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 few blocks away. Nearly forty years later, his collections of photographs, political cartoons, and memorabilia, as well as copies of correspondence from friends and presidents, fill the walls and display cases. The white marble Speaker’s rostrum that stood in the U.S. House from 1857 to 1950 is in the entrance foyer. Straight ahead is a full-scale replica of Rayburn’s office, complete with original furnishings, a massive crystal-and-silver chandelier from the White House, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling hand-painted by Italian artisans. The library and main reading room feature gifts and rare books as well as a set of Congressional Record issues dating back to the first Congress. In my opinion, the museum’s greatest assets are its living resources: H. G. Dulaney, the museum’s director, who began working as Rayburn’s assistant in 1951, and MacPhelan Reese, a family friend of Rayburn’s, who writes poetry and essays in the basement. Both have plenty of great anecdotes. 800 W. Sam Rayburn Drive (903-583-2455). Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.
Cowboy Artists Of America Museum, Kerrville
IF YOU LIKE PAINTINGS OF COWBOYS, sunsets, Native Americans, and pioneers in Southwestern scenes, saddle up. Cowboy artists from around the U.S. are not only the meat and potatoes in this Hill Country museum but also the appetizer, sides, garnish, and dessert—and the meal is rich. I don’t know what impressed me more: the hand-laid mesquite floors that glow like polished leather or the large sculptures that dot the grounds or the 23 boveda ceiling domes that allow the dispersion of natural light among the bronzes and oils. On Texas Highway 173 a half mile from the intersection of Texas Highway 16 (830-896-2553). Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $5; senior citizens, $3.50; children 6 to 18, $1.
Michelson Museum of Art, Marshall
RUSSIAN-AMERICAN POST-IMPRESSIONIST Leo Michelson’s works are housed in museums in Baltimore, San Diego, Paris, Toulouse, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Riga, Latvia. But the main collection is in Marshall, thanks to Wendy Reeves, a native of the East Texas town, patron of the arts, and friend of the Michelson family. Reeves suggested the location after the artist’s death in 1978, and it’s perfect. A large museum would have displayed only a few works at a time, but this 11,000-square-foot facility is entirely devoted to Michelson, rotating more than one thousand of his paintings, drawings, and letters. He was never as well known as Marc Chagall and his other friends, docents will tell you, because of his discriminating taste in customers. Had he been more famous, though, his body of work would never have been so accessible; his loss is Marshall’s gain, and ours. 216 N. Bolivar (903-935-9480). Hours: Tuesday through Friday noon to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission: Free.
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon
THIS IS THE LARGEST HISTORY MUSEUM in the state, with 200,000 square feet of exhibits on U.S. Western and Native American history, petroleum, paleontology, transportation, and art; you may need to leave a trail of bread crumbs to find your way back to the entrance. Start in the room with the skeleton of a carnivorous Allosaurus, presented among assembled prehistoric bones of the ground sloth, saber-toothed cat, and shovel-tusked mastodon. Then wind your way through displays of Quanah Parker’s trail bonnet, automobiles from the first half of the century, an authentic wooden cable tool drilling rig from the twenties, and a recreated pioneer town. Finally, look for artwork by Jose Arpa, Jerry Bywaters, Georgia O’Keeffe, Nicolai Fechin, O. E. Berninghaus, E. L. Blumenschein, and other painters of the Southwest. On the campus of West Texas A&M University, twelve miles south of Amarillo on Interstate 27 (806-651-2244). Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: adults, $3; children 11 and under, $1.
Red River Valley Museum, Vernon
THIS NORTH TEXAS MUSEUM’S STUDY of the Red River is divided into five distinct categories: geological history, pioneers, hometown heroes, ranching history, and animal trophies. The display space isn’t always full, so a few of the exhibits look skimpy, but other small-town history collections don’t have items of this caliber. A Remington sculpture greets you at the door. As you step to the left, you see pioneer relics and the teeth, tusks, and bones of mastodons and mammoths. Around the back is a room filled with more than one hundred stuffed and mounted animals that will strike you as either sublime or grisly, depending on your comfort level with taxidermy. Bend around the other side of the museum for Mexican funerary pottery pieces dating to 3000 B.C., 24 busts by Vernon sculptor Electra Waggoner Biggs, and Native American artifacts, including Quanah Parker’s walking stick, a gourd rattle, a peyote cup, and an eagle feather fan. On U.S. 70 adjacent to the campus of Vernon Regional Junior College (940-553-1848). Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.
Stark Museum of Art, Orange
THE STARKS DEFINITELY MADE THEIR mark on this Golden Triangle town. The family donated not only the W. H. Stark House and Stark Park but also one of the greatest collections of Western American art in the state. There’s a large assembly of bronzes by Remington and Russell, paintings by E .L. Blumenschein, Nicolai Fechin, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and other works depicting the West, along with Steuben glassware, Native American blankets and pottery, and hand-colored John James Audubon prints of native Texas animals. 712 Green Avenue (409-883-6661). Hours: Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.