From ancient indigenous craftsmanship now on display in Massachusetts to a strikingly contemporary Quaker modern art space in Texas, outstanding museum-worthy objects can be found in the most surprising of humble locations across the United States. Below is our selection of the best weird and wonderful stops on an alternative cultural tour of great artwork in the USA.
Located in Pittsburgh’s historic Northside cultural hub, the Andy Warhol Museum has added to the city’s reputation as a developing arts and education hotspot over the past 100 years. The centre, celebrating the work of the Pittsburgh-born iconic pop artist, covers 88,000 square feet in an industrial warehouse, transformed by architect Richard Gluckman into 17 galleries, a theatre, a visitors’ reading room and a café. Now the space is complete with a grand staircase, steel fixtures, and eclectic furnishings, comfortably combining the informal with the elegant.
The collection includes thousands of Warhol’s paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, films and screen tests, showcasing a comprehensive range of his life’s work, with recognisable pieces such as Campbell’s Soup Cans, alongside lesser-known collaborations with young artists. Creating a dynamic social space with hands-on workshops, a vintage photobooth and the opportunity to direct and star in your very own screen test, the museum is committed to providing an immersive, interactive experience.
Open only two days a week, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the artistic Grand Center district of St Louis, Missouri, channels at least as much energy into organising its intensive programme of seminars, concerts and performances as it does into exhibitions. The museum represents a new philosophy in curation, with visitors invited to directly experience artwork in the absence of explanatory text and labels, and exhibitions focusing on the interplay between art and architecture. Exhibitions often consist of large-scale installations that explore themes such as the evolution of artwork, engaging with colour and universal manifestations of love.
Featured artists include architect Tadao Ando, who designed the building, Edith Dekyndt, Donald Judd, sculptor Richard Serra and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Visitors can take a guided tour of the museum every Wednesday, and if you’re in the area on the first Friday of every month be sure to take advantage of the district’s regular open gallery evening, when the area comes alive with creativity.
The Museum of Art at Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island
Located in the oldest neighbourhood of Providence, Rhode Island — the first state to declare independence from British Rule — the Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design has been inspiring and educating artists and the public since 1893. The diverse collection of items ranges from 10th century relics from across the globe through to contemporary and experimental artworks by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and video art pioneer Vito Acconci. In addition to the original stately Grand Gallery, there are five galleries displaying the incredible variety of the collections, including an Ancient Greek and Roman Gallery, an Early Renaissance and Medieval Gallery, a European Gallery, a 20th Century Gallery and a Modern and Contemporary Gallery. The museum has most recently been praised for its expansive Graphic Design exhibition, and for its series of educational events designed to foster a lifelong relationship with art and design.
The main attraction of the Meeting House in Houston, Texas, is not a collection of work but the House itself, which was designed by artist James Turrell. The project was first conceptualised by gallery developer Hiram Butler, who was inspired by Houston’s Rothko Chapel and introduced Turrell to the local Quaker group, in the hopes of fulfilling both a personal interest in religious art buildings and the group’s need for a permanent meeting space. Turrell is known for his playful and experimental use of light, space and colour, and this reputation is apparent in the central feature of the Meeting House: the Skyspace. This attic room is a place of silent reflection, filled with changing colours and shadows, creating a space of meditation that reflects the ethos and intention of the Quaker group, and the vision of the artist. Turrell’s work ‘Meeting’ was a recreation of this physical Skyspace, installed at New York’s MOMA P.S.1.
The first modern art museum in Texas, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, contains a vast collection of primarily 19th and 20th century paintings, housed in the mansion that belonged to painter Marion McNay. The museum has developed on the same estate to include a new centre built by architect Jean-Paul Viguier, a collection of theatre arts and an extensive research library. The McNay collection’s prized works are predominantly French post-impressionist pieces, including paintings by Monet, Chagall and Gauguin, and also recently purchased works by the American modernist Stieglitz group. The scope of both the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions is wide, and a visit to the museum also includes your entry to the sculpture gardens on the same grounds.
The Wolfsonian – Florida International University, Florida
The Wolfsonian-FIU, an imposingly large facility in Florida, tells the story of the Industrial Revolution through curated exhibitions that set visitors on a path of discovery about modernity and a transforming world. The collections, holding more than 120,000 items in total, span many creative mediums, including furniture design, books, paintings, metalwork and textiles. In addition, there is a sophisticated research library onsite, open to academics and visitors alike.
Past exhibitions have tackled issues ranging from modern beauty in poetry, World Fairs of the 1930s as indicators of social crises, and the shifting behaviour of America with respect to food and geography. With its commitment to research and education of this specific era, the museum is lauded by scholars, history enthusiasts and art aficionados, and continues to use exhibitions, events and publications to promote discussion about how innovation and technology are shaping society.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Massachusetts
The historic Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded by the ‘father of modern philanthropy’, is home to an historic collection of ancient relics and artefacts of indigenous communities around the world. The museum has been curating human cultural history since 1866, and amongst its rare pieces are surviving items from the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition, archaeological finds from Mayan and Mesoamerican civilisations, historical relics from the Pacific Islands and one of the world’s largest photographic archives documenting indigenous communities across the globe. The museum is an affiliate of Harvard University, and partners with scholars and university organisations to sustain its status as a pioneer in exhibiting towering pieces of ancient art.
Also in Cambridge, MA, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum is home to a unique collection of Asian art, incorporating remarkable Chinese jades and Japanese surimono woodblock prints, ceremonial weapons, Korean ceramics and Buddhist sculptures. Impressive and intricate works of Islamic and Indian art are also part of the collections, including paintings, drawings and ancient manuscript calligraphy and illustration. The museum is in the process of moving to a new Harvard Art Museums complex (which will also include the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums), designed by Renzo Piano – architect of London’s Shard, and was closed to the public until November 2014.
The only place to truly appreciate the breadth of British art outside of the UK, the Yale Center for British Art in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, comprehensively surveys the development of British culture from the 1600s to the present day. The collection, which comprises over 2000 paintings by notable artists such as Constable, Turner and William Blake, was donated by Paul Mellon, whose philanthropic art centre in London supports research and exhibitions at Yale. The museum has put on exhibitions focusing on portrait busts in the 18th century, art from Wales, and the dynamic nature of European landscape painting. There is also no lack of American culture here, since the steel and glass building was designed by Louis Kahn, and subsequently awarded the Twenty-Five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects, recognising its status as an enduring landmark.
Across the road from the Center for British Art stands Louis Kahn’s earlier, recently renovated, landmark in New Haven – the Yale University Art Gallery, built in 1953. The museum collection dates back to 1832, when it was founded by benefactor John Trumbull; the institution holds the title as the oldest university art museum in the western hemisphere. The gallery promotes direct engagement with the original works of art in its collections, which span ancient art to contemporary work. The museum is particularly renowned for the displays of early Italian painting, African art from the Sahel area and modern American decorative and fine art. With a strong commitment to education and scholarship, the museum has collaborated with university researchers to put on exhibitions such as still life photographs from the 1970s photorealism movement, and the development of sculpture movements and black identities in American art, to name just a few. Visitors can also take advantage of special education events, designed with the university community in mind but open to the general public.