If you wanna see inside someone’s brain, stick ’em in an art museum and then leave them there for an hour. Some will feign interest for at least 10 minutes and then start looking for the bathroom. Others will politely wander or become transfixed by a certain wall and never leave, others will head straight to the gift shop to try on silly hats. Big or small, art museums offer the truest personality test on the planet.
Because art is famous and expensive (and sometimes meaningful), the world’s most famous art museums have become iconic travel destinations unto themselves. Cultured people the world over have exhausted the Louvre in Paris, burned hours in the corridors of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, and nodded through Madrid’s Museo del Prado (Tick, tick, tick). There are few things Americans will wait hours in line for, but the Musée d’Orsay‘s French impressionism is right up there with Super Bowl tickets and some mattress outlet’s Midnight Madness sale.
It’s nice to know that art still matters, even when the world’s most well-known museums have become their own top ten of cheesy travel status symbols. But true art lovers need not despair–humans have managed to collect art the world over and many a hidden gem are lying in wait for your art-loving eyes to arrive on the spot.
The following list highlights a selection of some of the world’s best art destinations with the least amount of fanfare. (Disclaimer: Just like any person’s taste in art, this list is entirely subjective). What the following museums share in common are their high-quality collections and their pleasant lack of lines going out the door:
- Sarjeant Gallery, (Wanganui, NEW ZEALAND) You don’t expect it in small town New Zealand, but Wanganui is the quintessential art haven, with nearly a dozen galleries, live artists’ studios and stately museums. The Sarjeant collection is the largest and most impressive, well worth a day spent in this expressive riverside hamlet.
- Philips Collection, (Washington DC, USA) America’s “First Museum of Modern Art” opened in 1921 and houses a bold collection spanning Van Gogh to O’Keeffe. The intimate Rothko Room represents the first collective public showing of Mark Rothko’s famous multi-form paintings. In museum-heavy Washington, DC, the Phillips often gets overlooked by out-of-town tourists. It’s their loss.
- Musée Fabre, (Montpellier, FRANCE) You would expect a far more traditional art gallery in southern France, but the Fabre keeps visitors on their toes with a wonderful 500-year spectrum of art, including one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th Century Fauvist art. Like so much architecture in France, the museum itself is a well-preserved work of art.
- National Gallery of Art, (Reykjavik, ICELAND) For a country of just 300,000 people, Iceland has a lot of art museums. The largest of these collections is shown in an elegant old ice factory with several floors of soul-stirring Nordic art. It would take you a week to visit all of Reykjavik’s art galleries, but if you only have a day, this is the one to patronize.
- Museum of Latin American Art, (Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA) Oh wow, where to begin in Buenos Aires? There’s so much going on in this city, it’s hard to decide, but MALBA is like the ultimate megaplex of Latin American art, helping you realize how little you actually know about world culture. The museum’s gigantic size and vertigo-inducing design adds a punch of awestruck to your gut, whereas the art on the walls will leave you either with dreamy hallucinations or Borges-type nightmares.
- Toledo Museum of Art, (Toledo, Ohio, USA) Born from a private collection of local glass industrialist Edward Drummond Libbey, the Toledo Museum is home to an astounding number of high-profile works by 19th-Century European and American greats. The impressive glass collection adds a unique twist to the visit. (Pssstt: I grew up going to this museum at least once a year, and I still consider it one of the best in the world–right up there with any in Paris.)
- Heide Museum of Modern Art, (Bulleen, Victoria, AUSTRALIA) Australians are crazy about art, especially in Melbourne. The “Heide” is just a 15-minute ride outside downtown Melbourne, but that’s apparently too far for most tourists. What they’re missing is a creative collection of old Australian houses set up as galleries, bizarre outdoor installations and some downright funky art. Check it out.
- Kharkov Art Museum, (Kharkov, UKRAINE) An appreciation for Soviet art is regaining strength both in Ukraine and abroad. While most visitors hit the capital sights in Kyiv, it’s the industrial city of Kharkov that managed to preserve the country’s rich art heritage, from old Orthodox icons to propagandist block prints, epic oil paintings and tender Ukrainian folk art. Honestly, it’s probably the best art museum in the country.
- Winnipeg Art Gallery, (Winnipeg, CANADA) Canadians reign supreme in feelgood art experience and the “WAG” (an unfortunate acronym) is no exception. Manitoban art abounds and aren’t you curious to find out what that is? Housed in a sharp and angled stone triangle, the WAG also boasts the largest collection of Inuit art in the world, something the world-famous Louvre generally lacks.
- Guangdong Museum of Art, (Guangzhou, CHINA) Despite all the art that got stolen by foreigners and/or ruined by the Cultural Revolution, there is still some Chinese art left in China. In fact, even as you read this, new Chinese artists are producing new Chinese art . Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong are more famous and perhaps more impressive, but the Guangdong in Guangzhou is gaining worldwide notoriety for its fresh repertoire and independent spirit. (Why do the industrial cities get the good stuff?)
OK, I realize there are a lot more wonderful and obscure art museums out there (feel free to add your suggestions in the comments). The point is, when adding art museums to your bucket list, think outside the box. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are not in London or Paris. They’re in Winnipeg or Toledo.