It’s not just institutions like The Met, shows like Art Basel, and fairs like Frieze that are worth visiting. All over the U.S., there’s plenty of inspiring, renowned, and renegade art to be seen. And much of it exists in places that might not immediately come to mind.
Here are nine small towns — all with a population of 15,000 or less — that punch above their weight when it comes to art, each with its own vibe and cultural cache.
Fort Bragg, California
It’s hard to peel your eyes from the natural beauty of this seaside destination in Mendocino County, California, but the artistic community offers many reasons to turn your gaze elsewhere. Visitors will find murals and galleries, featuring everything from decorative kites to wood sculptures to fine photography. And seeing as Fort Bragg is situated near Glass Beach, it’s also worth popping into the International Sea Glass Museum to admire the world’s largest sea glass collection.
Madrid, New Mexico
Sante Fe is known as a hot spot for artistic spirits. For a smaller, more eclectic dose of creativity, visit the wee village of Madrid, just south along New Mexico’s Turquoise Trail. The old mining town was reborn as an art colony, and a hippie vibe prevails at the many galleries and boutiques. In addition to an abundance of artisan-made jewelry, the galleries feature ceramics, sculptures, paintings, and photography.
North Adams, Massachusetts
With 28 buildings on 16 acres, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) has been an artistic anchor in this Berkshires location for more than two decades. Beyond the heavy-hitting artwork, it features music, dance, theater, and film performances, along with residencies. The rest of the destination is equally art-forward, with DownStreet Art organizing installations, events, and gallery crawls, and the Eclipse Mill Artist Lofts regularly hosting open studios for its resident painters, photographers, and crafters.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This Ozark Mountain town of just over 2,000 has an extraordinary artistic bent. In addition to the many downtown galleries, which represent hundreds of local artists and participate in regular gallery strolls six months of the year, there’s a celebrated Art Wall that consists of ever-changing panels designed by local artists. The Art Colony Eureka Springs, where a couple dozen artists have residence, brings a funky flair. And just for good measure, the Eureka Springs School of the Arts hosts the Festival of the Arts every May, featuring more gallery openings, artist receptions, and an ArtRageous Parade.
The minimalist artist Donald Judd is all but responsible for putting this remote desert town in western Texas on the map. Here, two foundations — the Judd Foundation and Chinati Foundation — comprise about two dozen buildings that focus on Judd’s work and legacy, along with installations of other contemporary artists. If you prefer female modernists, make an appointment to visit Building 98, where the International Woman’s Foundation is located.
Not many state capitals have such small populations (Vermont’s clocks in at just around 8,000) or big art scenes, but Montpelier exemplifies both. Art is present everywhere, from rotating exhibitions at the State House and Supreme Court building to all the co-ops, galleries, and cultural institutions around town. Six times a year, the volunteer-run Montpelier Alive Art Walk brings artists and enthusiasts out for a celebratory evening — naturally, it’s loved by the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ community.
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
In 1977, the Morgan Arts Council (MAC) established itself in this historic mountain town, making it West Virginia’s first certified arts community. Today, the town is as dynamic as ever, centering itself around Ice House, a 40,000-square-foot community art center. In addition to housing MAC’s exhibitions, classes, and lectures, Ice House has a shoppable co-op representing more than 30 artists. Just down the street, Art in the Park, a juried art fair that runs six months of the year, offers another opportunity to admire everything from sculpture to blown glass to photography by local artists.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West looms large in this northwestern Wyoming town — if not physically, then culturally. Comprising five museums in one — spanning Indigenous culture, natural history, and classic and modern western artworks — the institution hosts block parties, artist residencies, tours, talks, and more. Also packing an artistic punch, the Cody County Art League represents more than 200 artists and brings more classes and events to the community.
Woodstock, New York
Many towns in the Catskills have artsy vibes, but none more so than Woodstock. More than a century ago, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and Woodstock Artists Association & Museum were established here and remain central points of inspiration today, exhibiting American artists and hosting workshops, classes, and residencies. Lest that sounds too established, dig the beatnik vibe while strolling the galleries along Tinker Street, which attract artists and creative types from all over.