The population of Albany (2,000) is roughly equal to the membership of some Texas museums, and yet this ranching community northeast of Abilene supports its own encyclopedic art museum, the Old Jail Art Center. In 1980 native son Reilly Nail inherited the town’s nineteenth-century limestone jailhouse and decided to convert it into a museum. He and his cousin Bill Bomar, an artist, contributed their collections and those of their mothers, and the community subsequently donated additional artworks as well as funds to expand the building. Today you can see Asian art, a collection of crosses, and other pieces in tiny first- and second-floor galleries where rough stone walls retain the century-old marks of Scottish masons. You can also peruse high-ceilinged contemporary galleries, where changing exhibitions have run the gamut from challenging new works by Texas artists to images of the Old West. The museum owns more than 1,800 objects, including pre-Columbian art, paintings by international art stars Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, and John Marin, and works by Texas regionalists. One gallery houses furniture and artifacts from the Lambshead Ranch, a local landmark. The exterior sculpture court, with its fountain and shade trees, announces the OJAC as a cultural oasis in this otherwise hardscrabble landscape (201 S. Second, 325-762-2269; closed Monday; free).
From the day his family moved to the South Texas town of Beeville back in the thirties, Joe Barnhart, then a teenager, felt right at home. In fact, you might say the story of the Beeville Art Museum is entwined with a big-city doctor’s nostalgia for his small-town roots. After high school, Barnhart left for Houston, where he became a prominent surgeon and a wealthy investor, but he also remained active in the community of Beeville, which named him Citizen of the Year in 1992. When he died the following year, the trustees of the Joe Barnhart Foundation took up the task of providing educational and cultural opportunities for the people of Beeville. Not only did the foundation establish a modern library downtown, but it also converted a 1910 Victorian house owned by Barnhart into an art museum. In a town where roughly 27 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, such gestures make a powerful difference. The only building on a tree-shaded residential block, the museum has exhibited some of Texas’s finest contemporary artists as well as selections from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Collection of old masters, housed at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Mexican Folk Art Collection, at the San Antonio Museum of Art (401 E. Fannin, 361-358-8615; closed Sunday; free).
The Live Oak Art Center, a small, mostly volunteer-run facility in this sleepy little town 73 miles west of Houston, hosts exhibitions of a surprisingly diverse nature. These include everything from wildflower paintings by locals to works by some of the state’s cutting-edge artists. The center is located in the historic Brunson Building, which dates from the late nineteenth century and reportedly housed a brothel before it became a respectable repository for art (1014 Milam, 979-732-8398; closed SundayTuesday; free).
No doubt it is the picture-postcard setting—gracefully bowed oak trees, water birds, glistening surf—that draws artists to Rockport. And the mood of the coast, if not always the landscape, is reflected in the watercolors and paintings on canvas exhibited monthly at the Rockport Center for the Arts , a nineteenth-century Victorian house that was donated to the Rockport Art Association in 1984. Over time a sculpture garden has been added, featuring a small but growing collection that includes the granite Lighthouse Fountain and Spirit Columns by nationally acclaimed local artist Jesús Moroles. The center offers art classes and workshops and hosts the annual Rockport Art Festival in July (902 Navigation Circle, 361-729-5519; closed Monday; free).
Adapted from Art Guide Texas, by Rebecca S. Cohen, to be published in October by the University of Texas Press.