Daryl and I, once a year, travel to new locales and explore revitalized cities new to us, fulfilling our need for visual inspiration and new creative ideas. Recently while traveling westward by car from Asheville, we were energized by museums, cultural centers, galleries, and events building stronger communities through art, craft and commerce. On your next driving adventure, try this itinerary: Abingdon, VA, Cincinnati, OH, Louisville, KY, Lexington, KY and Nashville, TN.
Travel to Abingdon, VA
Small Town Cultural Tourism
Despite arriving on a rainy Sunday with wonderful main street shops closed and the Barter Theater “dark,” we found other attractions that reflect why so many folks travel to this small hotspot tucked away in Southwestern Virginia. Just a little over an hour from Asheville, this is the perfect respite for art lovers. Most significant was our time at the small but smartly curated William King Museum. The museum boasts an impressive display of costumes over the years, all from plays visitors would recognize. Carefully encompassing area history into its exhibits, another gallery revealed well told tales and exquisite quilts from regional artisans accompanied by personal stories from generations of Appalachian families..
Other Must-dos: Stay at the beautifully restored Martha Washington Hotel with great food, a spa and an indoor pool, or for outdoor adventures - bike or walk the famous Virginia Creeper Trail. Visit the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace: this cleverly designed community asset is a must see for authentic hand-crafted delights, exhibits and concerts. Special kudos to Mark Altizer for his Sonder Gallery and B&B.
Travel to Cincinnati, OH
Art City - Turnaround
What an eye-opener! The art vibe is everywhere in this vibrant city where the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) has poured $1.7 billion into revitalization. Downtown sites are walkable from the energized town center at Fountain Square to the beautiful Riverfront Park where the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center stands.
Not to be missed is this interactive and totally absorbing museum of exhibits with strong multimedia displays center on slavery in America. The focus spans from the 17th century to today's iteration - human trafficking for farm labor and sex trade trafficking around the globe. Today, trolleys boldly decked with art graphics bring messages of community, kindness and togetherness. The sentiment is reinforced by over 250 buildings graced by architectural beauty, bringing thousands of residents to live in its downtown core and three comprehensive residential and service facilities for the homeless.
In the city center, nearly 200 public murals through ArtWorks Cincinnati, capture the eyes of residents and visitors with messages courting comfort, hope and love. Walk to the Over the Rhine historic neighborhood rich with 19th century architecture and the Findlay Market, still a bustling center for fresh produce and ethnic food specialties as well as neighborhood festivals enlivened by street performers.
Highly Recommended: The 21 C Hotel and Museum is a mind-boggling art experience of fine contemporary art from the reserves of the Brown-Forman family. We never miss a 21 C in its eight locations, for dinner, lodging and a special art-filled stay, embraced by its art experience from sidewalks to elevators to rotating exhibits and guest rooms.
Contemporary Arts/ Children- Cincy’s welcoming messages bring community togetherness, possibly spurred by memorable controversy from the known 1990 trial of the CAC’s director for exhibiting Robert Mapplethrope’s The Perfect Moment, reported by the NYT’s to have been “the first criminal trial of an art museum arising from its content.” Flash forward to exhibits that present the talent of diverse artists and its truly special children’s floor. This welcoming place was a special opportunity for fun as we embraced stories and art with visual excitement in delightful learning spaces. Special nods go to The Adventures of Todd exhibit, other outstanding displays and smart design brought to life with the keen oversight of Stephanie Schneider, Director of the Childrens’ Creativity Center.
Travel to Louisville, KY
A City of Delights Uses Art to Restore its Image
Our annual visit here always results in a stop at The Speed Museum. Of special note is Amy Sherald’s painting of Breonna Taylor. This was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine as a public memorial to Taylor’s life and the ongoing quest for social justice.
Exhibiting local textile mastery in the displayed works from accomplished Kentucy Women, textile artist Alma Wallace Lesch reveals strong emotions evoking personal reflections on place, faith, and female identity. Much beloved as an artist and outspoken activist, Lesch brings creative experimentation in her artistic journey from mid-century to current times.
Travel to Lexington, KY
Arts in Partnership with Major Players: Horses, Tobacco and Bourbon
Kentucky’s culture reflects its economy and history as an outgrowth of its mainstay industries centered on horses, tobacco and liquor. However, the city’s art leadership is also focused on art and activities that build community and culture to foster pride and commitment in Lexington.
A fine example is the work of Ame Sweetall, President and CEO at Lex Arts, supporting 40 plus artists and organizations central to the city's cultural revitalization efforts. Focusing on the exhibits and events that reveal both the pluses and minuses of its culture, a remarkable show of watercolors based on mugshots evokes an emotional response to police overreach and crime. Kentucky is using its art to change hate and bring folks together.
Travel to Nashville, TN
Adding Music and Inspired Artistic Endeavor to Reflect Local Culture
A visit to the National Museum of African American Music made for one helluva afternoon! Daryl and I spent three packed hours embracing memories - a “blast from the past,” consuming music from the best loved of America’s Black talent. W.C. Handy to Rihanna, there were heads bobbing and toes tapping at each exhibition station. This music center provides a deep dive into over 50 music genres. The exhibits grace 56,000 sf of contemporary space with history and sounds from Jazz to Hip Hop, Blues to Rap, Rock and Roll to Gospel. Special vibes prevail in the semi private dance room where you can definitely dance “like no one's watching.” You can interact with the exhibit following dance moves from silhouettes gyrating on a screen, bringing reminders of moves I’d almost forgotten (and bringing back our mojo.) Remember the Mashed Potato? The Chicken?
Don’t miss Cheekwood, once the family home of Mabel and Leslie Cheek, this extraordinary 1930s estate, with its historic mansion and 55 acres of cultivated gardens and expansive vistas, today serves the public as a botanic garden, arboretum and house museum. A walk through Cheek Mansion presents a beautiful, classically designed home within the context of the American Country Place Era. Family rooms have been restored to showcase original furnishings and converted to galleries where artworks inspire with a special nod to contemporary works relatable to the Sixties when the Museum first opened. Larry Rivers, Rauschenburg, a large collection of William Edmondson sculptures, portraits of Andy Warhol, Jamie Wyeth, and more show the significance of the Mid-Century art movement.
Walking the illuminated trails brought a heightened awareness of place inviting a spiritual connectedness, magnified by the setting sun and regional background music from the concert area. Always fostering a sense of community, families and businesses brought special totems to other garden spaces, encouraging a walkable, whimsical art adventure.
Hate trip planning and looking for a driving trip with no real hassle? Seek out nearby cities filled with art and history. We'd love to hear about your art adventures! Add them to the comments or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.