Top ten art museums you haven’t been to

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

(Photo: Flickr Henry Bloomfield; 2 Dogs)

Medieval monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.

It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?

This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.

Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.

We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.


The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.

The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.

The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.

A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.

Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.

Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

Blickling Hall: a living British comedy

There are two ways to experience Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England: straightforward or quirky. The former is intended, with a veritable army of committed volunteers on hand to explain every detail of the Jacobean house. Soak in the tapestry, portraits and antique furniture. Learn the history associated with each of the many rooms in the major … or, look just below the surface to see how crazy this place can be (unintentionally, of course). As you move from room to room, you can see the oddity that has crept into this National Trust property.

In nearly every room, you’ll be introduced to the ceiling. Except in a few cases, what covers your head dates back 400 years. You’ll hear this a lot. The expression “17th century ceiling” is spoken in nearly every room in Blickling Hall by the cadre of zealous volunteers who are quite proud of their overhead cover. It looks about the same in every room – except at the entry, where one of my fellow journos explained a tad condescendingly that the ceiling dates back only to the 18th century (silly me for not catching it). Once you get passed the obviously impressive stuff above, most rooms are packed with furniture and paintings that reach back centuries – they are certainly worth a close look.

None of this matters, however, when you get to the mysterious “17th century cabinet.” On its own, this classic piece is rather plain. Sure, it’s an antique – just like everything else in Blickling Hall. The volunteer staffing the room was great about talking up the cabinet, revealing that the inner artwork was a sight to behold. So, I asked that he throw open the doors for all to enjoy. Instead, he showed me photos of the inside, because the doors are only once a year. “I’m told the pictures don’t do it justice,” the volunteer said.

I’m told?


Alas, he has not been in the house the past several years the cabinet was opened and has not been able to enjoy the experience. But, he’s hopeful for 2009. The doors will be opened sometime in September or October. There is no pomp. There is no ceremony. Hell, there’s no warning! Apparently, the much discussed cabinet is opened sans publicity and sans any sort of planning. So, if you want to peer into the hidden treat at Blickling Hall, it would be smart to call ahead (though you may not get much in reply). Lean on the dedicated volunteers of Blickling Hall, and you may even be able to influence the schedule.

Lobby the volunteers for answers.

If you think a closed cabinet is fun, you’ll be blown away by the rooms downstairs. Before descending to the kitchen where the staff works, take a look at the staff organization chart provided by Blickling Hall. The two positions that stand out are the “footman” and the “odd man.” The former tended to be selected for his “physical attributes,” as the footman traditionally ran behind the carriage to make sure journeys proceeded smoothly. In the modern era, the footman’s duties included schlepping dishes up and down several flights of stairs.

Up until World War II, that was good for a mere £1 a week, though occasional generosity in the form of tips could bump a week’s take to £5. It’s hardly surprising that the last man to have the job didn’t return after serving a hitch in the war.

The odd man’s role at Blickling Hall remains a mystery, as the footman appears to steal the spotlight. I assume he did odd jobs – as the title implies – around the manor, but it’s unclear. Odd man out, perhaps?

When the footman took off for the war, did the odd man get promoted? Or, did he become the mildly strange man? One can only speculate.

Among the last rooms you’ll see is a stunning library containing 10,000 volumes, which Blickling Hall received in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, it was the exercise room. On many days, the children were set loose in the oversized chamber. But, what about the adults? When asked how adults exercised in 1745, the room’s volunteer offered a perplexed look before offering, “I guess they walked … and gossiped.” Dishing burns calories!

One can only assume that the footman and the odd man didn’t use the exercise room much, as they were kept busy enough.

A walk through Blickling Hall is a step back in time, and you can explore the world through lenses that are four centuries old. At the same time, it’s a contemporary comedy, in which volunteer retirees wax in serious tones that can’t help but make you chuckle. It almost seems like a British comedy written by an American.

Either before or after you tour the house, do check out the adjacent gardens. There’s no hint of quirk in this carefully manicured landscape. Wander the trails and hedges … and take a minute to chill (unlike the odd man, who I doubt ever had that luxury).

Whether you see Blickling Hall as a taste of classic England or a bunch of crazy Brits obsessed with ceilings and odd men, the experience is well worth the trek out to Norfolk. Time your stay to correspond to the grand cabinet unveiling – whenever hit may be – and you’ll pick up the rare experience that some on the staff have yet to enjoy!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. Any questions about my objectivity? Read the article again. This is far from what they wanted from me.

Museum Junkie: Futurism at the Tate Modern

“Today we are founding Futurism, because we want to free our country from the smelly gangrene of its professors, archaeologists, tour guides and antiquarians.”

On February 20, 1909, the front page of the Italian newspaper Le Figaro was taken up with the Manifesto of Futurism, a new movement of artists, poets, and performers who revolutionized modern art. They rejected all the past–traditional painting, museums, history, religion, marriage, and just about everything else they could think of while embracing modernity in all its forms. They loved movement, anarchy, technology. When World War One started in 1914, they hailed it as the first modern war and formed the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Automobilists. Their Manifesto stated that war was “the world’s only hygiene.”

The energy of their work, shown here in Impressions in a Dance Hall (1914) by Belgian Futurist Jules Schmalziguag, soon captivated the art world.


Futurism is a new exhibition at London’s Tate Modern that studies the development of this movement. The exhibition covers the movement’s origins in Italy and its rapid spread across Europe from England to Russia. What started with painting soon made its impact felt in sculpture, literature, architecture, even music. Part of Futurism’s success was the artists’ shameless self-promotion, with more than fifty manifestos coming out in the five years after the initial one in La Figaro. Some of these manifestos and Futurist literary magazines are also on display, along with paintings from the competing movement of Cubism, The Futurists were opposed to Cubism, of course, because it took attention away from them, and were in the habit of calling Picasso a “boor.” They called themselves boors too, so it’s hard to tell if they were really insulting him, or themselves, or neither, or both.

The Futurists would have loved seeing their work in the Tate Modern. The building is a converted power station with a soaring central space that was once taken up by a massive turbine. The museum is filled with modern art, installation pieces, and video displays. This ultramodern setting may have even made the Futurists forget that museums were nothing but “graveyards”.

“Museums, graveyards!” the original Manifesto fomented. “They’re the same thing, really, because of their grim profusion of corpses that no one remembers.”

Futurism started at the Tate Modern on June 12 and runs until September 20.

Spectacular summer art season in Madrid

Madrid is one of the art capitals of Europe, and each season the city’s big three art museums host major exhibitions. This summer looks like it’s going to be an especially good one.

Perhaps the biggest show of the season is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s show on Matisse. Running from June 9 to September 20, it focuses on the work the famous painter and sculptor did in the middle part of his life. In the 1920s he and Picasso were at the vanguard of making modern art acceptable to the general public, and in the 1930s Matisse’s work became more inward-looking as the Depression, the buildup to World War Two, and the invasion of France took their psychological toll.

The Prado will has a show focusing on the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became one of Spain’s best-loved painters with his brilliant images of sun-soaked gardens and beaches. This show runs from May 26-September 6. One of his paintings, titled “Walk on the Beach”, is shown here. If you like his style, you might also want to check out his house, which is now a museum showcasing his life and work.

If modern art is more your thing, check out the Reina Sofia, Madrid’s home for modern and contemporary art. Their big show this summer will be Los Esquizos de Madrid, an art movement that flourished in Spain’s capital in the Seventies as the country made the transition from dictatorship under Franco to a fragile multiparty democracy. This movement embraced figurative art at a time when the rest of the European art world seemed have abandoned it.

The Reina Sofia will also have an exhibition by Lebanese artist Walid Raad, who created The Atlas Group, an art movement of one. His work explores censorship and the Lebanese Civil War though various media and will be open from June 3 to August 31.