It seems that more and more cities we visit are learning to embrace art. Some have distinct districts that focus on showcasing artists. Others are finding a flourish of new art forms, such as murals, being introduced to their urban areas. When we arrived in Mason City, it didn’t take us long to find that this Iowa city is all about art. The apex of this city’s art can be found in and around the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum. Since the mid-60s, this art center has become a mecca for locals and visitors alike to explore this FREE museum that showcases some familiar artists.
We want to thank Visit Mason City and MacNider Art Museum for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
The MacNider Art Museum goes beyond just showing off its art collection. They use various pieces to help educate visitors about the art and various styles that are commonly found in art galleries around the world. In 1966, the museum opened with only a handful of permanent pieces. This small beginning didn’t prevent thousands of people from showing up to help celebrate. Ongoing special events would find the museum struggling with space constraints. In the late 70s, an expansion nearly doubled the area for guests, as well as providing additional gallery space.
As we made our way through the galleries, a familiar theme came clear. The MacNider Art Museum has built an amazing inventory around American artists. While some of the pieces had a familiar look, we found them to be pieces from less familiar names. A George Washington portrait screamed of the work of Gilbert Stuart. He is well known for creating the definitive image of our first American president. The piece hanging in Mason City is actually the work of Jane Stuart, Gilbert’s daughter, and studio assistant. Hanging nearby is a landscape piece from John Martin Tracy. This obscure American artist created many of his pieces from memory and his attention to detail is uncanny.
We always like spotting artwork from familiar artists that hail from the Midwest. It never ceases to surprise us to see works from Thomas Hart Benton, which are easily distinguishable. His Missouri upbringing clearly influenced the subjects of his paintings. The MacNider Art Museum has another recognizable piece, which has a sister piece in our hometown Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Milwaukee artist Marc Sijan has risen to stardom with his Hyper-Realistic art. His Security Guard piece at the KC museum has confused visitors for years. Many times we have seen people stop to ask it directions, only to discover it was part of the exhibit. One of the museum’s newest pieces is from local Mason City artist, Charles Fritz. We love how he embraces the West with rich colors and subjects.
We moved upstairs, to explore more artwork, and found ourselves in the Bil Baird gallery. This Midwesterner grew up In Mason City, before moving on to celebrity status. In the 1930s, he created his familiar puppet style, which would become his signature. His art form transcended borders and he would become an international star. He created pieces that are recognizable to people around the world. While much of his groundwork occurred before our childhood, there were some that we could relate to.
Bil, along with his wife Cora, kept building their repertoire, and the opportunities kept coming. In 1965, the couple performed the puppet scene in the movie The Sound of Music. The images from “The Lonely Goatherd” are some of the most familiar puppet forms ever created. The MacNider Art Museum has a wonderful collection of puppets that bring back feelings of childhood.
On our way into and out of the museum, we were treated to many outdoor sculptures that dot the city landscape. While these pieces are not associated directly with the museum, it is certain that Mason City, and its residents, embrace all types of art. During our exploration, we found murals, statues, and grassroots art scattered around the city. It was apparent that this Iowa city is all about art and we love that.
Visit MacNider Art Museum
Visiting sites like MacNider Art Museum offer us a chance to expand our knowledge of American art. With two rotating galleries dedicated to temporary exhibits, there is always something new to see. The museum has come far from the early days with few pieces. These days, they have a significant inventory, which means that there are lots to see in the galleries. We did a self-guided tour, which allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted with the pieces. The museum has an intimate feeling and a size that doesn’t overwhelm. We invite you to visit MacNider and see if it doesn’t inspire you to seek out more local art museums to explore.