Hidden Gems: Community Museums

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1957

Some of America’s best art and history isn’t found in big cities or major institutions. It’s located in places where formative events took place. Many of these community museums were created by local donors who weren’t trying to make names for themselves on the national stage, yet embodied true excellence.

In the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York, for instance, civic-minded donors and residents pooled their resources to create the Adirondack Museum in 1957, which now houses more than 30,000 objects, 10,000 books, and 70,000 photographs that document the region’s rich culture, art, and history. A bit to the north in Ogdensburg, New York, the boyhood home of Frederic Remington houses a deep collection of his paintings, sketches, sculptures, and personal memorabilia, all created and sustained by generous local friends (see 1923 entry). And to the south, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, displays in its bucolic small-town setting more than two dozen portraits by John Singer Sargent, among other treasures.

In 1971, a conservancy started by concerned local citizens and many generous foundations and individual donors resulted in the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It houses a beautiful collection of American paintings and sketches by locally rooted artists like Andrew Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and N. C. Wyeth, and offers tours of the nearby studios of some of these great artists. Further down the Brandywine Valley lies the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Henry du Pont’s rural estate is now one of the greatest decorative arts museums in the country.

A sequence of bequests from the Speed family and other local philanthropists have made the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, both a very fine national gallery and a great regional museum. Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, created by philanthropist Electra Havemeyer Webb, combines glorious Americana and folk art with astonishing Impressionist pieces and other international glories. The Wolfsonian in Miami presents the spectacular decorative-arts collection of founding donor Mitchell Wolfson. In 1985 William Morris III endowed the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, as a rich repository of Southern painting.

In other communities all across America, local philanthropy has created, underwritten, and sustained hundreds of other similarly superb institutions. These educate and edify nearby residents on art, culture, and history, and in the process enrich and anchor local identities.