America's art cities

For the pick of the exhibits, Chris Leadbeater guides you around great galleries and museums

Pay a visit to Washington DC's Smithsonian American Art Museum, and you can gaze at the bright splendour of Cape Cod Morning, a watercolour of light and hope crafted in 1950 by the iconic New York painter Edward Hopper. In some ways, this happy vision – where a woman peers through her window at the arrival of a New England day – is a neat encapsulation of the USA as a whole: prone to optimism, ever looking for the next dawn.

But it is also a reminder that, though it is rarely the first of its facets to be celebrated, America has long produced great artists and glorious art. True, these titans of the canvas are often lost behind a crowd scene of other US legends – gleam-toothed actors; hoop-holing sportsmen and podium-posing politicians. But they are there all the same: Georgia O'Keeffe with her floral close-ups, Big Apple vistas and New Mexico landscapes; Jackson Pollock with his intense swirls; Andy Warhol and his celebrity-inflected pop art.

And with them comes a whispered secret:should you choose, you can indulge a passion for painting and sculpture – for the staunchly traditional or the belligerently modern; for home-spun works or international masterpieces – in just about every city in the country.

You can do this in the cultural temples of Washington DC, New York and Chicago – or in less-known galleries from Seattle to Birmingham via Boise and Wichita. You will find high concepts and bluntly provocative daubings, sharp slices of insight and bleak, impenetrable nightmares. But if visual culture is your thing, America has much to offer. The only question, perhaps, is where to start…

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West coast wonders

As a city renowned for glitz and glamour, it should be no great shock that Los Angeles embraces art with relish. The J Paul Getty Museum (001 310 440 7300;; free) proffers two sites, one in Malibu, one in Brentwood – with the latter, the Getty Center, splitting its attention between European stalwarts (Turner, Manet, Renoir, Titian) and a outdoor sculpture area that features Henry Moore's 1985 human study Bronze Form.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, meanwhile, serves up three cutting-edge LA locations (001 213 626 6222;; Grand Avenue and Geffen Contemporary $12/£7.50; Design Center free). At the main Grand Center location, a feast of post-war creativity is on display includes Roy Lichtenstein's Navajo, Seated (1957).

The age-old competition between California's two largest cities ensures fertile art turf in San Francisco.

The de Young Museum (001 415 750 3600;; $11/£7) delivers a glut of American art from the 17th century onwards, with spotlights directed at Bay Area artists.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (001 415 581 3500;; $12/ £7.50) was formerly part of the de Young Museum. But it has proved so successful that it now operates from its own premises. Across some 17,000 exhibits, the museum takes in inspired and inspiration pieces from Iran, Korea, China and Japan.

A defiantly creative city, Seattle is also a west coast art hotspot. The Seattle Art Museum (001 206 654 3100;; $17/£11) covers many bases, its main building playing host to early American watercolours, while the attached Olympic Sculpture Park is home to giant al fresco works, including Alexander Calder's metal Eagle (1971).

Hidden gems

The idea of America as a country infused with art is brought home by the numerous kernels of culture located in cities that do not sit immediately in the holidaymaker's path.

Providence, for example, has the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design (001 401 454 6500;; $12/£7.50, concs available). Here the latest exhibition, America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now (until 13 Jan) throws out myriad raw vistas and tree-swathed snapshots.

A few states south along the East Coast, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington (001 302 571 9590;; $12/£7.50) pins itself to another fine cache of American art, including Edward Hopper's soft Summertime (1943).

Hopper is present in darker form – via his 1921 etching Night Shadows – at the excellent Des Moines Art Center in Iowa (001 515 277 4405;; free), as is Georgia O'Keeffe, whose superb From The Lake No 1 (1924) has waves rising in layers of paint.

The Boise Art Museum (001 208 345 8330;; $5/£3), in Idaho's capital, gazes out at the American north-west that surrounds it. Next up is Left Unsaid (24 Nov-3 Mar), examining stark creations by local artist Troy Passey.

And America's geographical heartland has its artistic exclamation marks. The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha (001 402 342 3300;; $8/£5) surveys the fields of Nebraska from a pristine 1931 Art Deco structure, combining Renoir and Monet with Native American painting and sculpture.

Elsewhere, the Wichita Art Museum (001 316 268 4921;; $7/£4), the largest gallery in Kansas, has 7,000 works, including pieces by "cowboy artist" Charles Russell – all dusty plains and open horizons.

Special subjects

If you want to look at the artist as much as the art, you can also find institutions that are dedicated solely to the name above the door. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (001 505 946 1000;; $12/£12.50) eulogises this female art pioneer in Santa Fe – the dry contours of New Mexico having hugely informed her work. And the blondest art star of the 1960s is remembered at the Andy Warhol Museum (above, 001 412 237 8300;; $20/£12.50) in his native Pittsburgh – a treasure trove of photos, film, paintings and sculptures including Self Portrait In Drag (1981).

Tucked away in Nyack, New York State, the Edward Hopper House Art Center (001 845 358 0774;; $5/£3) treads a rather more traditional line, showing examples of Hopper's oeuvre in his childhood home.

Jackson Pollock is similarly recalled at the Pollock-Krasner House (001 631 324 4929;; $5-$10/£3-£6), the property in East Hampton on Long Island, east of New York City, that he shared with his artist wife Lee Krasner.

Southern sophistication

The sheer size of Houston demands an art institution of suitable stature. So it proves with the Museum of Fine Arts (above 001 713 639 7300;; $9-$10/ £5-£6), which tempers the urban sprawl of the Texas metropolis with 63,000 exhibits. A wealth of Impressionism includes one of Monet's timeless 1907 Water Lilies.

Smaller of scale, but no less intriguing, the Birmingham Museum of Art (001 205 254 2565;; free) fits in with the jazz and civil rights history of this burgeoning Alabama city. Current exhibition Norman Rockwell's America (to 6 Jan, $15/£9.50) holds a mirror to the New York illustrator whose populist portrayals captured the US of the 20th century.

To see one of Rockwell's classics, the wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter (1943), head to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (001 479 418 5700;; free). Here, the story of the USA is also told via pieces like Charles Willson Peale's 1780 portrait of George Washington.

Further glimpses of the American soul are available at West Virginia's Huntington Museum of Art (001 304 529 2701;; $5/£3, Tue free), which includes John Singer Sargent's Near June Street, Worcester, Massachusetts (1890).

The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia (001 757 664 6200;; free), sees Rubens and Cézanne rub shoulders with Hopper's New York Pavements (1924).

Grand eastern establishments

America's north-east is home to a cluster of what might be deemed some of the planet's finest galleries. New York alone is an art aficionado's dream. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (001 212 535 7710;; $25/£15) ranks as the largest art museum in the country, home to two million works. It runs the gamut of European masters, but also has space for American moments such as Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950).

Similarly revered, the Museum of Modern Art (001 212 708 9400;; $25/£15) does outbursts of dashing and daring, covering architecture, design and film as well as art. Warhol's seismic Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) – the canvas equivalent of an arched eyebrow – is one of the venue's main attractions.

You'll find further dabs of the modern and outré at the Guggenheim Museum (001 212 423 3500;; $22/£14), which parades the best of the 20th century – including Picasso's Landscape At Céret (1911) – in a cylindrical Frank Lloyd Wright building that's an artwork in itself.

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (001 617 267 9300;; $25/£15) has a strong domestic emphasis. Its Art of the Americas Wing focuses on North, South and Central America, which takes in everything from Mayan ceramics to striking works of Native American genius.

A weighty rival to the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago (001 312 443 3600;; $18/£11) is the second-largest art museum in the USA. Particularly good on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, offerings include Van Gogh's melancholy Self Portrait (1887).

Washington DC also has its say. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the American Art Museum (001 202 633 7970;; free) and National Portrait Gallery (001 202 633 8300;; free) co-exist as two galleries in one building. The former dispenses US brushstrokes such as O'Keeffe's Manhattan (1932) – while the latter is noted for presidential portraits. The National Gallery of Art (001 202 737 4215;; free) reverts to Europe via Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Matisse.

At the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven (001 203 432 0600;; free), the Société Anonyme exhibition opens on 12 Dec to celebrate early 20th-century European and American art.

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