New York gets all the credit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection, the New Museum — it can often seem like the world's best art is housed in New York City.
It's easy to get blinded by the phenomenal collection of art in the Big Apple and overlook the other fantastic art museums and private collections across the U.S. — but that would be a mistake.
Museum culture across the country is well-established and some of the most impressive art exhibitions are in lesser-known museums and private collections. While the large museums will probably continue to get more visitors, these smaller collections offer a more intimate viewing experience than any of the large museums can.
Here are eight great and comparatively undiscovered American museum gems. From a strong showing of North American folk art in Vermont, to a permanent collection of American Indian art in Kansas City, Mo., each of these museums offers unique appeal.
1. Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, Vt.)
Tucked away in Vermont's Lake Champlain Valley is the Shelburne Museum, founded in 1947 by art collector Electra Havemeyer Webb.
The museum houses an unconventional combination of fine European art, including Impressionist paintings, and Americana, including quilts and folk art. Perhaps more interesting are the structures on the museum grounds. Webb relocated 20 historic buildings to Shelburne to be used as exhibition venues. There include farms, schoolhouses and even a steamboat. It's the kind of approach that only a private collector would or could take.
Highlights of the collection include Hudson River School landscapes like Thomas Cole's "View on the Arno," as well as folk art sculptures, weather vanes and paintings.
2. de Young Museum (San Francisco)
San Francisco's de Young Museum is one of the finest art museums on the West Coast. Designed by famous Swiss architect firm Herzog & De Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects, the museum is very much a part of its natural environment, beautifully showcasing a sensitivity and sensibility few other museum buildings achieve. The viewing tower at the museum is a landmark, and offers big views of the city.
The real views are inside. The de Young collection features 17th to 20th century American art, textile arts and art of the Americas, Africa and Oceania. Among the permanent collection are Giorgio de Chirico's serene painted figures and Gordon Lynn Bennett's moody photographs. In addition to the permanent collection, the temporary exhibitions are reliably amazing.
3. Ackland Art Museum (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
The Ackland Art Museum may be a small museum attached to a big university, but it punches well above its weight. Associated with the University of North Carolina, the Ackland is a valuable resource for the university, alongside other regional museums like Duke University's excellent Nasher Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The Ackland's Asian art collection may be one of the strongest in the region, but it's the museum's unique programming that sets it apart. Rather than host a showing of a single artist, the Ackland tends toward conceptually driven exhibitions that draw from many cultures and perspectives.
4. Detroit Institute of the Arts (Detroit)
The Detroit Institute of the Arts is home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of art in America. Founded in 1885, it has expanded and evolved many times throughout its history.
The jewel in the crown of this major art museum is Mexican artist Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry," an enormous fresco that covers an entire room. Other remarkable works include van Gogh's "Self Portrait" and rare Eastern and African artworks.
The DIA is currently at the center of a major frenzy related to Detroit's bankruptcy. After the museum announced intentions to sell part of its collection to pay municipal debts, companies like Toyota, Blue Cross Blue Shield and more have given almost $30 million to save the museum.
5. The Wolfsonian (Miami)
"What South Florida cultural institution is eclectic and borders on the eccentric?" the website asks. Answer: the Wolfsonian-Florida International University. The Wolfsonian is a museum, library, research facility and cultural center focusing on modern art and material culture, and also includes furniture, art, ceramics and ephemera.
Current exhibitions include Art and Design in the Modern Age, Cleaner, Healthier, Easier: Improving the Modern Home, The Theaters of S. Charles Lee. The permanent collection is so expansive and so diverse, that in some ways, identifying highlights could be reductive. The Wolfsonion isn't home to many widely famous pieces, but it is home to many incomparable pieces.
6. Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas City, Mo.)
Admission is always free at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, but that's just an added benefit. The real draw is the collection and the spirit of community. Opened in 1933, and staying active throughout the Depression, the Nelson-Atkins has long been a valuable community resource.
The diversity of the collection is impressive, featuring not only modern and contemporary work and American art, but also African, Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian and European art. The museum's American Indian art collection is particularly strong, with the American Indian art galleries taking up an enormous 6,100 square feet. On view until early next year is "Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867-68." These photographs help illustrate the interesting overlap between American and American Indian communities at the beginning of the photographic era.
7. Morris Museum of Art (Augusta, Ga.)
The Morris Museum of Art is the only collection devoted exclusively to the art of the American South. Works from the colonial era are meet with pieces by contemporary Southern artists in this small museum.
Currently on display are "This Happy Land: Paintings by William Entrekin" and "Art from the Collection of Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman." In addition, the permanent collection boasts wonderful portraits from different artistic styles, like the Southern Impressionist work "Pauline - A Little Friend of Mine" by Helen Maria Turner and self-taught artist Howard Finster's "Elvis-at-3."
8. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston)
This fine private collection displays works from a variety of cultures. The works are all housed in an elaborate building, built to resemble a 15th century Venetian palace.
John Singer Sargent's "El Jaleo" is on display here, as is Rembrant's "Self-Portrait, Aged 23." When talking about the museum, it's hard not to talk about the theft. In 1990, thieves dressed as Boston policemen absconded with 13 pieces of art. Since then, the museum has left the 13 empty frames on the walls, a reminder of what was lost and a sign of hope that they may one day be returned.
Correction: August 13, 2014: A previous version of this article mistakenly said the Shelburne Museum was founded in 1987, not 1947.