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Mansions With Art Collections

Sometimes a museum’s most important piece of artwork is the building that houses its collections.

There are hundreds of art museums across the United States, housed in a wide variety of facilities. Some are grand dames of classical architecture, and others are marvels of modern design that have become icons of their cities. But there’s another class of museums that offer distinctive experiences for visitors: art museums inside historic mansions.

From Savannah to San Antonio and from Nashville to New York, traveling groups can visit beautiful historic homes that have found new life as art museums. In addition to taking in world-class painting, sculpture and decorative arts, visitors can also admire the architecture and luxury of the homes and hear the stories about the owners whose vision helped make museums out of mansions.

If you have art lovers or architecture fans in your travel group, consider visiting some of these great art-museum mansions.


Telfair Museums

Savannah, Georgia

In a city known for its beautiful public spaces and amazing historic architecture, the Telfair Museums give visitors an opportunity to experience a groundbreaking arts institution inside an elegant Savannah home.

“We’re the oldest art museum in the South, and one of the oldest in America,” said director and CEO Lisa Grove. “We were founded right around the same time as the Met in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the St. Louis Art Museum.”

Unlike those other storied institutions, which make their homes in monumental halls, the Telfair Museums are based in a 1919 Regency-style mansion that was owned by the Telfair family. Mary Telfair, the last surviving member of the family, traveled extensively in the Northeast and Europe and bequeathed the estate to the Georgia Historical Society for the purpose of opening an art museum upon her death. The museum opened in 1886.

Today, visitors to the museum get a taste of both the historic home and the 19th-century approach to art exhibition.

“You enter the building the same way that visitors would have when Mary lived there, into a sun-drenched two-story foyer with a skylight,” Grove said. “In the original home, we still have a couple of period rooms with furnishings that reflect the period when Mary lived there.

“If you go into the rotunda and sculpture gallery from 1886, you see the idea of what a Victorian art museum looked like. There are large-scale paintings from the late 19th century. It’s hung in old-fashion salon style, with paintings all around you. You walk into the space and are enveloped by beautiful art.”

The museum’s collection is focused on American impressionism and realism paintings. Upstairs in rooms that were originally family bedrooms, galleries exhibit silver, paintings and historic furniture.

The Telfair Museums organization also oversees another historic home and a modern museum building on the same block. Groups can arrange overview tours of all three of the facilities or focus on special areas of interest, such as historic preservation efforts in the Telfair mansion.


McNay Art Museum

San Antonio

In the midst of a quiet residential neighborhood, visitors to San Antonio will find the McNay Art Museum, a 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival mansion that has become one of the city’s preeminent fine arts institutions.

The museum started with Marion McNay, an Ohio native who built the mansion with her third husband, a prominent San Antonio physician, in the 1920s.

“Shortly after building the house in the ’20s, Mrs. McNay developed an interest in collecting art, and she built a collection of modernist works and a few impressionists as well,” said Daniela Oliver-Portillo, the museum’s director of communications and marketing. “By the time of her death in 1950, she had amassed a collection of 700 objects.”

That collection formed the basis of the McNay Art Museum, which has grown to include more than 20,000 works of art. The collection features works by Picasso, O’Keeffe, Pissarro, Monet and Gauguin.

The museum also has one of the largest print and drawing collections in the Southwest. The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, another interesting exhibit, came from a local family that was fascinated with the visual side of the theater.

“They collected several very important costumes, set designs and other materials related to the theater arts,” Oliver-Portillo said. “We have set designs by well-known artists such as Picasso and Matisse. For the theater lover, it’s a very interesting discovery.”

Groups can take advantage of 90-minute docent-led tours of the museum or set up custom tours with curators highlighting specific aspects of the art collection. Along the way, they can admire the beautiful architecture of the McNay mansion.

“You see a lot of the original home,” Oliver-Portillo said. “In all of the galleries, we have pictures that show what that room used to look like. Most of the house is public space, so people can get a sense of what this lovely mansion was like.”

The museum also includes a 23-acre outdoor sculpture garden.

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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.