Best art museums in Boston
Since its founding in 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts has dominated Boston’s cultural landscape, even growing in size and scope. This century, like at many other museums, curators have updated how museum-goers may interact and appreciate its artworks. That might include a time-jumping exhibit that pairs a contemporary work with a correlating old master, either linked by a theme or influence. Permanent collections include works from Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe, and the Americas. The MFA has one of the largest collections of impressionist painter Claude Monet’s work outside of France. Its Native American collections are impressive. The MFA’s curators do not distinguish between artifact and artwork: all are considered an artwork. While Paul Revere’s Liberty Bowl points to local history, the oldest artwork in the MFA’s collection is a Syrian vase (6400 BC), carved from gypsum and depicting a crouching rabbit.
There’s no doubting the ICA building is a work of art in itself: the eye-catching cantilevered, modernist structure sits adjacent to the Boston Harbor. (Across the water in East Boston, the ICA Watershed is a seasonal satellite gallery, open spring through summer.) The main building’s dynamic interior has window walls looking onto the water, creating a brilliant light and contrasting natural backdrop for the exhibits by new and the greatest modern artists, working in traditional, alternative, and new mediums, such as digital and video. Barriers between artistic disciplines are broken down in exhibits that merge visual art with other forms, including, say, sound or choreography. Also, social and gender barriers are eclipsed: the ICA’s permanent collection includes philanthropist Barbara Lee’s collection of 20th and 21st-century art by major female artists.
Whether by accident or design, Boston’s prettiest museum celebrates nature as art with seasonally changing floral displays in its charming interior courtyard. The wealthy and privileged Gardner and her husband built what was their house in the romantic style of a 15th century Venetian palazzo and filled it with art collected on their travels. The impressive works that make up the museum’s permanent collection includes European, Asian, and Islamic art dating from classical times to the turn of the 20th century. But the Gardner also embraces contemporary mores: its newer wing extends the gallery space for exhibits and events, and the Gardner’s artworks are often presented in new dynamic ways, adding, say, performance installations and even a bespoke opera.
There are three buildings that form the Harvard Art Museums, and each houses a different collection: The Fogg Museum is the oldest of the three and opened to the public in 1896, but was rebuilt circa 1925 in a Federal Revival style. It is also the largest, and houses Western art from the Middle Ages to contemporary works; the Busch-Reisinger Museum was founded in 1901 and is the only such museum in North America to focus solely on works from Germany and Northern Europe. It includes around 30,000 objects related to the Bauhaus; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which opened in 1985, displaying Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and a significant collection of Asian art. All three buildings are united by a glass roof, which allows visitors to wander the total collection of some 250,000 pieces, ranging from Neolithic to 21st century pieces.
Head west to Lincoln and this former estate of Massachusetts merchant Julian de Cordova, which is now totally given over to displaying modern art. The original Italianate house is extended by a thoroughly modern newer building with towering gallery space, all of which houses some of the most stimulating, cutting-edge contemporary art in the area. The grounds extend the collection with giant, often interactive sculptures set among towering mature trees and rocky granite outcrops. Set on 30 acres, the museum and sculpture park comprise New England’s largest art park. Given the space within and without, the DeCordova is able to exhibit some of the largest area’s art pieces and installations, sometimes on its rooftop.
This is an important spot for relishing artists and their art in one place, and is a remnant of Boston’s once fertile artistic community, who inhabited nearby onetime cheap-rent lofts. The best way to view the complex of studios and exhibits is on the monthly First Fridays open house with as many as 80 artists displaying works. Second Sundays is a similar event on the second Sunday of each month (spring through December), which takes advantage of the seasonal SoWa Open Market. Not only is this a great place to view art, it is also a good place for collectors to build their own stash.
This museum has one of the largest art collections in New England (around 1.8 million works in total) and specializes in maritime art, much of which dates to the original East India Marine Society’s collection, begun in the late 1800s by local sea captains. Significantly, the museum houses many art works and artifacts related to surrounding Essex County. But there is also African, American, Asian, Native American, and Oceaniac art. One of the most unusual pieces is the Yin Yu Tang House, which is an early 19th-century Chinese house from Anhui Province, dismantled and shipped to Massachusetts before being reassembled in Salem.
Until the Seaport District was created this century, artists (rather than corporations and their workers) populated Fort Point. Various buildings dotted about the area have regular changing art displays, but the Envoy Hotel—situated on the Fort Point Channel by Seaport Boulevard—created a satellite gallery space, linked to the Fort Point Arts Community, on its ground floor. It has a separate entrance and is a standalone mixed-use gallery space. Keep an eye out for commissioned art dotted throughout the colorful lobby and restaurant, too.
This community art space is tucked into a tiny storefront on South Street, but the gallery is packed with powerful imagery and artworks from local artists who might not normally be exhibited in larger, downtown spaces. 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.
This Fresh Pond hotel has skillfully turned its gorgeously-designed lobby into a working gallery space. There is permanent art on display, commissioned with the help of the Cambridge Arts Council, and also regularly changing exhibits, which run the gamut from fine art to photography. It all pairs nicely with the artful display of knickknacks that also make up the hotel’s permanent furnishings. Watch out for fun opening receptions for each new display.
A non-profit arts organization representing New England artists, the Guild of Boston Artists (162 Newbury St; Tue-Sat 10:30am-5:30pm) was founded in 1914 by some prominent painters of the day, including Edmund Tarbell, William Paxton and Frank Benson. The guild is still artist owned and operated, and presents and promotes traditional artworks from living artists. It’s hard to imagine that artist enclaves and galleries once lined Newbury, whose chain stores and high-end boutiques have created more of a shopping street than a cultural hub, but there are still numerous galleries to wander—including this grand old original.