7 Small Museums With Mighty Offerings in the Bay Area
Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose. (Courtesy of @icasanjose)

7 Small Museums With Mighty Offerings in the Bay Area

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Northern Californians are fortunate to have a number of world-class museums at our fingertips. But there's much more to the region's art and history than that on display at blue chip institutions like SFMOMA. While smaller museums may not draw the kind of buzz their larger counterparts do, their diverse, boundary-pushing and under-the-radar collections are just as interesting.

From Oakland's Mills College Art Museum to Marin's Museum of the American Indian, here are seven small but mighty museums in the Bay Area and beyond.


Mills College Art Museum

In December 2021, Mills College Art Museum added to its permanent collection 14 works by artists with disabilities from Richmond's NIAD Art Center.

(Courtesy of @millsartmuseum)

The Mills College Art Museum has a long history of exploring and interrogating contemporary art. Since 1925, the 6,000-square-foot Oakland institution has displayed the work of both well-known and up-and-coming artists, including an annual exhibition of the college’s graduating studio art majors.

The museum’s current exhibitions, which include a retrospective of the African American artists of the Paulson Fontaine Press, are prime examples of how a small but nimble institution can not only push the boundaries of how both art and artist are defined, but of who gets to choose what goes on display. Both are at the core of Unseen: The Hidden Labor of Women (on display through March 13th), which contains works by artists with developmental disabilities selected by a committee of students, faculty, and museum staff.

// Mills College Art Museum is open 11am to 4pm Tuesday through Sunday and 11am to 7:30pm Wednesday; 5000 MacArthur Blvd (Oakland), mcam.mills.edu.

Charles M. Schulz Museum

Snoopy's "Primary Residence," a sculpture of Snoopy's doghouse by artist Ann E. Judkins, sits just outside the museum's entrance.

(Courtesy of @schulzmuseum)

Few artists have captured the American imagination the way Charles M. Schulz did with his Peanuts comic strip, which ran in newspapers across the country for 50 years and spawned a slew of spin-off movies, television shows, and merch (anyone else out there remember the Snoopy snow cone machine?). So it’s no surprise that there’s a museum dedicated to the man, his work and the cartoonists he inspired.

Three exhibitions are currently ongoing at the Santa Rosa gallery including Drawn From Life, which looks at the people and places that influenced Schulz’s work, and Li’l Folks, Big Laughs, rare cartoons from Schulz’s pre-Peanuts series. A celebration of the centennial of Schulz’s birth is up next, arriving at the museum March 20th.

// Charles M. Schulz Museum is open 11am to 5pm weekdays and 10am to 5pm weekends; 2301 Hardies Ln (Santa Rosa), schulzmuseum.org.

Museum of the American Indian

"American Gothic/Pueblo," 1994, by David Bradley.

(Courtesy of @flyinginthefog)

When ground broke on a housing project in 1960s Novato, it unearthed masses of artifacts left by the Coast Miwok, who called the region home until being forced off their land in the 19th century. The original project was axed and a museum dedicated to protecting and exhibiting the historical cultural materials of the region’s tribal people went up in its place.

Today the Museum of the American Indian honors the country’s first peoples and educates visitors about their past and present. The institution’s permanent collection contains more than 2,000 objects including Pomo dance regalia and four centuries worth of pottery from the Southwest; visiting exhibitions, such as American Indian dolls and masks of the Pacific Northwest, are rotated regularly. The newly renovated museum reopens to the public on February 19th.

// Museum of the American Indian reopens after renovation Feb .19, 12:30pm to 4:30pm Fridays through Sundays; 2200 Novato Blvd (Novato), marinindian.com.

Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose

𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘌𝘯𝘥𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘌𝘯𝘥, a cinematic sculptural installation created by Facing West Shadows, opens at ICA San Jose in March.

(Courtesy of @icasanjose)

This postage stamp-sized museum in San Jose’s South First Arts District dedicates its galleries to the visual translation of urgent contemporary issues by diverse artists. Their current exhibition, Chapters of Light, features the work of Ghanaian artist Conrad Egyir, which combines religious and West African folk iconography in portraits of the every day (through February 20th).

In March, South Korean artist Soo Sunny Park’s large-scale immersive sculpture Viewing Filter (Veil of Vision) takes over the space, followed in April by the cinematic, sculptural installation Facing West Shadows: The Endless End, which examines themes of extinction and climate change.

// ICA San Jose is open noon to 5pm Thursday to Sunday;560 South First St (San Jose), icasanjose.org.

Tenderloin Museum

(Courtesy of @tenderloinmuseum)

The Tenderloin Museum opened its doors in 2015 in homage to the past and present of one of San Francisco’s most complex and misunderstood neighborhoods. Its permanent collection showcases more than 100 years of history in interactive exhibitions that emphasize the ‘Loin’s urban construction, its leisure and entertainment pedigree, and the political and social activism that began flourishing there in the 1960s.

The nonprofit behind the museum, Uptown Tenderloin Inc., is also responsible for spearheading efforts to have the neighborhood identified as a national historic district. They’ve installed almost 100 historic plaques (and nine “lost landmark” plaques) around the neighborhood, and host dozens of walking tours each year to visit them.

// Tenderloin Museum is open 10a to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday; 398 Eddy St .(Tenderloin), tenderloinmuseum.org.

di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art

(Courtesy of @dirosaart)

This museum on 217 acres of former vineyard in Napa melds the art and natural beauty of Northern California. di Rosa’s permanent collection highlights local artists from the mid-20th through the early 21st centuries In its three galleries and along its one-third-mile sculpture meadow trail.

Their current exhibition is a retrospective of Black Oakland artist Oliver Lee Jackson (through February 20th). Opening March 11th, Anything With a Hole is Also a Bead is Erik Scollon’s investigation of access, gender, and queerness through sculptural objects, social engagement, and recorded performance.

// di Rosa Center is open 11am to 4pm Friday to Sunday; 5200 Sonoma Hwy (Napa), dirosaart.org.

Mariposa Museum

(Courtesy of @mariposamuseum)

Called “the best little museum of its size west of the Mississippi” by the Smithsonian, this pint-sized institution packs a huge historical punch. Designed like an Old West town with false storefronts that serve as separate galleries, the Mariposa Museum is dedicated to the Sierra Nevada of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from the arrival of explorer John C. Fremont to the Gold Rush to the region’s early Euro-American settlements.

Also on the property is one of the last remaining operational stamp mills, the original press and printshop of the Mariposa Gazette, and the recreation of an umacha, a traditional Miwok dwelling.

// Mariposa Museum is open daily from 9am to 4pm; 5119 Jessie St (Mariposa), mariposamuseum.com.

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