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Art off the beaten track

A new travel book on the American arts scene zeroes in on out-of-the-way gems scattered across 47 states and Canada.

John Villani's expanded and updated second edition of The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America (John Muir Publications, $15.95 paperback) tells why a visit to Rehoboth Beach, Del., or Bigfork, Mont., can be a gratifying aesthetic alternative to New York City or Washington, D.C.

The book is billed as a guide to creative communities for restless artists and/or art-minded tourists. It lists galleries, events, local markets and contact numbers for each of the 106 towns it features.

Take Eureka, Calif., the book's top-ranked spot. Here you'll find three theater companies, year-round music from jazz to Baroque, and 10 downtown galleries showing local art and crafts. The town also has a highly successful alternative art project that circulates hundreds of artists' work through 65 businesses.

"A very forward-thinking group of arts activists, artists, actors and musicians have moved into Eureka and turned it into a very different place than it was just 10 years ago," Villani writes.

Tiny Arrow Rock, Mo., with a population of 70, made the cut, too. Its 400-seat theater sold 27,000 tickets to people from all over the state last year.

"Each town is different from the next," each has created a unique cultural identity, says the book's foreword. As proof, you can try shooting pumpkins out of hydraulic howitzers in Lewes, Del., or figuring out the enormous, European-style hedge maze sprawling across several acres of downtown New Harmony, Ind.

Metaline Falls, Wash., population 215, has a spruced-up downtown and renovated theater. Villani urges visitors to wander over and chat with the mayor, if you can persuade her to put her paintbrush down for a minute.

Farther north, Nelson, British Columbia, ranks first among Canadian towns. It's a beautiful outpost whose annual Artwalk is a three-month affair during which locally created art is sold literally off the walls of restaurants, coffeehouses and bookstores.