IF YOU THINK ALL THE MUSEUMS IN SMALL-TOWN Texas are stuffed indiscriminately with the possessions of colorful residents—the Leo St. Clair Music Box Collection in Sulphur Springs, for instance—think again. In many communities, the locals have amassed enough items of interest, historical and otherwise, to set up entertaining exhibits devoted to founding mothers and fathers, homegrown heroes, and famous out-of-towners who took a shine to the place. Elsewhere, students and lovers of fine art have helped construct fairly sophisticated display spaces featuring the works of some of the world’s best-known painters, sculptors, and the like. These ten museums stand out. Some, like the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, are about personal vision. Others, like the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, convey the town’s collective personality. All are worth a visit.
Old Jail Art Center, Albany
YOU CAN’T WALK TEN FEET IN WHAT WAS Shackelford County’s first permanent jail without spotting oriental art or works by modern masters like Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Amedeo Modigliani. But there’s more to see. Additional galleries, a pavilion, an outdoor sculpture garden, and a library have been added to this museum northeast of Abilene, which shows only a portion of its collection at any one time. My curiosity drew me upstairs first, to a gallery space that was once prisoners’ quarters (the one reminder of its former function is an inmate’s name gouged into one of the walls). Then I roamed through rooms of exhibits: a Matisse lithograph here, a Goya etching there. How did Albany get all this? Reilly Nail, who inherited the jail from his uncle, acquired the core pieces with the help of his mother, aunt, and cousin. 201 S. Second (915-762-2269). Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.
Annie Riggs Memorial Museum, Fort Stockton
PROPRIETOR ANNIE RIGGS KNEW THAT HER turn-of-the-century hotel was conveniently located for West Texas travelers, but she had no idea it would become a premier example of the historical-establishment-turned-museum phenomenon. The parlor, lobby, dining room, and kitchen reveal some original furnishings, and fourteen other rooms feature well-maintained, tastefully arranged objects of note. Visit the Cowboy Room to see saddles, barbed wire, branding irons, and a hat from a man named Frank Hinde, who was called Frank and a Half because he was nearly seven feet tall. Step into the archaeology room and behold a huge, locally excavated mammoth tusk as well as flint tools dating back to 18,000 B.C. Three tracks left by a 26- to 42-foot dinosaur known as Acrocanthosaurus sit somewhat surreally out on the patio. Be prepared for melodramatic answers to your questions. Want to know the history of Sheriff A. J. Royal’s desk, which is exhibited in the lobby? I did, and the docent offered a thorough account of his dictatorial reign and assassination before throwing open the top drawer, slapping her finger on a brown stain, and exclaiming, “Some people think this is blood spatter from the shot!” 301 S. Main (915-336-2167). Hours: September to May, Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Sundays. June to August: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: $2; senior citizens, $1.50; children 6 to 12, $1.
Chinati Foundation, Marfa
NO PHOTOS I’ VE SEEN ADEQUATELY CAPTURE the stark, spacious beauty or ghost-town vibe of this sprawling compound surrounded by the Davis Mountains. On the day I stopped in, I was one of only a few Americans in a tour group of international art and architecture devotees who had come to see how the late sculptor Donald Judd transformed Fort D. A. Russell into one of the world’s largest permanent installations of contemporary art. We were all mesmerized. As you approach two converted artillery sheds that house one hundred of Judd’s rectangular aluminum works, you can see his large, hollow concrete blocks grouped in various configurations out in an adjacent field. Claes Oldenburg’s Monument to the Last Horse, a majestic 23-foot-tall sculpture of a horseshoe, stands nestled among thirteen U-shaped barracks in which the work of other artists Judd knew or admired is on display. And that’s just a sampling of what you’ll see. Coming October 9 and 10: The foundation’s annual Open House, a perfect opportuntity to rub elbows with famous artists and their celebrity acolytes. 1 Cavalry Row (915-729-4362). Hours: Thursday through Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Also by appointment. Admission: Free (Donations encouraged).
Frontier Times Museum, Bandera
IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE WHO’VE EVER picked up something and said, “This belongs in a museum.” Now imagine actually putting all those things in a museum. The 30,000-plus objects in this Hill Country treasure trove, which was first opened to the public in 1933 by author and printer J. Marvin Hunter, are on display because someone donated them: a shrunken head from Ecuador, a two-headed goat, a map of Texas decorated with rattlesnake rattles, a Siamese gong, an opium pipe from China, ribbon-tied hair samples from several generations of a family, rare books, a trunk owned by famous female gambler Lottie Deno, arrowheads dating back to 6000 B.C. It’s as if a tornado whipped through the Smithsonian Institution, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and the West Texas home of somebody’s rich uncle and unleashed its booty on unsuspecting Bandera. You simply have to see it. On Thirteenth one block north of the Bandera County courthouse (830-796-3864). Hours: Monday through Saturday 10a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission: $2; students and children 7 to 17, 25 cents.
Sam Rayburn Library And Museum, Bonham
DURING HIS 48 YEARS IN WASHINGTON AS a congressman (17 as Speaker of the House), Bonham’s Sam Rayburn made history, helping to pass FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Marshall Plan, and the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960. Yet when he died on November 16, 1961, his body was brought to this North Texas museum, where it lay in state for 25 hours before it was buried a