Boston has been a cultural hub since the 1700s and remains a significant place to learn about and enjoy the visual arts. Top traveling exhibitions make stops at the best museums in the city, and the best art galleries in Boston boast high quality works. Most of the major art galleries and museums are located in Back Bay and South End, but further-flung neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain are drawing local talent with low rents and large spaces. Follow up on your artsy activities with a meal at one of the most romantic restaurants in Boston, or, if you’re watching your wallet, check our guide to the best free things to do in Boston.
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Best places to see art in Boston
Since its founding in 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts has dominated Boston’s cultural landscape, continually growing in size and scope. The globe-spanning collection encompasses more than 500,000 objects across myriad disciplines and genres. An array of performances and special events attract culture hounds of all ages.
The Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard and seasonally changing floral display. First opened in 1903, the museum is notable for its varied collection, which includes European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century. The museum entrance is located a short walk from the MFA, making it easy to check out two of the city's two most beloved museums in a single visit.
The ICA's spacious Seaport home is the cultural cornerstone of the waterfront. With its 65,000-square-foot floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theater and a café. The museum prides itself on being a platform for offbeat, sometimes challenging, works. For a lighter experience, catch a concert or DJ set on the breezy, scenic back deck.
The collection includes more than 250,000 pieces, from Neolithic sculpture to 21st-century conceptual installations, all housed under one Renzo Piano–designed glass roof: The Fogg Museum, known for its European and American collections; the Busch-Reisinger Museum, with its focus on works from German-speaking countries; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, housing one of the most important Asian art collections in the U.S.
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 1.8 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 atrium’s bright café.
This verdant, mile-long ribbon of grassy parks and outdoor resting places invites the weary traveler (or office warrior) to stop and take a moment to appreciate the city’s fleeting sunshine In addition to food trucks, festivals, and events, the greenway is dotted with public art, including sculpture, murals, and installations.
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.
As the city's premier artistic hub, the 450 Harrison building is a veritable hive of artistic activity in the back of the South End. Many artists open their doors a few times a month for open studios events where they greet locals and visitors. First Fridays is the flagship event; held each month, more than 200 artists, galleries, shops and showrooms welcome everyone from art aficionados to afterwork activity-seekers for an evening of art, wine, cheese and mingling.
The ICA’s seasonal (May-October) annex has transformed an abandoned space on the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina into a venue for large-scale, immersive art. Each summer sees new installations and public programming. There’s also a gallery covering the history of the shipyard and East Boston. While Watershed admission is free, combine your visit with the main ICA and a cool trip across the Harbor on a Water Shuttle is included in ICA admission.
Founded by art historian Sallie Hirshberg in 2000, the Galerie d’Orsay on Newbury Street is a prestigious salon where the works of Rembrandt, Renoir and Picasso might be on view. These exhibits are mixed with contemporary painters, sculptors and printmakers, and though its scope and prestige are huge, the gallery is small and intimate, like a beautifully-curated living room whose notable eye candy changes every couple of months.
Until the Seaport District was created this century, artists (rather than corporations and their workers) populated Fort Point. The FPAC supports a community of 300+ artists in the neighborhood and has partnered with The Envoy Hotel to display works in a permanent gallery in the hotel.
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 gallery’s photo lab is a handy photographic resource for artists and the community. This is truly a neighborhood arts hangout, one where you can purchase work from talented artists, some of whom might be your next-door neighbor.
A non-profit arts organization representing New England artists, the Guild of Boston Artists 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.
The Society of Arts & Crafts has been giving artists a platform for displaying their talent for over 100 years. Since 1897, the galleries of the Society of Arts & Crafts have filled with unique pieces from thousands of different artists and crafters in mediums ranging from fiber artwork to ceramic sculptures and everything in between. This non-profit’s primary goal is to encourage the promotion and continuation of contemporary craft artists, whether local or international.
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.