Operators Double as 'Art School'

Reed Travel Features

NEW YORK -- Sometimes, a love of the arts is not enough.

The tutelage of experts might be required for travelers who don't want to miss that off-the-beaten-path museum, hidden architectural gem or class for aspiring Picassos.

Enter the arts operator.

Though nearly all Europe-bound operators expose their clients to the visual arts, only a niche firm dedicated exclusively to cultural enhancement can tailor an in-depth program to travelers' tastes.

* Maxim Tours of Morristown, N.J., for example, has programs that focus on the visual splendors of Belgium.

Company owner Caryn Maxim said agents would be hard-pressed to find another art tour that focuses solely on Belgium.

"Although Belgium's art and architecture is less in the spotlight than what you can see in neighboring Holland, the country has some of Europe's most engaging works," Maxim said.

"We try to show people what they wouldn't see or even notice on a standard organized tour."

Maxim's program is hosted by an art historian from Belgium's University of Louvain.

"In Brussels, we visit the workshop and home of Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta.

"There's also the private home of the Van Burren family, who amassed an excellent collection that ranges from Flemish primitives to early 20th century works. The house itself is an Art Deco masterpiece," Maxim said.

But the itinerary's piece de resistance is a convent collection of 13th century Mosan goldwork (from the valley of the Mose River) in Namur that Maxim stumbled upon.

"You go into this small room not expecting much, and Sister Susanna shows you this magnificent gold, all the time explaining the history of the convent and the brother who did the metalwork," she said.

To maintain an intimate atmosphere, the art tour is limited to 10 participants.

(For more information on the Belgian itinerary and the tours below, see related story, Page E9.)

* Europe É a la Carte in Miami specializes in arrangements for individual travelers who want to discover the continent's artistic riches but don't have the time to research and plan their own itinerary, according to owner Louise Harber.

"In Paris, there are hundreds of small museums, but you could spend all day trying to figure out where they are and when they're open.

"I know people who have spent most of their time in Paris trying to get out of the right Metro exit," Harber said.

* Europe É a la Carte works with art experts throughout the continent and can create nearly any itinerary on request.

"We've even done programs that focus exclusively on the bridges of Paris," Harber said.

Artists' studios are a focal point of tours in Russia created by Seattle-based MIR Corp.

MIR owner Doug Grimes said he takes guests to a small home studio in Suzhdal, where art is a family matter.

"Our clients have tea with an artist, his wife and daughter, who all paint Russia's highest-quality matrushkas (nesting dolls).

"Most people don't realize that the finest of these dolls are not made in factories but are handcrafted in people's homes," Grimes said.

In St. Petersburg, MIR takes visitors to czarist-era palaces that are not ordinarily visited by tourists.

"The Usapov family palace has its own perfect reproduction of the Mariinski Theater," Grimes said.

"The palace is supposedly the place where Rasputin was assassinated [in 1916]."

* For those who want not only to sample art but to create it, Travel by Design, also in Seattle, offers an escorted U.K. Tour for amateur and professional painters.

Operations director Adrian Bridger-Chalker emphasized that the escorted tour also accommodates "nonartists" who prefer to observe the creative process.

American Week U.K. features a five-day painting course in Cornwall with Chris Insol, whose gallery often is used as a setting in English period films.

"London is where critics sip wine and talk about art. Cornwall is where the artists actually congregate and paint," Bridger-Chalker said.

The tour also features a painting competition and home stays with Cornish artists.

"Cornwall is like California, but without all the nuts," Bridger-Chalker said.

"It's known for its beautiful countryside and spiritual history. Cornwall is Celtic and druidic."

* Stephanie Horton, president of New York-based Uniontours, said that Lithuanian art is a mystery to most Americans.

But Horton's Lithuania the Beautiful program is designed to enlighten visitors by taking them to the nation's leading art museums and galleries.

Horton said a highlight is the museum in Kaunas devoted to the country's most famous artist, Ciurlinonis (1875-1911).

A composer as well as an abstract painter, Ciurlinonis organized the first national art exhibition in Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century.

A main theme of the artist's work is the Lithuanian landscape.

"When you look at his works in the museum, you also listen to his music, which is Baroque" she said.

"Ciurlinonis' style doesn't remind me of any other artist I've ever seen, and I've spent some time looking at art.

"His work is quieting and religious, especially when combined with the music."

Kaunas also is known for its Museum of Devils, characters that Horton compared to "Celtic leprechauns."

In Palanga, the tour stops at the Amber Museum and spends time viewing the region's folkloric woodcarvings.

Of course, Uniontours does not neglect Lithuania's best- known art venue, the National Museum of Art, in Vilnius.

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