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Boston art museum guide

Follow our Boston art museum guide for the city’s best contemporary installations, paintings and more

The best Boston art galleries: Institute of Contemporary Art

The art scene in the Hub has a lot to offer—as long as you know where to look. Most of the major art galleries and museums are located in Back Bay and South End, but further-flung neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and Somerville’s Union Square are drawing local talent with low rents and large spaces. Home of Mass Art, as well as the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Mission Hill is a magnet for culture-seekers—the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum stand within blocks of one another. Yet it’s the SoWa neighborhood (that’s “South of Washington” for the uninitiated) that merits the accolade of most popular artsy hangout. Follow our Boston art museum guide for the best of the best. 

Best art museums in Boston

Museum of Fine Arts

Founded in 1870, the MFA moved from Copley Square to its current home, a neoclassical granite building on Huntington Avenue—the so-called "Avenue of the Arts"—in 1909. The globe-spanning collection encompasses 450,000 objects. Of particular note are the collection of American art, including Paul Revere's silver Liberty Bowl and paintings by John Singleton Copley; the Egyptian collection, much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century; the Japanese collection (the first in America and one of the finest in the world); and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including an impressive array by Monet—the second largest collection of his work in the US, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.The Upper Rotunda in the centre of the building is adorned by John Singer Sargent's spectacular murals, which pay tribute to the museum's role as guardian of the arts through references to Greek mythology. As well as the vast permanent collection, all of which is presented in an accessible way with a contemporary eye for design and placement, the MFA hosts major temporary exhibitions on such diverse themes as couture fashion and Spanish art during the reign of Philip III and retrospectives of greats such as Edward Hopper.A new American wing (covering the art of North, Central and South America) and an enclosed courtyard, designed by the firm of British architect Norman Foster, famous for the con

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Arlington

Institute of Contemporary Art

Once crammed into a tiny building in Back Bay, the ICA moved to its spacious new home in late 2006, and is now the cultural cornerstone of the waterfront. With its 65,000sq ft floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theatre and a café.The museum prides itself on being a platform for challenging works—the permanent collection includes pieces by the likes of Julian Opie, Paul Chan and Mona Hatoum, while changing shows explore broader themes that unite different artists' work, or focus on individual luminaries (Louise Bourgeois, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the like).After you've contemplated the art, retreat to the deck outside, with its expansive vista over the harbor. The building has such unusual features as a downward-sloping Mediatheque that culminates in a front window framing a patch of water.

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The Waterfront

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

As unique as its founder, the eccentric socialite and patron of the arts who was the inspiration for Isabel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, the Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th-century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard with a seasonally changing floral display. Initially conceived by Gardner and her husband Jack to house the growing collection of art and objects amassed during their extensive travels, the museum only came into being after Jack's death.It opened in 1903, with the widowed Gardner residing on the fourth floor until she died in 1924. She wanted the arrangement of the architecture and artworks to engage the imagination, so every piece in the 2,500-piece collection, spanning European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century, is meticulously placed according to her personal instructions. The result is an idiosyncratic mix of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rare books and furniture. Among the many highlights are John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, Titian's Europa and works by Botticelli, Rembrandt and Raphael.In 1990, 13 pieces, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer and Degas drawings, were stolen in America's largest art heist, and the empty spaces—which can't be filled under the terms of Gardner's will—are a poignant sight. Many of the works aren't labeled, but you can buy or borrow a guide to the collections and the security staff are charming and helpful. There are also detaile

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Peabody Essex Museum

Less than 20 miles north of Boston in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum is home to one of the largest art collections in New England (around 1 million works in total). The backbone of the museum's stock is maritime art, but there is also African, American, Asian, Native American and Oceanic art from which to choose. For a break in the appreciation, relax in the sunny atrium or grab lunch in the outdoor Garden Restaurant.

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The Hallway Gallery

The name really says it all. This Jamaica Plain art space it not much more than a deep but narrow storefront on South Street that once housed a TV repair shop. Luckily for JP residents and the rest of us, the Hallway we know and love today has been completely renovated into a gallery space that hosts quality shows from local artists. The shape of the place lends itself to casual browsing—the small space is equally accessible to the curious passerby as to the more serious art fan.

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Jamaica Plain

SoWa Artists Guild

The 450 Harrison building is a veritable hive of artistic activity—and the artists fling open the doors at least a few times a month for open studios events where they greet locals and visitors with works for sale and, often, snacks and drinks. First Fridays is the flagship event. Held each month, the event welcomes everyone from art aficionados to afterwork activity-seekers for an evening art, wine, cheese and mingling.

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The South End

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