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Midwest States of the Arts

The Midwest’s small towns are big on art.

America’s heartland is full of quaint towns and urban centers peppered with beautiful and imaginative art installations. Groups will want to explore these five art-centric destinations to drink in the variety of murals and sculptures, as well as enjoy festivals, local architecture and museums dedicated to the arts.

Janesville, Wisconsin

Founded in 1836, Janesville, Wisconsin, prides itself on being a destination for those interested in history, art and architecture. The community features seven historic districts with perfectly preserved buildings and homes dating back to its earliest days. It has 2,448 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city is well known for its public art, from murals to sculptures. Groups can follow the city’s Public Art Trail, either on their motorcoach or as a walking tour, to find the best art in the city. Currently, the city has 27 murals, many of them created during its annual Art Infusion event in September. The 2024 event will feature guest artists creating murals, a chalk art competition and a makers market that includes demonstrations of different art forms, including pottery.

Barn quilts are very popular in the Midwest, and Janesville and Rock County have more than 50 displays of the artform. The best part about visiting these art installations is they are open to the public all year round.

Groups interested in the performing arts can work with Janesville Convention and Visitors Bureau to book seats at Janesville Performing Arts Center to see everything from stand-up comedians and local theater productions to professional touring companies in the facility’s main auditorium.

Several artisans in the area will work with groups that want to make art. The Glass Garden, a stained-glass studio, hosts smaller groups for art classes, including stained-glass and glass-cutting courses.

Muskegon, Michigan

Muskegon, Michigan, sits on 26 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline and has a thriving arts scene and a love of historical preservation.

The city boasts a fantastic public art collection that transforms its streets and trails into a free art exhibition. There are nearly 60 artworks, some dating back to 1892, that showcase the evolution of art in the area, and 13 museums featuring American and European artists and traveling exhibitions. In the summer, the Lakeshore Art Festival attracts artists and art enthusiasts from the region. Other festivals celebrate Juneteenth as well as the area’s Irish, Greek, Latino and Polish heritage.

The Muskegon Museum of Art offers guided tours of its collection of more than 5,000 installations and temporary exhibitions. The museum is in the midst of a major expansion and will soon unveil the Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melloti Schmidt Pavilion to highlight the works of women artists.

Architecture enthusiasts can get a taste of Muskegon’s history through tours of the Hackley and Hume Historic Site, which features restored Victorian mansions. Muskegon Tour Company offers a public art tour, and several art galleries in town offer workshops and classes for groups.

The West Michigan Symphony delivers a classical music experience, while historic theaters present local plays and Broadway shows.

Lucas, Kansas

The town of Lucas has officially been designated the Grassroots Art Capital of Kansas. Grassroots art is created by self-taught artists in unique mediums. The small town of 350 residents is a major destination for lovers of grassroots art. The Garden of Eden is a whimsical property created out of Kansas limestone, including a log cabin made from limestone logs. Every door and window in the cabin is a different size, and the woodwork is unique to each room.

Outside, the artist built biblical scenes out of concrete, such as Adam and Eve holding up an arbor. Down the street, another Lucas resident has built postcard scenes of her favorite travel destinations — including Mount Rushmore — out of concrete.

The Grassroots Art Center features art by 25 people. The works are made from limestone, metal, wood, paper and even trash. There is a limestone sculpture of a church with people and pews inside, and a large limestone covered wagon with mules. Another gentleman built a life-size car and motorcycle out of pull tabs taken from old soda cans.

Even the town’s public restrooms are considered grassroots art. Called Bowl Plaza, the facilities were designed to look like a toilet tank with two curved benches in front to mimic a toilet seat, all covered in mosaics. The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things is an eclectic museum in Lucas that features miniature replicas of some of the country’s kitschiest attractions, such as the world’s largest ketchup bottle or largest ball of yarn.

Quincy, Illinois

Quincy, Illinois is known for its diverse and historic architecture, from Victorian and Neoclassical to modern, situated in four National Register Historic Districts. It also has 24 murals, ranging from faded paintings of yesteryear to more modern themes. Travelers with an affinity for history and architecture can take a self-guided East End Walking Tour, which highlights 12 properties.

Groups that want to tour the inside of these historic homes can book a tour through SeeQuincy that allows them to tour two to four of the homes on the East End Walking Tour. All of these homes are private residences, and the homeowners lead the tours.

The East End is also home to two museums: the Quincy Museum, which is housed in the Newcomb-Stillwell Mansion, and the Quincy Art Center.

The city also has Mural Find and Dine, a 10-mile trail that winds through the riverfront and downtown areas of Quincy highlighting “ghost” murals that have been weathered by the years, as well as newer pieces commissioned as part of revitalization efforts. With each mural, a local restaurant or bar is listed. SeeQuincy offers free bike rentals for visitors to explore the trail on wheels.

The Midsummer Arts Faire is an annual event that celebrates the visual, musical and culinary arts in Quincy. It is held the fourth weekend in June at Washington Park downtown and offers a juried fine-art exhibition and sale, live entertainment, food and hands-on activities for all ages.

Cedar Falls, Iowa

Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a smaller community of 40,000 residents that is a center of art and culture in the state. It is home to the University of Northern Iowa, which is a huge presence in the community and adds to its arts and culture scene.

The city commissioned its first piece of public art in 2000 and has installations scattered along the city’s main street and throughout the community. Currently, the city is working on adding art installations to its hiking and biking trails and waterways.

Hearst Center for the Arts is an art center that features work by local artists, filmmakers and writers. It also has a beautiful sculpture garden. The center offers group art classes. Three Pines Farm works with creators to offer classes in cooking and crafts. It also hosts Feed and Field dinners in its vintage barn.

The second weekend of September every year, Cedar Falls hosts ARTapalooza, with local and regional artists selling everything from sculpture and paintings to jewelry and paper art. The show is a juried event that includes many fun activities.

Cedar Falls Community Theatre at the historic Oster Regent Theatre offers great community theater, and the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center stages traveling shows, Broadway musicals and local symphony performances.

The Ragged Edge Art Bar and Gallery displays the works of local artists and is a quirky place to enjoy craft cocktails and live music.