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Western Art Museums: Capturing an Era

An art form as uniquely American as jazz music, Western art has long symbolized the American West worldwide. 

Western art museums serve to explore the complicated history of the land, people, struggles, dreams and legends that made the region an outsized part of the American ethos. These museums share the creations of a bygone era, illustrating that transformation through art. 

Many of these Western art museums make fantastic stops for groups. Whether your group is following the trail of westward expansion or headed to the South, there is probably a great option close enough to consider.

The Booth Museum 

Cartersville, Georgia

Cowboys may be from the West, but some of the best spurs-and- boots art and artifacts live in the South — Cartersville, Georgia, to be precise. The Booth Western Art Museum was founded in 2003 by Western art collectors who call Cartersville home. Today, the Booth is the largest permanent exhibition space for Western art in the country. Plus, a USA Today Best Of poll has named this Smithsonian Affiliate the top art museum in the country for the past three years.

“Visitors have plenty to see and engage with, whether they come for one visit or multiple,” said Booth executive director Seth Hopkins. “In addition, we have a Presidential Gallery with a one-page letter by every president and a Civil War art gallery, plus bonus features you won’t find elsewhere.”

The Booth’s permanent collection covers more than a dozen galleries comprising the work of nearly 400 artists. Visitors will find the works of legendary Western artists like “The Soldier Artist” Frederic Remington of the famed Harper’s Weekly covers to contemporary masters like Andy Warhol. Three contemporary galleries host 10 to 12 exhibitions per year.

Make the most of a visit to the Booth with tours and plan to dine onsite at the Booth’s Café for lunch. If your group is coming in October, check on the dates of the Southeastern Cowboy Festival and Symposium. The Native American dancing, gunfight reenactments, art history lectures and Western marketplace during the symposium shouldn’t be missed.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Santa Fe, New Mexico 

If you’re anywhere within a day’s trip to Santa Fe, make sure your group visits the transformative Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. 

New Mexico’s vast expanses and stark beauty first inspired Georgia O’Keeffe in 1917 when she was just 30. Encounters with the Land of Enchantment continued to influence O’Keeffe, solidifying her reputation as of one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. The Mother of American Modernism spent the latter half of her life in and around Santa Fe, where her work expressed what she referred to as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

At the museum, visitors will find more than 140 O’Keeffe oil paintings, nearly 700 drawings and hundreds of other creations dating from 1901 to 1984. The instantly recognizable O’Keeffe works at the museum include large-scale depictions of flowers and other natural forms. In addition to exhibitions devoted entirely to O’Keeffe’s work, visitors may also view her art with works by her American modernist contemporaries.

Explore her process, techniques and works in the museum in downtown Santa Fe, and augment your group’s understanding with a slew of workshops, guest lectures, conversations and art activities for children and adults of all levels. 

Round out a trip to the museum with a visit to O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home and studio, about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Private tours grant visitors access to additional spaces, just plan to call ahead to book.

Planning a trip to Santa Fe in 2024? The museum plans to welcome visitors to a new campus building and community greenspace then. Be on the lookout for new exhibitions and programming.

C.M. Russell Museum

Great Falls, Montana

Any Western art lover knows the name Charles M. Russell. “Kid” Russell was a master painter and sculptor whose works captured movement and life from the everyday campfire dinner to major historical events in the West. Russell created more than 2,000 paintings of cowboys, Native Americans and landscapes, many of which are on display at the award-winning C.M. Russell Museum. The museum is a large complex, covering an entire city block. Visitors can wind their way through 16 exhibition galleries, educational programming spaces, a dedicated research center and an impressive outdoor sculpture garden.

“The C.M. Russell Museum is an important destination for all Western art enthusiasts because it allows visitors to get a complete picture of Charles M. Russell,” Christina Horton, C.M. Russell Museum communications officer said. “In addition to his wonderful artwork, the museum is home to his original artist studio as well as his home — both National Historic Landmarks. You can see where he worked and the artifacts he looked to for inspiration, then take a short drive out of town and see the landscapes that sparked his imagination.”

A few new offerings are on the horizon. “In fall 2022, we will open Greetings from Charlie, a rotating exhibition of his personal correspondence containing his signature illustrations,” Horton said. “Russell wasn’t known for his writing abilities, so he preferred to write short letters then supplement them with watercolors and pen and ink on his letterhead.” 

In the summer of 2023, the museum will open an exhibition on John L Clarke, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, accomplished woodcarver and friend of Russell.

The Brinton Museum

Big Horn, Wyoming

Destination, institution, inspiration — that’s the Brinton Museum. Big Horn, Wyoming, is home to this Western art mainstay. “The Brington Museum draws people for its location in the foothills of the magnificent Bighorn Mountains, the long history of the Plains Indian Peoples area, and, of course, the museum’s collections of world-class art,” said Barbara McNabb, curator of exhibitions. 

The Brinton Museum hosts works by artistic maestros including Frederic Remington, Ed Borein, Joseph Henry Sharp, Charles M. Russell, Frank Tenney Johnson, Winold Reiss, Bill Gollings and other artists of the period. 

“The Brinton Museum puts on display the past, present and future of the American West,” McNabb said. “We do that through our historic Quarter Circle A Ranch, fine art and American Indian art collections.”

Visitors can expect an impressive array of exhibits. Help your group members earn their spurs by participating in any of the many add-ons available including workshops and art demonstrations. For groups interested in hearing from experts, listen in on a lecture or walk with a docent. Guided tours of the historic Ranch House and the Quarter Circle A Ranch outbuildings like the Little Goose Creek Lodge, the Brinton Barn, Milk House, Carriage House, Saddle Barn and Bunkhouse are available. Master Leather Artist James Jackson  — a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship recipient — offers tours of the Leather Studio.

Nearly a dozen new exhibitions are on the horizon for 2023. Expect to explore Western wildlife, Native American textiles, Lakota oral history shows with artists, musicians and poetry and more at the Brinton Museum.

Briscoe Museum of Western Art

San Antonio

The sleek and modern Briscoe Museum of West Art, right on the River Walk in San Antonio, is quick to assert the Lone Star claim to Western fame. “We always say ‘the West starts here’ and we mean it,” said Valerie Grant, public relations manager for the Briscoe Museum of Western Art. “But without San Antonio and South Texas, the West as we know it wouldn’t exist.” 

“The Briscoe tells those stories through art and artifacts housed in a historical building on the banks of the San Antonio River Walk.”

Travelers can expect to view an array of popular Texas-influenced pieces in Western art history. 

“View Santa Anna’s sword, and saddles from Roy Rogers, Pancho Villa and Buffalo Bill Cody, as well as artwork from today’s top contemporary artists alongside the fathers of Western art,” Grant said. 

Planners will be happy to know The Briscoe Museum of Western Art can customize group tours. The museum’s 1.4-acre campus includes 35 sculptures outside of the building, with many nestled in the McNutt Sculpture Garden, an oasis just steps away from the river. Groups planning to visit San Antonio can easily incorporate a visit or even spend a day at the Briscoe.

“Plus, our Jack Guenter Pavilion is a fabulous event space,” Grant added. “If groups are visiting as part of a convention or larger celebration and need event space, the Briscoe’s Jack Guenther Pavilion is ideal.”

In 2024, the Briscoe is planning to launch a new exhibit delving into the history of Tejano artwork and the Tejano influence on Western art.