadao Ando, you'll find an expertly curated selection of rotating exhibitions and events – less a museum and more a space in which art and culture happen, visiting here is never quite the same experience twice. A St. Louis must.

    Meadows Museum, Dallas, TX

    Often referred to as "Prado on the Prairie," this modest-sized museum at Southern Methodist University has a not-so-secret-weapon: One of the largest collections of Spanish art found outside of Spain, going all the way back from modern times to the 10th century. A striking piece by sculptor Jaume Plensa (he of the Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park) greets visitors upon arrival.

    Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

    The oldest university art museum in the Western hemisphere is often overlooked simply due to its location.  Housing everything from African sculpture to American decorative arts, the museum's main building was designed by 20th century luminary – and Yale architecture professor – Louis I. Kahn. (Kahn's other Chapel Street masterpiece, the Center for British Art, is undergoing extensive renovation and will reopen in 2016 – visit both for a memorable afternoon of art and architecture.)

    Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, Biloxi, MS

    Frank Gehry buildings are probably not the first thing visitors expect to see, passing along Mississippi's short but surprising coastline. On this rather remarkable campus, just feet from the Gulf of Mexico, you'll learn – among other things – about the life and work of George Ohr, the colorful godfather of a still-surviving regional ceramic art movement. It's way more interesting than it sounds.

    Morris Museum or Art, Augusta, GA

    Located on the banks of the Savannah River, this small collection of Southern art manages to pack quite the punch, offering a quick immersion in the regional style from the Civil War years on up to the present.

    RISD Museum, Providence, RI

    From Matisse and Manet to Warhol and an impressive decorative arts collection, the Rhode Island School of Design's museum is one of many reasons to visit this historic city currently undergoing a measured but deliberate renaissance.

    McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX

    Housed on a beautiful estate just a short drive from the Riverwalk, Texas' first modern art museum – bequeathed to the public by painter and oil heiress Marion Koogler McNay – has since expanded considerably to include a wide variety of earlier work. A notable expansion designed by French architect Jean-Paul Viguier has only made the museum even more of a keeper.

    Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island, WA

    A short ferry ride from downtown Seattle, this collection of almost hyperlocal contemporary art and craft is housed in a showpiece of modern, sustainable architecture – one of the first LEED certified museums in the country.

    Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH

    From the handsome original Beaux-Arts building to the minimal Glass Pavilion, not to mention the grand Peristyle Theatre (home to the Toledo Symphony) and Frank Gehry's 1990s-era Center for the Visual Arts, the campus of this venerable arts institution alone is worth the short detour off the Ohio Turnpike – then there's the collection itself, one of the best in the center of the country – look for an embarrassment of European and American art as well as smallish but notable collections from around the world.

    Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT

    The Old Lyme Art Colony famously incubated the American Impressionist movement; at the boarding house where many of its artists lived and painted, visitors receive a crash course in the style and are able to view some of the finest works from the time period.

    Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, East Lansing, MI

    The wide-ranging collection in this new museum on the Michigan State University campus is undeniably impressive, but the real reason to visit this new museum from afar is the striking design of Zaha Hadid's sophomore effort in North America, a twisted and mesmerizing creature of steel and glass that almost appears to be crawling up from below. 

    Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, IN

    One of the Midwest's finest college towns is home to one of the top university art museums in the United States, offering a broad selection ranging from ancient artifacts to modern art in a striking home designed by I.M. Pei and just as relevant now as it was when it debuted in 1982.

    To see these museums for yourself, visit our fare listings for Minneapolis, Burlington, San Diego, St. Louis, Dallas, Hartford, Gulfport, Augusta, Providence, San Antonio, Seattle, Detroit, and Bloomington.

    Above painting is 'Col. Poole's Pig Hill of Fame' by John Baeder at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, GA.

    Griswold photo via Joe Standart