GO EAST: Memphis
Any “museum-ing” weekend in Bluff City should begin, we’d argue, by celebrating what made the town what it is today: sweet, sweet music. Soul music, to be precise.
Founded as Satellite Records in 1957, the recording studio now known as Memphis’ Stax Records, which became a legend in its own right by producing albums with the likes of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, is still a Grammy-making soul-music machine today. (Word to the wise: If you haven’t given Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ 2015 album a listen, you really oughta.) But the 17,000-square-foot museum bearing the label’s name—the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 E. McLemore Ave.; staxmuseum.com)—tells more than just its own story. Instead, it initiates the visitor into the world of Southern soul, from the movement’s gospel roots evidenced by the 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church that’s been reassembled in the building, to Isaac Hayes’ blinged-out 1972 Cadillac Eldorado, complete with 24-karat-gold trim and white fur carpeting. Oh, and the museum invites—even encourages—dancing, so be sure to dust off those Soul Train moves before arriving.
A few miles away in the heart of the South Main District, the city’s Lorraine Motel once played host to the soul musicians popping in and out of Stax’s studios. But the motel, which is now a part of the rambling National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St.; civilrightsmuseum.org), is better known as the site where James Earl Ray took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The rooms—Nos. 306 and 307—where King spent his final hours are preserved as part of the museum, which also offers two dozen exhibits telling the story of a struggle for equality some five centuries in the making. Recently renovated to the tune of $27.5 million with a focus on creating a more engaging environment, the space gives visitors a chance to pull up a stool at the original sit-in lunch counter or enter a jail cell to hear Dr. King read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. (Last year, the institution became a Smithsonian affiliate, if that tells you anything about the scope and significance of its collection.)
Moving eastward over to Memphis’ Overton Park—which is a must-see in its own right, if only to take in the 200-acre old-growth forest it preserves—you’ll find the Beaux-Arts Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (1934 Poplar Ave.; brooksmuseum.org), which houses the largest art collection in Tennessee with some 7,000 works. Here, you’ll find names like Renoir, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe and Carrie Mae Weems, to name a few, but it’s the Carroll Cloar Gallery that’s most likely to pique the interest of art-loving Arkansans. If you’re up for more art after browsing the Brooks, head over to the stately Dixon Gallery & Gardens (4339 Park Ave.; dixon.org), which plays host beginning this month to the much-lauded, Crystal Bridges-curated State of the Arts exhibition.
Where to stay: Listed to the National Historic Register, the fully restored Italianate Victorian manse known as the James Lee House Bed & Breakfast (690 Adams Ave.; jamesleehouse.com) is pretty much a museum in and of itself—just, you know, with soaking tubs, marble steam showers and luxe linens.
Where to eat: For “Italian dining with a Southern drawl,” which translates into dishes like boudin-topped Neapolitan pizza and biscuit gnocchi with braised brisket, head to Hog & Hominy (707 W. Brookhaven Circle; hogandhominy.com), just a 2-mile drive from the Dixon Gallery.
GO WEST: Tulsa
If you’re going west for a little arts-and-culture pick-me-up, you might as well get really on board with the whole “go West” mentality and pop into the Gilcrease Museum (1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Road; gilcrease.org), home to the largest collection of arts and artifacts from our western frontier. The anthropological collection alone numbers some 250,000 pieces (think: Inuit hunting hats, hide-covered kayaks, effigy jars and the like), to say nothing of the art collection, which spans more than 400 years, from colonial portraiture to contemporary Native American art. In 2014, the museum added the $14 million Helmerich Center for American Research to house the massive archive collection it’s acquired, so it’s clear they take their scholarship and preservation efforts prettttty seriously.
In the nearby Brady Arts District, another icon of the American West is celebrated at the eponymous Woody Guthrie Center (102 E. M.B. Brady St.; woodyguthriecenter.org): the Oklahoma-born folk artist who gave us “This Land is Our Land,” and who was a major influence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Jeff Tweedy, to name but a few. Rather than deem itself a museum, the institution prides itself on being a “center for the investigation of inspiration,” where you can peruse Guthrie’s lyric journal and pen a verse of your own. And while—naturally—a good amount of space is dedicated to Guthrie himself, the center also celebrates the folk artists who followed in his bootsteps. Currently, you can catch a curation on the artistry of Kris Kristofferson.
Next door, the 4-year-old Philbrook Downtown, aka the satellite location of the 23-acre Philbrook Museum of Art campus (2727 S. Rockford Road; philbrook.org) located a few miles south, offers a closer look at the institution’s modern and contemporary collection in a revamped brick warehouse. The temporary exhibitions seem to be a strength—case in point: the currently-on-view Text Without Message featuring the work of contemporary abstractionist Christopher Wool, dubbed by The New Yorker as “the most important American painter of his generation.” (The main museum is worth a visit, too—it’s got an impressive collection of American art and 23 manicured acres to explore.)
Where to stay: A room at the Art Deco Mayo Hotel (115 W. 5th St.; themayohotel.com) puts you in strolling distance to the Brady Arts District—and offers a rooftop bar with 360-degree views, to boot.
Where to eat: The Lounge aka Bull in the Alley doesn’t have a firm moniker, or any signage, or any published address to speak of. But the mysterious Brady Arts District spot does have one heckuva delicious steak. And a martini cart. And, you know, mystery.
GO NORTH: Kansas City
In 1919, $2.5 million was no small sum (in today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of $34 million), yet that’s how much money Kansas City leaders raised in 10 days to establish the Liberty Memorial, an Egyptian-Revival monument to honor all who served in World War I. Eighty years after its completion in 1926, an 80,000-square-foot expansion was added underground and the Liberty Memorial reopened as the National World War I Museum and Memorial (2 Memorial Drive; theworldwar.org). A visit to the site is a sobering, immersive one: You can walk through a recreated crater formed when a French farmhouse was struck by a howitzer shell, find yourself in a life-sized trench while listening to recorded statements and bone-chilling ambient noises, and then cross over a glass bridge suspended above a field of 9,000 poppies, each representing 1,000 lost souls.
After such an experience, it’s safe to assume you might be ready for a little pick-me-up. Three miles south, not far from the city’s famed Country Club Plaza shopping district, you’ll find a duo of museums brimming with visual-arts appeal sure to lighten your heavy heart. Whether you’re into ancient Greek artifacts or American impressionism (and, like, everything in between), you’ll find plenty to peruse at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (4525 Oak St.; nelson-atkins.org). And if you like sculpture—and it’s nice outside—you’re in for a real treat: 22 acres of gardens plunked down in an urban setting, strewn with work by the likes of Alexander Calder and Roxy Paine (you might know her work from the immense stainless-steel tree rooted in front of Crystal Bridges).
At the nearby Gunnar Birkerts-designed Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (4420 Warwick Blvd.; kemperart.org), the permanent collection includes names like Wayne Thiebaud, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden and Dale Chihuly. The rotating exhibitions boast equal star power, too (we’re particularly excited about the Rashid Johnson show set to debut in February). But even those unfamiliar with the contemporary art world will find something of interest at the Kemper—most likely at the museum’s Cafe Sebastienne, where, according to Zagat, “there’s art on the plate and on the walls.”
Where to stay: The newly restored Hotel Phillips (106 W. 12th St.; hotelphillips.com) is not only endlessly swanky—there are draft lattes on tap at the lobby coffee bar and an artist-in-residence program—it’s got history, too: Namely, that it was once the Glennon Hotel, where a certain Harry S. Truman operated a haberdashery.
Where to eat: Turns out Novel (815 W. 17th St.; novelkc.com) isn’t just a clever name: The dishes James Beard-nominated toque Ryan Brazeal’s churning out (blackened octopus with white-bean falafel, for example, or the dry-aged lemongrass pork belly) are positively peculiar—in the best way possible.
GO SOUTH: New Orleans
When you think “New Orleans,” odds are your brain conjures up images of po’boys and gumbo, Sazeracs and Vieux Carrés. As well it should. Which is why it only makes sense to start off at the Crescent City’s Southern Food & Beverage Museum (1504 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.; natfab.org/southern-food-and-beverage), which is “dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and culture of the world through the eyes of the South.” You’re actually encouraged to grab an Herbsaint-spiked drink from the bartender (or a nibble of gumbo from the demo kitchen), and wander through the exhibits, which include collections evocative of each Southern state’s foodways, and “La Galerie d’Absinthe,” which tells the tale of that most bohemian of spirits.
Less than a mile away, the Southern celebration continues in the Warehouse Arts District at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St.; ogdenmuseum.org), where the collection features artists from 15 states in the region (including our own). The museum’s mission—to examine the development of visual art alongside Southern music, literature and the like—truly unfolds in its robust programming. During its weekly “Ogden After Hours” series, held each Thursday, expect everything from screenings of films by Southern filmmakers to concerts by local musicians.
Just around the corner on Magazine Street, you’ll find the National World War II Museum (945 Magazine St.; nationalww2museum.org), which opened back in 2000 on the 56th anniversary of D-Day. In the past 16 years, it’s continued to grow, adding such exhibits as an extraordinary collection of aircraft and a 32,000-square-foot pavilion focused on the European and Pacific theaters of the war. On January 27, a jaw-dropping exhibition on loan from the National Holocaust Museum exploring the Nazi propaganda machine debuts, giving viewers a deeper appreciation for the fragility of democracy.
Where to stay: If you’re in town to soak up some culture, might as well bed down at the Degas House (2306 Esplanade Ave.; degashouse.com), a bed and breakfast where Edgar Degas lived and kept a studio in the 1870s.
Where to eat: Named one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants of 2016, Bywater’s N7 (1117 Montegut St.; facebook.com/n7nola), owned by a French filmmaker and a Japanese chef, looks, well, like something out of a film set—and tastes (and drinks) like a dream. Case in point: Those sake-steamed mussels, tossed back with a boutique Gamay.