It was not an easy task to choose the list of the best art museums in the U.S. There are so many objects worth mentioning and visiting that Americans will not be able to go to see them all physically. However, in this selection I featured the most popular and prominent institutions that should be visited at least once in your life. Schedule your next adventure in one of these wonderful places to view priceless artworks, admire the incredible architecture, and get an unforgettable and breathtaking experience.
Best Art Museums & Galleries in the US
The United States is a homeland to some of the most amazing and sophisticated art museums in the world. These top picks stand out for their high popularity and impressive artworks that represent art through ages and throughout the country. Some museums offer online excursions and tours during the period of the lockdown.
National Gallery of Art
Established in 1937, the National Gallery of Art started from a donation of Andrew W. Mellon. This financier made a gift to the people of America. The U.S. Congress accepted his private collection of paintings and created a museum, which now consists of 2 buildings and encompasses over 150,000 works.
Opened in 1941, the West Building has a design in the form of elongated “H.” It includes sculptures and paintings from the medieval period. Built in 1978, the East Building is devoted to contemporary and modern art and includes works of Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, etc. Both locations are connected by an underground passage.
Opened in 1999, the Sculpture Garden was the final element of the complex. This outdoor setting exhibits works of contemporary sculpture.
|Between 3rd and 9th Streets along Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC||Titian “Venus with a Mirror,” Leonardo da Vinci “Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci,” Raphael “Alba Madonna,” Johannes Vermeer “Girl with the Red Hat,” etc.|
The Whitney Museum of American Art
The museum was established in Manhattan by the famous sculptor and wealthy socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and focuses exclusively on American art and young artists from the late 19th-21st centuries. The founder noticed that American artists had trouble exhibiting their works. She started purchasing them and presenting exhibitions in her own studio. With the collection of more than 500 personal holdings, she founded a museum near Fifth Avenue. Later, the museum moved to an expanded site on Madison Avenue and then to the current location (since 2015).
Today, the collection includes over 25,000 works and showcases paintings, prints, photographs, videos, sculptures, etc. The Biennial is Whitney’s flagship exhibition as the leading survey of American art.
The visitors who get a membership ($81 annually for individuals) have a free admission.
|99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY||Maurice Prendergast “Central Park,” Edward Hopper “New York Interior,” Robert Henri “Laughing Child,” etc.|
Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest U.S. museums. It was founded in 1879 as both a school for fine arts and a museum, which both bore the same name. The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed the building. In 1893, the institution got its permanent location with the entrance on Michigan Avenue, which is guarded by 2 bronze lions. Due to the construction of the Modern Wing (2009), it is considered one of the biggest museums in the United States with 1 million square feet.
Its collection has grown to 300,000 works of art and ranges from ancient Chinese sculptures and early Japanese prints to modern installation art. The establishment houses a research library built in 1901, which is one of the largest architecture and history libraries in the country.
|111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois||Grant Wood “American Gothic,” Claude Monet “Arrival of the Normandy Train,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir “Two Sisters (On the Terrace),” Vasily Kandinsky “Landscape With Two Poplars,” Paul Gauguin “Why Are You Angry?,” etc.|
Museum of Modern Art
The idea of creating a museum for collecting and exhibiting contemporary art was launched by 3 women: Abby Rockefeller and her 2 friends. Less than a year later (1929), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was established in NY.
The institution had a number of temporary exhibition locations until it moved to the current place in Midtown Manhattan. Now, it houses over 200,000 pieces of artwork and includes collections that range from Cubism, Impressionism, and geometric abstraction to modern works. Thanks to the present design project, the museum provides space for training workshops and classrooms. Its library and archives include over 300,000 books, periodicals, and catalogs.
|11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, NYC||Pablo Picasso “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Henri Matisse “The Dance,” Vincent van Gogh “The Starry Night,” Andy Warhol “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” etc.|
The J. Paul Getty Museum has 2 sites: the Getty Villa (Malibu) and the Getty Center (Los Angeles). The latter houses European drawings, paintings, sculptures, photography, and decorative arts. The Getty Villa is dedicated to the study of culture and arts of ancient Rome, Greece, and Etruria. It includes over 44,000 works of art.
Originally, the institution was located in the house of J. Paul Getty, who expanded it with a museum wing. He was a famous petrol-industrialist and one of the richest Americans. Known for his supreme frugality, he was reluctant to pay ransom to a crime syndicate for his kidnapped grandson and negotiated the payment.
As an avid collector of antiquities and art, he established the Getty Trust and left his collection for museum purposes after his death.
|1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, California||Vincent van Gogh “Irises,” Peter Paul Rubens “The Calydonian Boar Hunt,” Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn “The Abduction of Europa,” Orazio Gentileschi “Lot and His Daughters,” etc.|
The Neue Galerie New York is a German name since the museum is dedicated to early 20th century Austrian and German art and design. It was founded by 2 friends who shared a passion for modern German art: art dealer Serge Sabarsky and businessman Ronald S. Lauder. In 1996, Sabarsky died, and Lauder created this gallery as a tribute to his friend.
Two exhibition floors of the institution include collections of decorative and fine arts of Otto Wagner, Gustav Klimt, Vasily Kandinsky, Alfred Kubin, Adolf Loos, and others. It comprises paintings, media, works on paper, sculptures, and photographs created in 1890-1940. Founded in 2001, it is a recent addition to the New York City’s Museum Mile that brings German culture to American audiences.
|1048 5th Avenue and 86th Street, Manhattan, New York||Gustav Klimt “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner “Berlin Street Scene,” Picasso “Boy with a Pipe,” Oskar Kokoschka “Emil Löwenbach,” etc.|
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (or the Met) is one of the largest and the 4th most visited museums in the world with almost 6.5 million visitors a year. Its collection includes over 2 million works curated by 17 separate departments. The Met has masterpieces from ancient Egypt, sculptures and paintings of European masters, and maintains holdings of contemporary art. It houses encyclopedic collections of antique weapons, musical instruments, costumes from around the world. Don’t anticipate being able to see all the treasures in one day!
The establishment was founded in 1870 and consists of the major building, the Met Breuer museum (Madison Avenue), and the Cloisters, a smaller location at Fort Tryon Park. The idea of creating a museum belonged to a group of Americans, who wanted to bring art education to the people of America.
|1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City||Caravaggio “The Musicians,” Diego Velázquez “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” Francisco Goya “Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga,” Vincent van Gogh “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat,” etc.|
National Museum of African Art
The museum sits down the street from the National Gallery of Art. It began as a private institution founded in 1964 by Warren M. Robbins (the former U.S. Foreign Service officer) in a townhouse on Capitol Hill. He collected African books, masks, and figures bought from antique shops and offered his collection for viewing. In 1979, this museum joined the Smithsonian Institution. Initially, it was focused on the arts of Arab North and Sub-Saharan Africa but then broadened its programs to include contemporary artworks.
The museum has almost 12,000 objects, 450,000 photographs in the photographic archives, and 50,000 volumes in its library. Numerous lectures, artist talks, and films draw the attention of audiences of all ages. It introduces African art to children through monthly hands-on activities and workshops, cooking demonstrations, etc.
|950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, D.C.||Wood statues, figures, African mosaic, textiles and clothes, face masks, ivory artworks, photographs, etc.|
Smithsonian American Art Museum
This establishment had many names, but it is commonly known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). In 2000, it adopted the current name. The collection started by John Varden, a citizen of Washington, and was first displayed in the Patent Office Building, which is the museum’s home now. Another Smithsonian museum is the National Portrait Gallery, which is located in the same building. With the Renwick Gallery as its branch museum, SAAM holds one of the largest art collections in the world.
The institution contains paintings, modern folk art, a contemporary craft collection, photography and represents over 7,000 artists. There are works of Latino and African American artists, which educate visitors about the history of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
|8th and G streets NW, Washington, DC||John Singleton Copley “Mrs. George Watson,” Asher B. Durand “Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York,” Benjamin West “Helen Brought to Paris,” John Singer Sargent “Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler,” etc.|
This art museum is located in Manhattan, NY, and includes a collection of Henry Clay Frick, a Pittsburgh industrialist. The Frick Collection is famous for its distinguished paintings of Old Masters (Bellini, Goya, Velázquez, Gainsborough, Constable, Whistler, El Greco, etc.), decorative arts, and outstanding European sculptures. The museum was opened in 1935 in the Frick’s mansion and continued to acquire artworks after Frick’s death (1919). His daughter Helen founded the Frick Art Reference Library next to the museum to commemorate her father.
The museum announced a 2-year renovation plan for its historic building and will reopen to the public in 2021.
In 1939, the museum territory was enhanced with the addition of 3 magnolia trees, which became a symbol of the Frick and a favorite with visitors, especially in the blooming period.
|1 East 70th Street, New York, NY||Johannes Vermeer “Mistress and Maid,” Piero della Francesca “St. John the Evangelist,” Titian “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir “La Promenade,” Rembrandt van Rijn “Self-Portrait,” etc.|
This is one of the oldest U.S. art museums with its roots tracing back to 1823 when the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library (now 300,000 volumes) was founded. Later, it moved and merged with the Brooklyn Lyceum, forming the Brooklyn Institute. The access to this place was greatly improved when a subway station reached the museum (1920). After the museum was founded, it remained a subdivision of the institute and became independent only in the 1970s.
The establishment is large in physical size despite the fact that the initial design was 4 times larger than the built version. With a broad collection of masterpieces, which includes 1.5 million works of art, the museum is famous for its Egyptian collection with ancient sarcophagi, Japanese and African art, 17-20th-century sculptures, paintings, and decorative arts.
|200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York||The Brooklyn Papyrus (450 BC), Lorenzo di Niccolò “Saint Lawrence Buried in Saint Stephen’s Tomb,” Claude Monet “The Doge’s Palace,” Gilbert Stuart “Portrait of George Washington,” etc.|
Established in 1977, the New Museum is new indeed. Its founder is Marcia Tucker. As a former curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, she saw that works of young artists were not easily integrated into traditional art museums and conventional exhibitions. The mission of the institution was to introduce new ideas from under-recognized artists. It exhibits artists from Brazil, China, Cuba, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and other countries.
The museum had several locations. Its present facilities include 5 floors of gallery spaces, a theater, and the Sky Room with panoramic city views.
The innovative plan of Marcia Tucker was to buy and sell artworks every 10 years to have a new collection all the time, but it wasn’t carried out. The institution accepted the first donation of artworks in 2000. The current collection is modest with nearly 1,000 works in various media.
|235 Bowery, New York, NY||Depends on a current exhibition|
Plains Art Museum
In 1965, the museum started as the Red River Art Center in Minnesota. It occupied the former building of the post-office. It got the present name only in 1975. In 1997, it moved to a new location in North Dakota, which is 56,000 square feet.
The permanent collection includes nearly 4,000 works, containing regional, national, and international fine art objects of the 20th and 21st centuries. Each year, it offers 12 special exhibitions. The exhibition schedule is complemented by lectures, classes, performances, and various social events. Also, there exists the Rolling Plains Art Gallery, which travels in a climate-controlled trailer to showcase the selected collection pieces.
The Plains Art Museum incorporates the Center for Creativity, which gives classes and studio space for discussion, learning, and a showcase of creative work for the entire community.
|704 First Ave N Fargo, North Dakota||Works of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, James Rosenquist, etc.|
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
This is one of the largest U.S. museums of contemporary art that houses a remarkable collection of sculpture, photography, painting, and media arts. SFMOMA is one of the first institutions that recognized photography as fine art.
It was established in 1935 and occupied the 4th floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building for 60 years. The leading patron of the arts Albert M. Bender donated over 1,100 art objects, which formed the basis of the permanent collection. It houses works of Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol, and many others.
In 1995, the museum moved to a larger (current) location. In 2016, it reopened after a 3-year expansion program. Now, it includes 7 gallery floors with 142,000 square feet of art-filled space, a large vertical garden on the 3rd floor, and a rooftop sculpture garden.
|151 Third Street, San Francisco, California||Diego Rivera “The Flower Carrier,” Henri Matisse “Woman with a Hat,” Frida Kahlo “Frieda and Diego Rivera,” Georges Braque “Violin and Candlestick,” etc.|
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Founded in 1870, this museum encompasses a comprehensive collection of artworks (500,000 pieces) that includes art objects from Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa, the ancient world, and modern art. Each year, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston attracts over a million visitors to look at Chinese calligraphy, Japanese art (ceramics, prints, paintings), Judaica, Nubian art, and Egyptian artifacts (mummies, sculptures, jewelry). Some items are dated 6,500 BC.
The institution has undergone a great expansion and has sat in its current location since 1909. Several additional wings were opened.
The museum features a library with 320,000 volumes. It is affiliated with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.
|465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts||Rembrandt “Portrait of a 62-year-old Woman,” Gilbert Stuart “George Washington,” Rosso Fiorentino “The Dead Christ with Angels,” Rogier van der Weyden “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” etc.|
Gagosian Gallery is a global institution, which specializes in modern art and exhibits the most prominent artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1980, it was established in Los Angeles by Larry Gagosian. This art dealer provides significant support to young artists’ projects. The gallery features 18 exhibition spaces: 8 in the USA, 2 in Paris, 3 in London, one in Rome, Geneva, Basel, Athens, and Hong Kong. It works with living artists and offers exhibitions of works of historical artists: Claude Monet, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Arakawa, Jackson Pollock, and others.
The gallery established a publishing house that releases monographs, exhibition catalogs, and artist’s books. It develops cultural programming with artists that includes studio visits and public talks. It has built long-term relationships with collectors from Russia who account for 50% of total sales at the gallery.
||Works of Joe Bradley, Urs Fischer, Georg Baselitz, Jeff Koons, Jennifer Guidi, Takashi Murakami, John Currin, Ellen Gallagher, etc.|
Seattle Art Museum
This museum has 3 operating facilities:
- the major building in downtown Seattle;
- Olympic Sculpture Park on the central waterfront;
- the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.
Its collection encompasses over 25,000 works of art from every corner of the world, including Asian and European art, ancient Mediterranean art, native American art, Islamic art, and others.
The Seattle Museum of Art (SAM) was founded by merging the Washington Arts Association and the Seattle Fine Arts Society. The president of the latter (Richard E. Fuller) made a donation of $250,000 to build a new home for the institution. It opened in 1933 on Capitol Hill, the current location of the Asian Art Museum. Also, the Fullers donated multiple artworks to the museum. In the 1970s, Fuller worked as a museum director and never took a salary.
|1300 First Avenue, Seattle, Washington||Bernardino de’ Conti “Charles d’Amboise,” Henri Matisse “Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine,” Albrecht Dürer “The Sea Monster,” Bartolomé Estebán Murillo “Saint Augustine in Ecstasy,” etc.|
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is the oldest museum in Texas (1900). It houses nearly 70,000 artworks from 6 continents that span 6,000 years of history from antiquity to the present. Its encyclopedic collection is located in 7 facilities, including a sculpture garden. The main buildings (the Audrey Jones Beck Building and the Caroline Wiess Law Building) feature an exhibition space of 130,000 square feet from a total of 300,000.
The permanent collection is diverse: French Impressionism, Italian Renaissance painting, American and European decorative arts, photography, sculpture, etc.
The institution offers multiple programs, media presentations, studio classes, and workshops to the Houston community, which is very active in these activities.
|1001 Bissonnet, Houston, Texas||William-Adolphe Bouguereau “The Elder Sister,” Amedeo Modigliani “Léopold Zborowski,” Hans Memling “Portrait of an Old Woman,” Matthias Stom “The Judgement of Solomon,” etc.|
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was a part of the LA Museum of History, Science, and Art established in 1910. It became an independent art object in 1961 and moved to the current location in 1965. Its collection grew in the 1980s, and now it encompasses over 142,000 works of art (paintings, sculptures, photography, decorative art, books, jewelry, textiles, manuscripts, etc.). In addition to art exhibits, LACMA features concert and film series.
Both the collection and the campus of LACMA have greatly increased. It opened separate locations to house its art collections:
- the Anderson Building (for modern and contemporary art);
- the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion (for Japanese Art).
It purchased the May Company supermarket to house the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The opening is scheduled for 2021. Now, the museum focuses on replacing 4 aging buildings with a new home (planned for 2024).
|5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California||Rembrandt “Portrait of Marten Looten” and “The Raising of Lazarus,” Titian “Portrait of Jacopo (Giacomo),” Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin “Soap Bubbles,” etc.|
The Andy Warhol Museum
This is the largest museum in North America, which was erected in 1994 to honor a single artist (7 years after Warhol’s death) and holds a large collection of works of this Pittsburgh native. It is one of the 4 Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
The institution occupies 7 floors of a former industrial warehouse of 88,000 square feet. Its 17 galleries showcase 4,000 photographs, 900 paintings, 60 feature films, 100 sculptures, multiple works on paper, prints, wallpapers, commercial illustrations, books, and archival materials. The 20-minute introductory film is continuously shown on the ground floor.
|117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania||“The Skull,” “Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coke,” portraits of celebrities like Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, etc.|
The Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum (New York) belongs to a group of museums founded by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. This businessman came from a wealthy mining family who enjoyed avant-garde and eccentric art and formed this foundation in 1937 as his collection grew. Its initial name was the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.
In 1959, the New York branch moved to its current place. This is a cylindrical building, which is broader at the top than at the bottom and has the form of a spiraling rotunda. Along with this institution, the other museums from the group are located in the SoHo neighborhood (Manhattan, U.S.), in Guadalajara (Mexico), Las Vegas (Nevada, U.S.), Bilbao (Spain), Venice (Italy), Berlin (Germany), and in Abu Dhabi (the United Arab Emirates).
The establishment includes the artworks of Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, etc. It is known for an incredible collection of Impressionist, Expressionist, Surrealist, Post-Impressionist, Dadaist, and Cubist masterpieces.
|1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY||Vasily Kandinsky “Landscape with Factory Chimney,” Marc Chagall “Paris Through the Window,” Paul Cézanne “Man With Crossed Arms,” Fernand Léger “The Smokers,” etc.|
Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami
This museum started as the Center for Contemporary Art, which featured a single gallery space. Only in 1996, it opened in a new location. This is a collecting museum known for its innovative and provocative exhibitions that presents 8-10 expositions each year.
Despite being one of the youngest U.S. museums, it embraces an impressive collection of sculptures, works on paper, and paintings. It houses over 500 works of national, local, and international contemporary artists.
The institution enriches the cultural life of the community and offers various educational programs like artists’ forums, art classes for adults, artist workshops, docent tours, and others. Also, it gives concerts, lectures, and different types of entertaining art.
|770 NE 125th Street, North Miami, Florida||Works of Teresita Fernandez, Pablo Cano, Keith Haring, George Segal, Edward Ruscha, Alex Katz, etc.|
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Centennial Exposition took place in this museum in 1876 in Philadelphia. The Memorial Hall was built as the art gallery for the exhibition and remained open as the museum of art. In 1877, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art was officially opened. The main building for the museum was built in 1928. Later, it was decorated with bronze griffins, which became the symbol of the establishment. Only in 1964, the school became independent, and now it is a part of the University of the Arts.
The museum encompasses over 240,000 artworks including paintings, armor, sculptures, ceramics, books, metalwork, jewelry, pottery, textiles, glass, etc. Also, it is famous for the statue of Rocky Balboa, the Stallone’s movie character, which stands outside the museum. This fictional hero used the steps of the museum for his cardio workouts.
|2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania||Claude Monet “Japanese Bridge and Water Lilies,” Pablo Picasso “Old Woman,” Marc Chagall “Half-Past Three (The Poet),” Rogier van der Weyden “Crucifixion Diptych,” El Greco “Pietà,” etc.|
Frequently Asked Questions
With so much information digested, you still may have some questions left concerning general facts about U.S. art museums. Read the answers to the most typical ones.
In What Year Did the First Art 🎨 Museum in the US Open?
The oldest museum in the United States is Wadsworth Atheneum located in Hartford, CT. Established in 1842 by the patron of American arts Daniel Wadsworth, it opened in 1844. Its collection includes European Baroque art, American and French Impressionist paintings, ancient Egyptian bronzes, and contemporary works. It was the first institution in America that acquired works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salvador Dalí, Frederic Church, Piet Mondrian, and other famous artists.
How Many Art Museums and Galleries Are There in the US?
According to the governmental official estimation, there are 35,000 museums in the USA of all disciplines with 1,575 objects (4.5%) that serve as art galleries and museums. Some of them cooperate with art schools, colleges, universities 👨🎓, etc. It is nearly impossible to visit all establishments from the list. This WoWPencils guide will help you prioritize and choose the most important and outstanding institutions.
Where Is 🤔 the Largest Art Museum in the USA?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (or the Met) is the largest museum in the USA famous for its expansive and diverse collection of artworks. It is located in New York.
What Percent of Art Museums Are Free in the US?
About 37% of all U.S. museums grant free admission. Most institutions that charge fees 💰 offer discounts for various categories of visitors: seniors, students, military, people with disabilities, children, or city residents. Some of them make reduced-admission hours or days.
Even if you are not a fan of museums, you should see and fully experience the beauty and greatness of the listed objects. If you visit them on a full-admission fee rate, be sure that spending money on an experience is more pleasant than wasting it buying things. You are guaranteed to be surprised by remarkable artworks made by your contemporaries and ancestors, which showcase the triumphs of human creativity. Remember that they have been created for you.
To receive the latest information about architecture and art, please subscribe and follow me on social networks. Yours, Yuliya Skryp.