Quite frankly, I'm a museum freak -- someone who worships man's achievements in the arts and is deeply devoted to those often neglected Homes of the Muses we call museums. Yes, I suffer from museum feet, but my eyes can take my mind off almost anything, and the enjoyment of art certainly can cure me of the meddling worries of the world.
As a lecturer for the past 35 years in more than 350 cities, towns, colleges, universities and club houses, I've been in some desperately dumpy places, but for the most part I've found the local folks determined to do something "artistic" (that abused word) to better their lives. Americans seem determined to prove their capacity for culture at whatever the cost.
And in fact, America affords the seeker great treasure. Over my lecture years I've come upon some surprising loot for the mind's eye, and championing small museums has become a hobby of mine. I say, if you have a public voice for any reason, use it for the public good. To my mind, museums do as much good as hospitals.
A few of my museum discoveries were already rich in art, but poor in attendance, when I came across them. I've had no compunction, over the years, about shaming the citizens into joining -- and there are others like me.
What I've learned is that America is teeming with the most fascinating treasure houses: the incredible Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., the art collection in the library at Canajoharie, N.Y., and on and on.
The mind-boggling Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., grandly houses the world's largest collection of the works of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. "Oh, to be in Waco now that April's there ..."
My first visit to Wichita, Kan., 25 years ago reluctantly revealed a first-rate collection of American art -- from John Singleton Copley through Andrew Wyeth -- given by the local Murdock family. The members of the press who met me at the airport before my lecture facetiously asked what I planned to do in Wichita. I happily declared my desire to see the Murdock pictures, and where were they? None of the ladies and gents of the press had heard of them, but that didn't stop me. I found them in a strange icehouse piece of architecture in a treeless park. It was then -- and remains -- a superb selection of American art, and I've never missed a chance to plug it. I'm more than a little proud to say that the icehouse has now been surrounded by a fine new building, the Wichita Art Museum, and the collection gets better and better.
High on my list of favorite small museums are the colleges and universities that shelter, exhibit and study some of the rarest art. Small private collections belonging to dedicated alumni collectors have come their way to enrich the students and the townsfolk. Arizona State University at Tempe has a superb collection of American art ranging from the early 18th century up to the 1960s; the Indiana University in Bloomington offers a fine overall gathering of art; and Ohio's Oberlin College has a couple of the greatest paintings in the United States, one of them Terbrugghen's "St. Sebastian Attended by St. Irene." Two other favorites are Washington University in St. Louis, with its George Caleb Bingham, and the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Almost every university in the country has a collection of some sort that has grown over the past few years from comparative obscurity and disuse to full-time enjoyment.
It's enough to make the weary lecturer or even the businessman content to be away from home -- or at least less bored. Nothing staves off boredom like a lesson to the senses. And yes, if there's a museum in town, there's usually somewhere good to eat.
Just in passing, I also should mention the yearly arts and crafts exhibits in so many places, among them: Muncie, Ind., of jokey "mid-America" fame, with its invitational drawing show, and Springfield, Mo.'s water color drawing show.
I once was asked to judge a craft show in Montana. I gave first prize to a sweater knitted by a semi-recluse from combings from his Samoyed dog. A beautiful object and fun show, and an escape from the boredom of a motel room.
I seem to have come up with only a sweater to refute criticism that I'm geared only into art. But I defy anyone to resist the glamor of antique car museums, or the town and city historical collections, Indian museums (the greatest being the Museum of the American Indian in New York City -- out of the way at 155th and Broadway). Then there are those wonderful natural history museums and the industrial ones -- like Washington's impossible-to-resist Smithsonian.
Art is everywhere, and where it isn't I don't want to go. Someone once asked if I'd like to go to the moon, and I said only when enough people have been there to build a museum to exhibit what having been there has inspired: a moon sonata, moon landscapes.
Recently, I took a cruise to Tahiti and Bora Bora, and the islands were, of course, beautiful. But I could relate to this paradise only through the reproductions of Paul Gauguin's paintings that are everywhere. Poor Gauguin, who was ignored while he lived there. Lucky us. He saw it relatively unspoiled.
On the way we docked for a day in Honolulu and took a "guided" garden tour that also included ART. I was a little shy of that, as art in small or large print hasn't been Hawaii's long suit since the missionaries conned the natives into abandoning their magnificent "pagan" art and giving into the banal junk tourists have been conned into thinking they should buy. There are dozens of posh and puny "art galleries" selling ersatz primitive art and post-card view paintings, and while there are a few serious artists on the islands they are hard to find anywhere except in their studios.
But Honolulu is not a cultural desert by a long shot, thanks to two superb museums that are world class.
The Bishop Museum of Polynesian and Oceanic art is one of the great repositories of a culture, not just Hawaiian but all the South Seas.
The forbiddingly ugly building, just outside town on the way to Pearl Harbor, should not put one off. Inside is real enchantment, not only architecturally and decoratively but also in the exhibits, which prove to have something for everybody.
There are a suspended model of a whale and fascinating photos of Old Hawaii. But it's the treasury of artifacts from all the islands of the South Pacific that woos the eye: exquisite work in bone, shell and feather and wood. These objects are so rare because these early cultures were plundered by their less tasteful followers.
The conquerors in whatever form they took had the taste or at least curiosity enough to want to take some of the best of this exotica for their more "civilized" peers back home to wonder at and happily to preserve. Because of the enlightened likes of Capt. James Cook, England is especially rich in this plunder.
The other Honolulu home for the arts is one of the most inventive and adaptable museum spaces I know. The setting is perfect and even the encroachment of high-rise condos and smashingly trafficked freeways does not destroy the serenity of the Honolulu Academy of Arts and its superb collection of art.
Wisely it does not try to be a warehouse of art but an astutely selected, superbly displayed gathering of many of man's highest achievements in art. Asian art is emphasized and represented by great examples from the earliest to the latest. There are smatterings but good representations of American Indian, pre-Columbian, Mexican and South American work. New England is represented by fine silver and furniture, and there are some show-stopping Early American portraits.
The exhibition spaces are arranged around lovely garden courts open to those ever-refreshing sprinkles of iced rain and of course the glorious sun. The central court has a stage for informal concerts.
Modern art is not neglected, and some of Hawaii's more serious artists are well represented if outnumbered by mainland and mainstream work. Sculpture is everywhere. I spied an early Noguchi head I coveted.
It's an oasis, this lovely, homey museum, a getaway from the crowded beaches, freeways, tacky shops and air-conditioning. You leave the bazaars behind and enter a world where good taste is a treat for eyes hurt by the mediocre products of our time set out to trap the tourist.
Vincent Price is a professional actor and an amateur art historian.