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The best museums you’ve never heard of

“I was looking for a combination of a remarkable art collection and setting. The result is magical.”

So said Susan Jaques ‘80, whose new book “A Love for the Beautiful: Discovering America’s Hidden Art Museums” was released in November. After earning a degree in history from Stanford and an MBA from UCLA, Jaques turned to journalism. Her specialty is travel journalism, and she has written about museums abroad for American newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

During her travels, she began to notice how she made a beeline for the art museums. In her debut novel, Jaques wanted to “introduce people to American museums that they might not have heard about before.”

The idea for the book started at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Jaques was curious – why was the most comprehensive Dali collection outside of Spain hiding in a warehouse in the small resort town? She began to poke around and discovered that the Midwestern collectors could not find a museum willing to accept their donation. At the time, Dali was considered eccentric and was largely dismissed by the art establishment. The town of St. Petersburg promised to keep the collection together and turned a boat repair warehouse into museum, opening in 1982. Now, Dali’s masterpieces are housed in a building designed by Yann Weyouth several blocks north.

“That story taught me about changes in art tastes. It taught me about collecting, and made me start to think that there might be other museums out there that were similar. Under the radar, remarkable art collections that might be worth sharing with people,” Jacques said.

With this goal in mind, Jaques began reading artist biographies, taking classes at UCLA and attending lectures at the Getty in Los Angeles. She started a list of museums and planned a road trip. At every museum she visited, she spoke to museum professionals and curators, who gave her more hidden museums to add to research and visit. Over two years later, she was able to narrow them down to 50, dividing them by specialization and genre.

“These museums are not encyclopedic,” Jaques explained. “They are not trying to have everything. Generally, the smaller museums tend to be exceptional in very specific areas. Once I discovered that, I organized the book by genre to reflect that. It starts with antiquities, American art, Asian art, African art, contemporary art and so on. I’m trying to highlight collections that are exceptional in those areas.”

Of the 50 museums, 30 states are represented. Ten museums were founded by women. Fourteen are located on college campuses. Stanford’s Cantor Art Center merits its own profile in the sculpture section, largely due to the Rodin collection, which includes “The Gates of Hell,” “Burghers of Calais” and “The Thinker.”

“What really fascinated me was the history behind the museums, how these collections wound up where they did and how the collectors amassed their collections,” Jaques said.

The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, holds a special place in Jaques’s heart, and a painting of the museum by Willard Metcalf graces the cover of the book. Previously a boardinghouse for artists who painted the surrounding countryside, Florence Griswold’s home is now a hidden gem, specializing in American Impressionism.

“Part of the joy of doing this book was that I learned so much about art genres that I was less familiar with,” Jaques said. “Here at Stanford I took American art, and I was familiar with Western and European art. In doing the book, I made an effort to include non-Western art genres. I think there’s something for everybody here. It’s pretty much the gamut of art history, as seen through America’s smaller art museums.”

Jaques is currently working on her second book, which will focus on the relationship between artists and collectors.