As a tour planner, you’re the architect of unforgettable adventures—meticulously weaving together threads of culture, camaraderie, and exploration. As you contemplate how to make your next tour one for the books, consider the transformative power of public art—a universal, well-loved language that transcends age, background, and borders.
If you want to step beyond the ordinary and into a realm where each stroke of a brush, every chiseled curve, and every intricately woven fiber invites your group to immerse themselves in the living tapestry of human expression, read on. From larger-than-life sculptures in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to art installations dotting the streets of Columbus, Indiana, your canvas is both vast and vibrant. With each work admired, each conversation sparked, and each moment of introspection encouraged, you shape more than a tour—you craft a journey where art and adventure converge.
If that journey happens to begin in Illinois, it’s perhaps unsurprising to hear the Chicago area teems with public art options for groups. Take advantage of photo ops with Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) at Millennium Park, marvel at Chicago Cultural Center’s stunning Tiffany dome and cultural exhibitions, embark on an elevated public art trail with The 606, enjoy contemporary art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and honor veterans’ experiences through installations at the National Veterans Art Museum.
If your attendees prefer to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of Illinois’ main hub, Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in University Park proves to be the perfect place for exploring 30-plus large-scale sculptures in an open-air environment. Lovingly dubbed “theNate,” this museum-in-the-prairie offers programs and guided tours for all ages year-round. Attendees will also love the docent-led tours May through October at Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, where Japanese garden landscapes, art, and sculpture installations unite.
We would be remiss to not mention the bistate Quad Cities region, comprised of can’t-miss communities in western Illinois and eastern Iowa. In Moline, outdoor market Mercado on Fifth’s newly renovated building features three colorful murals that celebrate Hispanic culture, while the QC Public Art Trail, a year-round route that includes temporary and permanent sculptures, murals, and galleries, aims to introduce groups to the area’s array of public art projects. Meander through Lindsay Park for Georges Seurat-inspired sculptures, trek to downtown Davenport’s Figge Art Museum to see Sol LeWitt’s Tower piece, or make way to what locals call Arts Alley, located in downtown Rock Island. There, Quad City Arts’ gallery showcases exhibitions by regional creatives every two months, plus fine art and crafts by over 85 artists in its gallery store. “The Quad Cities is filled with public art, and there is more being added all the time,” says Kevin Maynard, executive director of Quad City Arts. “The QC Public Art Trail helps celebrate the incredible works of art that can be found in our community and gives everyone a starting point to truly experiencing what the QC has to offer.”
Farther west in Indianapolis, Indiana, tour attendees will love the Indianapolis Cultural Trail that connects cultural districts with public art installations; the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields that features art collections and outdoor gardens; and the Eiteljorg Museum that focuses on Native American and Western art and culture.
But if small-town vibes with big-city offerings happen to be a better fit, take your group to Columbus, Indiana, where attendees can soak in the city’s unmatched architecture and well-known works, including Henry Moore’s Large Arch, Dale Chihuly’s sun-like glass chandeliers, and Veterans Memorial—a grid of 25 pillars of rock-cut Indiana limestone. “Columbus is known as an architectural destination, so art and design are part of our identity,” says Erin Hawkins, director of marketing at Columbus Area Visitors Center. “Every other year, the Landmark Columbus Foundation holds Exhibit Columbus, which brings about a dozen large-scale temporary public art installations downtown. The exhibit runs from the end of August through the end of November, so I like to tell people who are interested in public art that fall—during the Exhibit—is the best time to visit.
“I think visitors especially like the Sixth Street Arts Alley, a colorful street in our downtown where artists have painted murals on the ground and walls,” she continues. “The Columbus Area Arts Council organizes street parties with music and food trucks. It’s definitely one of the top selfie spots in Columbus!”
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Minneapolis and capital city, St. Paul, buzz with unrivaled beauty. After touring contemporary art museum Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, groups can step outside to explore the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which features widely recognized works like Spoonbridge and Cherry amongst manicured gardens and curated landscapes. “We are so excited to offer our free tours again on Free Thursday Nights and Saturday afternoons after COVID-19 took us offline and away from the public for a few years,” says Amanda Hunt, head of public engagement, learning, and impact (PELI) at Walker Art Center. “Our educators are dynamic, enthusiastic people who love to share all of the beauty we have to offer in our collection and special exhibitions.”
Minnesota’s rural offerings are as equally as abundant. Head an hour northeast to Franconia Sculpture Park for over 100 outdoor sculptures and art installations, or make way to Anderson Center at Tower View in Red Wing for another sculpture garden and guided tours. Topics, from history of the Center to modern art in its collections, can be customized to fit your group’s interests.
Across the Mississippi River, Wisconsin offers a blend of contemporary and traditional art forms. The first place to add to your group’s itinerary is Milwaukee Art Museum, a 341,000-square-foot museum on a 24-acre lakefront campus that includes the War Memorial Center, the Kahler Building, and the iconic Quadracci Pavilion. Highlights of the latter include the magnificent cathedral-like space of Windhover Hall, with a vaulted 90-foot glass ceiling; the Burke Brise Soleil, a moveable sun screen with a 217-foot wingspan that unfolds and folds twice daily; and the Reiman Bridge, a pedestrian suspension bridge that connects the museum to the city.
“Groups love seeing the Quadracci Pavilion with the backdrop of the city,” says Theresa Nemetz, founder and president of Great Lakes Shore Excursions. “They love discovering Robert Indiana’s The American LOVE sculpture on the lakefront property; they are delighted when given the chance to see the ‘wings’ of the Burke Brise Soleil open and close multiple times a day; and they are in awe of the [the museum’s] many masterpieces—including one of the largest collections of art by Georgia O’Keeffe in the world.” Customized docent- or self-guided tours, with themes that range collection highlights, feature exhibitions, and architectural tours of the museum’s three iconic buildings, are available to book for groups. (All adult tour participants also receive 10% off purchases at the museum store!)
For art enthusiasts who want to appreciate cutting-edge sculpture in an outdoor urban setting, Sculpture Milwaukee is an annual exhibition that features a rotating selection of large-scale contemporary works along Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. To the north in Sheboygan, John Michael Kohler Arts Center is another excellent group tour option and presents indoor galleries, outdoor installations, and the Art Preserve, the world’s first museum to focus on work from complete and partial art environments by more than 30 vernacular, self-taught, and academically trained artists. Farther west in Wausau, Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art features exhibitions, workshops, and artist talks, while in La Crosse, a lively mural scene makes for another art-packed stop. Other Wisconsin favorites include Lynden Sculpture Garden (Milwaukee); Chazen Museum of Art and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (Madison); Racine Art Museum (Racine); Eau Claire Sculpture Tour (Eau Claire); and Museum of Wisconsin Art (West Bend).
Written by Katelyn Bloomquist
Main Image: Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Credit: Guy Rhodes