It’s often said that the great cultural centers of the US are on opposing coasts, and that this distance is what gives them their individual characters. It means that even in this age of instant global communication, there are at least two distinct strands of art, music, theater, film and literature developing in this country simultaneously, often existing in friendly competition. However, this interpretation of American cultural life also neglects the many great things happening in cities and towns between the coasts, from the vibrant arts scene of the American Midwest to the musical, literary and artistic heritage of the Deep South.
In that case, what better way to explore America’s culture than a road trip? The road trip is another great American tradition, and one that has inspired much of our most distinctive cultural treasures, from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to movies such as Thelma and Louise. Traveling from coast to coast, taking in cities and landmarks along the way, we can discover much more about the arts in the US than we would by staying in one place.
Where else could we begin our cultural adventure but in the Big Apple, which despite its location on the Eastern seaboard remains the US’s cultural epicenter? From the bright lights of Broadway to the downtown arts scene, the city has nurtured most of the great talent in music, theater, painting, literature and film over the last century. If it didn’t start here, then this is where it came to the world’s attention.
Always a major center for the arts, the Windy City is home to outdoor sculptures by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Anish Kapoor, Joan Miró and Claes Oldenburg. Jazz and blues are rightly celebrated, as well as more modern musical styles, and the city has a growing reputation for contemporary experimental poetry and literature as well. Don’t miss the Art Institute of Chicago or the Goodman Theatre.
Up in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Museum has an amazing collection of work dating back over 500 years. It’s just one of many unique museums in the city, covering social history, science and technology and much more. Meanwhile, Summerfest in Henry Maier Festival Park is the world’s largest music festival, and attracts some of the biggest names in pop and rock to perform there.
Admittedly not as well-known as most of the cities on this list, Ashland is nevertheless home to the world-class Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has incubated some of the most successful American plays of the last 25 years. Producer Louise Gund took Sweat from Oregon to Broadway in 2017, where it won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. Stop off in Jackson County to catch tomorrow’s big plays before anyone else.
Moving down the California coastline, we come to the metropolis that has long been regarded as America’s most bohemian city. Visit the Beat Museum and the City Lights bookstore to explore the literary heritage that set the world on fire in the 1950s, while the Museum of Modern Art contains work by Jackson Pollock and others that was in many ways the visual equivalent of ground-breaking poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. San Francisco was also the birthplace of psychedelic rock in the 1960s, and the ripples of this explosion can still be felt in many bars, clubs and music venues across the city.
From San Francisco, we head south-west towards Austin, Texas, a city that has similarly long attracted artists, outlaws and individualists of every description. The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas includes Ellsworth Kelly’s unmistakable building-sculpture-art piece also called Austin, with its vivid-colored glass windows. The city hosts a cornucopia of independent galleries and performance spaces, and is home to the famous South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, the biggest multi-venue music business event in the world.
Hop on up to the Big Easy to experience a unique melting pot of Creole and Cajun culture and a rich heritage of jazz and blues that is still thriving today. The New Orleans Literary Festival celebrates the writers who have found inspiration in the city, such as playwright Tennessee Williams. The incredible architecture of the French Quarter is a cultural treat in its own right, as is the incredible local cuisine.
Of course, there are many great cultural hotspots that we haven’t been able to include. If you have time, we recommend adding a few interesting diversions of your own. The beauty of a trip like this is that there’s always something new to see.