You expect to find art lurking in unexpected places in cities like New York or LA. It’s a little more jarring when you’re cruising through a desolate prairie, or dodging tumbleweeds in an arid desert, and stumble across an eye-popping installation or a trippy piece of folk art.
Art thrives on the fringes, and blossoms wherever the hell it wants. And while it’s not unusual to find a small town with a big artist community—Marfa and Ojai are world renowned, despite tiny populations—the towns on this list manage to serve at once as creative beacons and under-the-radar enclaves. Once you discover them and their oddball ingenuity, you might just find yourself trapped in their vortices. Just go with it. Nobody ever found inspiration in the mundane anyway.
While Sedona is no doubt filled with more than its fair share of art galleries and far-out cosmic vibes, things get even weirder as you travel south to this hippie-fied hamlet about 11 miles north of the Mexican border. Dubbed “Maybury on Acid,” Bisbee has been attracting artists and counterculture types since the ‘60s. Anything goes in this historic mining town that is today awash in color—from its historic Victorian homes to its local characters. Whether that means naked people in the streets or nonconformists living in caves, the free-spirit mentality is unmistakable. Tour Bisbee's downtown to find nuggets of psychedelic art on the streets and in galleries, trippy "art cars," and junk collections known as "lawn art."
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Home to 400+ working artists and dozens of galleries, the Ozark tourist town of Eureka Springs appeals to a wide range of clientele from writers and musicians to hippies and bikers. While its galleries lean more towards touristy craft terrain, the entire town is a living work of art in itself, thanks to its gorgeous Victorian architecture and steep winding streets. Do not miss the modern, glass-enclosed, treehouse-style masterwork that is the Thorncrown Chapel. Pair your trip with a visit to the nearby artsy towns of Fayetteville and Bentonville along the Arkansas Art Trail to discover why northwest Arkansas is emerging as one of the region’s most dynamic cultural hubs.
The Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton | Courtesy of David W. Steele
Hamilton, New Jersey
Tucked away near lush Princeton, Hamilton teases you with art almost immediately; sculptures catch your eye right as you dip off the highway, positioned like some sort of arty IRL Where’s Waldo. But it's a tiny taste of the town’s crown jewel: The Grounds for Sculpture. Formerly the local fairgrounds, the lush garden offers up 42 acres of surreality, an outdoor array of sculptures both abstract and so real you might say “excuse me” upon bumping into a group of bronze figures dining beside a psychedelically adorned pond. Adding even more whimsy to the grounds is Rat’s, an old-school mansion converted into a massive, art-and-quirk-filled restaurant inspired by The Wind in the Willows that makes Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride seem hyper-real.
This color-packed hippie town is a kaleidoscopic outburst of pastel-hued buildings and cosmic vibes in one of the last places you’d expect it: Ohio. More specifically, about 45 minutes west of Columbus, where the sameness of flat Midwestern living transforms into a vibrant oasis of barefoot buskers, organic markets, and incense-scented local shops. Village Artisans gallery features works by 200+ artists, but it’s not hard to find art just wandering the town… even the benches and telephone poles are drenched in colorful expression. If that’s not enough, you might even catch a show from Yellow Springs resident Dave Chappelle without venturing into his neighbor’s now-famous cornfield.
Fueled by a massive influx of cannabis revenue, this funky little town about 14 miles north of New Mexico has experienced a creative boom in recent years, led by an influx of artists drawn to the town’s cheap rents, Victorian-lined downtown, and quirky desert-meets-mountains charms. The Corazon de Trinidad is the heart of the town’s arts scene, with Trinidad working to transform an entire city block into affordable housing for creatives and low-income artists as part of the town’s Artspace project. Hit a dispensary and tour the delightfully bizarre Art Cartopia Museum, which also hosts an annual weird art car fest/parade, to get a true taste of what this town—once known as the “sex-change capital of the world”—is all about. With a diverse smattering of murals, galleries, impromptu drum circles, and 100+ free-thinking artist residents, Trinidad’s unpredictability remains one of its chief assets.
While other Illinois towns are more densely packed with both galleries (Galena) and hippies (Makanda), Pontiac makes the list by virtue of its 23 outdoor murals that dot its historic downtown, depicting everything from tractors and soda shops to vintage gas stations and Abe Lincoln. They're an unexpected diversion from the ordinary in this oft-overlooked town of 12,000 perched along Route 66. In addition to its iconic Route 66 Mural photo-op located outside the Illinois Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum, Pontiac is also home to several additional museums (some of which have reopened), as well as a seasonal miniature art-car display downtown.
Red Oak II is an anti-ghost town. Located near Carthage, the town—population 12—exists at the intersection of memory, nostalgia, preservationism, and artistry. It’s the living legacy of artist Lowell Davis, who, distraught upon finding his home town of Red Oak abandoned decades ago, took it upon himself to relocate full buildings and surrounding relics of Route 66 and reconfigure them into a Frankensteined town on his farm. The result is an old-fashioned country settlement, an art installation, and a roadside attraction all in one. Nowhere else will you find a ghost town that’s so colorful… or so alive.
Home to the arts-fueled communities of Santa Fe and Taos, you could make a case for pretty much any town in New Mexico as an arts town. But one of the more interesting, up-and-coming arts scenes in the Land of Enchantment can be found in tiny Madrid, located along the Turquoise Trail between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. With more than 40 shops and galleries in a town of around 300 souls, the arts dominate every aspect of local life. Once name-checked as the “New Mexico version of Marfa,” artists today are attracted by the town’s cheap rents and unique old wooden row houses. Stop by the Mine Shaft Tavern for heavy pours and live music on weekends, or hit the Madrid Old Coal Town Museum for a history lesson. With painted mailboxes and “spirit mediums'' helping to revitalize this former ghost town, Madrid knows better than most how to keep it weird.
Located well off the beaten path in the middle of Kansas, Lucas has been dubbed the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas, but it’s also a vortex of oddball creativity smack in the middle of the prairie. In this town of under 400, you’ll find a 45-piece sculpture garden full of miniature buildings, and another rock garden with crags rearranged to replicate its creator’s travels. There’s the elaborate and historic Garden of Eden folk-art homestead as well as the spooky Garden of Isis, a display of doll-part sculptures. Here, even the public restroom—dubbed Bowl Plaza—is a kaleidoscopic, shrine-like explosion of mosaic expression. The coup de gras, though, is the World's Largest Collection of the World's Smallest Versions of the World's Largest Things Traveling Roadside Attraction and Museum, one artist’s meticulous recreation of all her favorite roadside attractions across the US. Except, you know, tiny.
In a state as packed with postcard towns boasting outsized arts scenes as Vermont, it’s hard to settle on just one. And while Burlington and Montpelier are certainly no slouches in the arts departments, the smaller and more rural town of Brattleboro located about 10 miles north of the Massachusetts border offers a fine introduction to artsy small town Vermont life. It’s got a museum featuring works from Chuck Close and Andy Warhol. It’s got Shakespeare in the park. It’s got a women’s film festival. But this farming community with a high number of working artists, musicians, and craftspeople also packs plenty of surprises—from a circus school and an organ museum to the annual Running of the Bulls-inspired Strolling of the Heifers livestock parade.
The neighboring national park is a tractor beam for those looking to get cosmic, but people tend to breeze past the rusty, rustic town that shares its name. Look closer. That well-arranged junk in the desert is the iconic Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of found folk art. Here, amid the new-agey rentals and old-timey saloons, you’ll also find the World Famous Crochet Museum and BoxoPROJECTS, a contemporary art exhibition space and artist residency program. There is the Scott Lloyd Doten ShangriLa Studio and Joshua Tree Drive-In Alien invasion, a car museum-meets-art installation depicting a 1950s drive-in being invaded by aliens. Oh, and Furstwurld, by artist Bobby Furst, with even more crazy found art installations (and spaceships) where they also hold concerts, film screenings, parties, and other performance events. And that’s just the obvious stuff. The more you look, the weirder and more compelling it gets.
Eau Claire might get all the attention these days, but for a smaller and more under-the-radar option, the 1,600-strong town of Spring Green checks a lot of boxes. That’s especially true If your very-specific boxes include a local music venue called Shitty Barn, a gorgeous 1,148-seat outdoor theatre (fingers crossed for a return to normal in 2021), and one of the most iconic Frank Lloyd Wright structures ever built. Taliesin was formerly Wright’s summer home (the fabled architect was born nearby) and is a stunning 800-acre estate that is also part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But if you only have time for one attraction in town, let it be the unclassifiably bizarre House on the Rock. The oddball, Grand Guignol art gallery/museum/haunted house/amusement park/who the hell knows will certainly get your creative juices flowing.
Kyler Alvord, Andy Kryza, and Nicole Rupersburg contributed to this story.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile.