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10 Small Cities That Are Not Cultural Wastelands

10 Small Cities That Are Not Cultural Wastelands

small-towns-with-culture

Adam Freidin/flikr; Robert Alexander/Getty Images; Frank Atura; Tom Aldrich/Missoula Downtown Association

Do you live in a cultural wasteland? Is your local fine arts scene mostly relegated to finger-painting displays at public school parent-teacher nights? Is the music scene dominated by Supertramp tunes on jukeboxes and Slayer cover bands at local pubs? Does your high-minded night out on the town start with the early-bird special at the Sizzler and end with a Shia LaBeouf film festival at the local “art house” theater?

Here’s the news: It doesn’t have to be this way.

When most people think of culture-rich cities, they typically think of the big, deep-pocketed, glamorous metros like New York, L.A., or San Francisco—you know, the places where famous artists, and the people who obsess over them, actually live. Living in an artistically arid, culture-free zone is one of the fears people cite most often when moving out of big cities.

But truth be told, there is plenty of cultural diversity across this fine country of ours, and you don’t have to break the bank to live in a town that serves it up.

There are a surprising number of small cities where the street art will dazzle, the live performances will inspire, and the literary scene might actually prompt you to stash your phone or computer and start reading a book or two (after you finish this story, of course).

To identify the top towns that are rich in cultural attractions and history, our data team ranked cities with populations between 20,000 and 80,000 by the following criteria:*

  • Number of museums, libraries, art galleries, bookstores, independent movie theaters, symphony orchestras, and performing art centers
  • Number of book clubs and theater groups
  • Number of film festivals, classic music festival, and art and culture festivals

 

From coast to coast, here are 10 towns that outshine many of the biggest metros on the U.S. cultural map. And there’s not a mime school in the bunch! (That we know of.)

culture-01

1. Santa Fe, NM

International Folk Art Market
International Folk Art Market

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Median home price: $500,000

Surrounded by acres of desolate beauty, Santa Fe has an unrivaled art scene for a town this size (population 70,000). Whether it’s the engorged flower paintings of Georgia O’Keefe—who did much of her best-known work here—or the output of several generations of defining Southwestern artists, great works are in evidence pretty much everywhere you look. This place has been a magnet for creative types for a century, with artistic influences ranging from Native American to Latino, to traditional and contemporary American.

The famous Canyon Road area alone hosts more than 100 galleries in a half-mile stretch. The city’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has the largest collection of her work anywhere (94 pieces), and is the first American museum dedicated to a female artist, according to John Feins, public relations manager of Tourism Santa Fe.

Cultural bonus: The Santa Fe Opera is one of the oldest, best, and sometimes weirdest companies in the United States. Give it a try even if you think you hate opera. You may be surprised.

2. Sarasota, FL

The cast of Show Boats, production of Asolo Repertory Theatre
The cast of “Show Boat,” a production of Asolo Repertory Theatre

Photo courtesy of Frank Atura

Median home price: $350,000

Sarasota has become the heart of what’s now known as Florida’s Cultural Coast. The theatrical scene is particularly strong here—actor Montgomery Clift made his acting debut at the Players Theatre, Sarasota’s oldest community theater, which is still in operation. From the 216-year-old Asolo Repertory Theatre, which migrated from Italy, to the constantly sold-out Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, to improv and experimental work at Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota’s theater lovers are spoiled rotten.

What’s that you say? You actually want to meet some artists? The Towles Court Artist Colony downtown, with brick streets, historic oaks, and “old Florida” style bungalows, is a natural gathering place for the creative class.

Cultural bonus: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with 15,000 works spanning European art, modern art, and Chinese ceramics, is a bit of a mind blower. Who says Florida lacks soul? (Oh, maybe we did. Sorry.)

3. Wilmington, DE

Hagley Museum
Hagley Museum

myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Median home price: $215,000

The largest city in Delaware, Wilmington flourished as a major stop on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, which opened in 1837. Today, the area has 25 museums, many presenting Wilmington’s long and fascinating history.

The Hagley Museum and Library, site of the gunpowder works founded by E.I. du Pont in 1802, recreates vivid scenes of the early American industrial age. Collections at the Delaware Art Museum look back at the evolution of American art, including the country’s largest collection of the works of John Sloan, a leading 20th-century artist and one of the founders of the Ashcan movement.

Cultural bonus: With a young and diverse population, there are tons of awesome ethnic festivals here, including the Italian Festival, Greek Festival, Polish Festival, and German Oktoberfest. Good art, great food.

4. Ashland, OR

Ensemble in play Henry VIII written by Shakespeare
A performance of “Henry VIII” during the Shakespeare Festival

Photo courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Median home price: $575,000

For more than 80 years, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has drawn international actors, scholars, and die-hard Shakespeare freaks. The marathon festival runs from February to October and features 11 plays—three or four by Shakespeare, the rest from classic and modern playwrights. If the theater’s not your thing, the festival even has “hip-hop poetry” open mic nights. It’s way less cringeworthy than it sounds.

For literary types, Bloomsbury Books devotes lots of space to local playwrights and reading events; literacy center and nonprofit bookstore TreeHouse Books hosts “The Secret Book Club” for children.

Cultural bonus: Now in its 16th year, the Ashland Independent Film Festival has been named one of the “25 coolest film festivals in the world”  for 2016 by website Moviemaker. luring over 7,000 film enthusiasts every spring to watch more than 90 documentary, feature, and short films.

5. Evanston, IL

evanston-IL
The Vintage Vinyl record shop in Evanston

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Median home price: $349,000

Just north of Chicago, this home city of Northwestern University, prides itself on being an intellectual oasis. The nearby Lakeshore Historical District is a living architecture museum—packed with historical homes in Queen Anne, Italianate, Tudor, and Prairie styles (the latter pioneered by local luminary Frank Lloyd Wright). The district, along with many mansions and cottages, and one lighthouse, are among the 64 sites in Evanston in the National Register of Historic Places. (An apartment in one of them, a Classical Revival apartment building, is up for sale!)

Cultural bonus: Yeah, there’s plenty of art, along with that cool history. Though its population is only 3% of Chicago’s, Evanston has its own symphony orchestra, ballet school, plenty of theater troupes, 7 museums, and 21 art galleries.

6. Santa Cruz, CA

Dancers perform in public during the Santa Cruz Dance Week
Public displays of rhythm and soul during the Santa Cruz Dance Week.

Adam Freidin/flikr

Median home price: $899,000

A classic California beach town, Santa Cruz has a well-calibrated blend of tourism and art culture. The ocean looms large in local art, from the landscape paintings in the city’s 33 galleries to the annual Sea Glass and Ocean Art Festival, and the Lighthouse Surfing Museum, which displays vintage redwood surfboards. Every October, 278 artists in Santa Cruz County open up their studios to the public to view their craft and process.

For 10 years, the Del Mar Theatre, an Art Deco cinema built in 1936, has hosted the “Secret Film Festival”—12 hours of films whose titles aren’t revealed in advance. The festival runs from midnight till noon, and moviegoers—many of them in pajamas with pillows—get to see the premieres of several movies. Some great, some not so great. Live dangerously!

Cultural bonus: Santa Cruz Dance Week, a nine-day party each April, is a toe-tapping, stress-crushing blast.

7. Portland, ME

Theatre costumes for the Old Port Festival
Costumes for the Old Port Festival

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Median home price: $340,000

The Maine seacoast has attracted and nurtured artists in a serious way since the 1980s. The SPACE gallery is a sort of artistic incubator where creatives spanning wildly different genre hang out, rent studio space, and inspire each other. And every year, the Old Port Festival marks the unofficial start of summer, with music events and locally made arts and crafts (and funky costumes, like the ones above).

Cultural bonus: Not to be outdone by the other Portland, this Northeastern town proudly lets its freak flag fly. One year, independent bookstore Longfellow Books countered Cyber Monday with Cider Monday, offering patrons fresh apple beverage and doughnuts. Fight the system!

8. Charlottesville, VA

A man paints on a canvas in the center of Charlottesville, VA
Street art lives n the center of Charlottesville.

jcarillet/iStock

Median home price: $380,000

Not surprisingly, the home town of Thomas Jefferson—the guy who happened to jot down the most famous document in American history—is known as a literary mecca. Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner both spent time at the University of Virginia—Poe as a student, Faulkner as a teacher.

This literary legacy has sustained a local ecosystem of indie bookstores, including Blue Whale Books and the New Dominion Bookshop. Every spring, brings the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring readings, writing events, and interviews with best-selling authors like John Grisham and David Baldacci.

Cultural bonus: This historic place has a surprisingly lively modern music scene. Superstars like Lady Gaga and Springsteen head to the John Paul Jones Arena, with its 15,000-plus seats, while cutting-edge homegrown acts decamp to one-of-a-kind small venues like the Southern.

9. Missoula, MT

Garden City River Rod Run
Garden City River Rod Run

Photo courtesy of Tom Aldrich/Missoula Downtown Association

Median home price: $340,000

Nestled among converging mountain ranges, Missoula, a former lumber town, recently woke up to find it had become a hipster utopia. How did it happen? Could it be the growing presence of the University of Montana? The plethora of artists who hang out downtown? The two big documentary film festivals? The booming craft beer industry? Put a check next to all four.

Cultural bonus: In June, the Garden City River Rod Run kicks into full gear, bringing hundreds of vintage cars onto the road. Cruiser heaven.

10. Palm Springs, CA

Artists Cherry Capri and Josh Agle pose in front of Shag, an art gallery in Palm Springs, with Capri’s sculpture.
Artists Cherry Capri and Josh Agle pose in front of Shag, an art gallery in Palm Springs, with Capri’s sculpture.

Mary-Margaret Stratton/Wiki Commons

Median home price: $392,000

Spread over 150,000 square feet, the Palm Springs Art Museum boasts major collections of modern art, glass, and photography. But you don’t really need to visit the museum to see “desert modernism.” The Palm Springs area itself is an open-air museum of this variant of Mid-Century Modern style—flat roof, post-and-beam structure, and floor-to-ceiling windows that take in the dramatic desert landscape.

Cultural bonus: An ever-popular getaway from Los Angeles, Palm Springs has long been striving to establish its own identity as a cultural center, hosting the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Palm Springs International ShortFest, and Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival. The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum also hosts an annual Native FilmFest, honoring the Native American heritage.

 

* Data sources: MuseumsUSA, publiclibraries.com, League of American Orchestras, Meetup, Yelp.com, filmfreeway.com, ArtFairCalendar.com, Eventbrite

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