By Jessica Steinhoff | Photo courtesy Travel Wisconsin
Exploring a small town’s arts scene is a perfect escape from the daily grind of a major metro. The crowds are smaller, the performance venues are more intimate, and you might even meet the creators of the works you’re there to see. These four Wisconsin communities are known for nurturing the arts with thought-provoking gallery shows, boundary-pushing theater productions, cathartic concerts and more.
Whether you’re a theater buff or someone who simply loves a good story, American Players Theatre is the place to be in this 1,600-person village an hour west of Madison. While the outdoor theater wraps up its season Oct. 9, you can settle into the cozy indoor Touchstone Theatre for “Stones in His Pockets,” Marie Jones’ charming tale of two Irish actors cast as extras in a Hollywood movie (through Nov. 9), or “The Moors,” Jen Silverman’s clever sendup of the Brontë sisters’ novels (through Oct. 9).
If you’re in the mood for architectural wonders, head to Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Taliesin estate, which includes his residence and studio, a school, a farming facility and his beloved Romeo and Juliet Windmill. Tours depart and return from the nearby Visitors Center, located in a former restaurant designed by Wright. If you’re seeking something better classified as “architectural curiosities,” make a beeline for the House on the Rock, which features an Infinity Room, a dizzying glass protrusion offering panoramic views of the countryside. While you’re there, marvel at other products of creator Alex Jordan’s imagination, including an indoor carousel teeming with animals and angels.
Before you head home, consider hitting a concert at the Shitty Barn, one of the area’s most unique performance venues. You won’t find a stage or chairs, just a big, unstructured space that used to house livestock and happens to make a great dance floor. Order tickets in advance if you want to catch shapeshifting producer-performer Shane Leonard with poet Abigail Zimmer (Oct. 5) before the barn closes for the winter on Oct. 14.
This tiny city in southwest Wisconsin brims with galleries and public art. One of its claims to fame is creating an evolving network of micro-size sculpture parks close to downtown. The crown jewel is the High Point Arts Sculpture Park, which sprang from a collaboration between a professor and a sculptor who live in the area. These parks primarily feature regional artists’ work, some of which can be purchased by admirers.
Featuring a variety of handblown glass, handmade jewelry, prints, paintings and other creative treasures, the Mineral Point Gallery celebrates the work of artists from diverse backgrounds. They include artists of color, LGBTQ+, indigenous and anyone who wishes to share their art with others.
Meanwhile, Driftless Studio & Gallery offers oil and watercolor paintings, tiny hand-built sculptures, nature- inspired jewelry and other creations that reflect the history of the Driftless Area, a part of the Midwest the Ice Age glaciers missed, leaving behind steep hills, tree-lined ridges and other dramatic elements. One of the best times to meet the city’s artists is during the Fall Art Tour (Oct. 14-16), when artists open their studios for demonstrations. If you’re eager to work on your own artistic skills, check out the Shake Rag Center for the Arts, which offers workshops in ceramics, printmaking, fiber arts and even welding.
Mineral Point has plenty to offer in the performance realm as well. A must-visit venue is the Mineral Point Opera House, where you can revel in the old-school country sounds of The Whiskey Belles (Oct. 14) and the multi-instrumental magic of Carolina Chocolate Drops alum Dom Flemons (Nov. 12).
With its Queen Anne design, huge tin ceilings and stained-glass windows, Hotel Fortney is the eye candy of Viroqua’s Main Street. Constructed in 1899, the building has been undergoing renovation since 2020. First floor updates have been completed and it now is home to five small businesses: Driftless Healing Arts, Pink Spruce Photography, Linnea Wyant Salon, Noble Rind Artisan Cheese Co., and the Historic Fortney Lounge. Renovations continue on the second and third floors, which will offer 14 boutique hotel rooms that are expected to be ready for guests in spring 2023.
The hotel’s Lounge, which offers craft beer, a generous wine selection, Driftless Cafe pizzas, Noble Rind Artisan cheeses and 1920’s decor flourishes, is an ideal place to gather after a concert
or comedy show at the nearby Temple Theatre, a 1920’s movie palace turned 2020’s performance venue.
For a taste of Viroqua’s DIY arts scene, explore the Commons Community and Arts Center, a former church with a basement full of murals and a permanent installation exploring folk art and fine art side by side. The center is also a hub for visual-art shows and table readings of plays such as Shakespeare’s “Henry V ” (Oct. 25).
This summer-vacation destination is a magnet for arts lovers year-round, and with good reason: There are more than 100 galleries and studios to explore, as well as performances by symphonies, rock ’n’ roll bands, comedians, theater troupes and dance companies throughout the cooler months.
Nearly every artistic medium, from paint to glass, gets the creative treatment at the Townline Art Fair in Sister Bay (Oct. 8-9). More than 75 professional artists from across the Midwest exhibit works in this juried event that draws about 5,000 attendees each year. Exceptional Wisconsin artists from the 20th century are the focus of the Miller Art Museum’s Ruth Morton Miller mezzanine, which presents a rotating selection of paintings, prints and photos that deserve a larger audience. Consider doing some holiday shopping at artist studios such as Margaret Lockwood Gallery, home to abstract paintings that capture Door County’s ethereal side, and Frykman Studio Gallery, which produces gift-worthy pottery, wood carvings and nature photography.
The Peninsula Music Festival warms Egg Harbor’s Kress Pavilion with a three-concert chamber-music series each February (February Fest), just in time for Valentine’s Day, while the Door Community Auditorium presents performers of all kinds, including Grammy-winning vocal group Manhattan Transfer (Oct. 14) and dance-and-storytelling act Step Afrika
(Jan. 18), throughout the fall and winter. Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue PlayWorks brings theater fans some autumnal angst with “Birds of North America,” Anna Ouyang Moench’s poignant drama about a father and daughter’s efforts to navigate change and understand one another (Oct. 2-30).
No matter which attractions you choose, you’re bound to leave Wisconsin feeling entertained, and perhaps even inspired.