Despite my inability to concentrate on any one object for more than ten minutes, or to spend more than a couple of hours, max, on an art stroll, I adore museums. Perhaps it’s because of their variety: there’s a museum for everyone and for every mood and personality type. Interested in the history of fire alarms? The next time you’re on the Baltimore Beltway, take a detour to The Fire Museum of Maryland, which has one of the world’s greatest displays of working fire alarms. Want to see some interesting stuff without getting out of your car? Well, the Museum of Wonder in Seale Alabama (which claims to be the world’s only drive-through museum) is where you need to be!
Are you an aficionado of the circus? Then go immediately to Sarasota, Florida! It was formerly the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (many circus performers settled there, not to mention John and Mabel Ringling themselves) and has a really great circus museum, founded in the late 1940s.
And, of course, there are the big boys of the U.S. museum world — the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name only a few — those places you go when you’re in need of a serious dose of heavy culture, or a nice cafe to relax in on a hot day in the city or a browse in a great store full of art books and prints. My favorite of these — the place where I head when I’m not in the mood for one of our quirkier little cultural hors d’oeuvres — is Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. It’s a fabulous museum to visit especially when, as now, there’s a major exhibition or two going on.
Although I love the East Building, which houses a wonderful collection of 20th century art, my focus today is on the older part of the Museum. So — back to the dome! We all have our little rituals and one of mine is to always stop here for a moment or two to admire and to contemplate.
The NGA usually has some sort of special show or exhibition going on. The current attraction is a fabulous show on 16th century Venetian art, featuring the paintings of Tintoretto, a contemporary and rival of the great Titian (the two artists, by the way, loathed each other). Since many of Tintoretto’s paintings are really, really large and seldom travel, this is a great opportunity to see something of his best work without a trip to Italy!
Besides the special Tintoretto exhibition (around for the next month or so), there’s always something to see or enjoy at the NGA. If you’re not in the mood for paintings, or food, or books — well, the building itself is worth a visit!
And when the weary museum visitor needs a physical and mental time-out, he or she can always head for one of the garden courts in the old West Building, which are thoughtfully provided with very comfortable seating around the edges ……
A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure. And — it’s easy to do! Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida? Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!) Traveling to or near Pittsburgh? You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer. Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans? If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city. Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama? Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.
It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay). Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:
Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio. Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination. As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy, in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain. As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one! Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:
Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art. The latter includes works by Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more! Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior. Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon. Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:
When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes. Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!) The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement. It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom. Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?
Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.
Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.
Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:
A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two. Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….
Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….
… and FOOD! Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..
In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!