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Museum of Contemporary Photography

The best free art museums and galleries

You can see contemporary art and classic works gratis at Chicago's finest free art museums and galleries

By Zach Long

While seeing great art can sometimes require paying a considerable price for a ticket, some of Chicago's best museums and art galleries don't charge admission. Whether you prefer contemporary art or works from throughout history, these institutions display sculptures, paintings and installations gratis. From a photography museum in the Loop to a contemporary gallery in Hyde Park, you can see art from all across the world without having to purchase a ticket at these free art museums and galleries.

Best free art museums and galleries

1. Chicago Cultural Center

Museums Art and design Loop

Since being converted to the Chicago Cultural Center in 1991 (it used to be the home of the Chicago Public Library), this city-block-wide institution now hosts free art exhibits, featuring works by local creators and international talent. Visitors can also admire the world's largest Tiffany glass dome or attend a free concert in the building's Preston Bradley Hall.

2. DePaul Art Museum

Museums Art and design Sheffield & DePaul

Hop off the train at the Fullerton Red and Brown line station and you'll find yourself at the front door of this underrated art museum on the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park. The curators of the DePaul Art Museum have made a habit of hosting exhibitions culled from the school's personal collection, including photographs taken by Andy Warhol and Jeff Carter's sculptures made from IKEA furniture.


3. Renaissance Society

Museums Art and design Hyde Park

As far as this gallery on the University of Chicago’s campus is concerned, the avantest of the avant-garde is the only one that matters. As for the name, well, the university wants to broaden the definition of renaissance. (Think less Michelangelo, more the Next Michelangelo, in other words.) The white walls and high ceiling create a hyper-resonant environment. Many European avant-garde stars get their only Chicago exposure here, and the shows are all free.

4. Smart Museum of Art

Museums Art and design Hyde Park

Not into the cutting edge installations at the Renaissance Society? Art lovers visiting the University of Chicago have more than one option for seeing art on campus. The Smart Museum of Art houses the college's collection of fine art and antiquities; the institution works with art scholars to develop exhibits and public programs that help spread the appreciation of art in all its forms.


5. Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art

Museums Art and design Evanston

If you're looking for a little cultural enrichment in Evanston, there's no better place to start than at the fine arts museum of Northwestern University. The museum's permanent collection boasts 4,000-plus works by artists such as Shirin Neshat and Jasper Johns, and its Pick-Laudati Auditorium hosts the artsy Block Cinema.

6. Museum of Contemporary Photography

Museums Art and design Loop

Founded in 1976, the Museum of Contemporary Photography collaborates with artists and photographers to present exhibitions of analog and digital images. Columbia College frequently presents works from its collection or commissions photographers to develop exhibits that display the capabilities of visual art.


7. Hyde Park Art Center

Art Arts centers Kenwood

With a mission of making contemporary art more approachable, the Hyde Park Art Center offers engaging exhibitions, as well as community programming of all varieties, including artist talks, a residency program, studio classes and more. Established in 1939, it's the oldest alternative visual arts center of its kind in Chicago, a place where visitors can experience art free of charge.

8. National Museum of Mexican Art

Museums Art and design Lower West Side

You don't have to look any further than Pilsen to find one of the largest Latino cultural organizations in the U.S. Visit the National Museum of Meixcan Art and explore a 6,000-piece permanent collection, rotating exhibits, performing-arts showcases and educational programming that represents an illustrious Mexican culture.


9. Johalla Projects

Art Galleries River West/West Town

Situated in the Hubbard Street Lofts, Johalla Projects provides a home for work from emerging and mid-career artists, with a focus on exhibits that showcase Chicago-based artists. From screen prints by Ryan Duggan to street art from the anonymous Don't Fret, nearly everything you'll see in this gallery is somewhat unconventional, but no less important to the city's thriving creative community.

Comfort Station
Photograph: Martha Williams

10. Comfort Station

Art Galleries Logan Square

Built in the early 1900s, this small building in Logan Square used to be a place where trolley riders could stop to rest during their journey. Logan Square Preservation took the building over in 2010, turning it into a community art space. Comfort Station regularly hosts art exhibitions, live music and film screenings while providing a public meeting place for art appreciators of all ages.


11. Vertical Gallery

Art Galleries Ukrainian Village

Bringing street art, graffiti, pop culture-influenced art and graphic design to the walls of a small Ukrainian Village storefront, Vertical Gallery is one of the best places to view (and buy) art by some of the most cutting-edge names in Chicago's art scene. Hebru Brantley and JC Rivera have exhibited work here—the person who painted the mural on your block might be next.

12. Glass Curtain Gallery

Art Galleries Loop

Located in the Ludington building on Columbia College's South Loop campus, the Glass Curtain Gallery exhibits emerging and mid-career artists of all stripes. In addition to a solid lineup of exhibitions, you'll also find workshops and lectures where you can learn more about the art this free gallery hangs on its walls.

"Guitao", Ed Paschke (1978)
Photograph courtesy of the Ed Paschke Art Center

13. Ed Paschke Art Center

Museums Art and design Jefferson Park

Polish-American painter Ed Paschke grew up on the Northwest Side, attended the Art Institute and taught at Northwestern University. The Ed Paschke Art Center makes a collection of his work available to residents of the city he lived in (and loved). His confrontational, brightly-colored paintings typically dealt with topics like fame, sex and violence, inspired by the pop art of Andy Warhol. The art center features a recreation of Paschke’s 2004 studio and works from each period of his artistic career.

14. Graham Foundation

Art Arts centers Gold Coast

Operating out of the historic Madlener House in the Gold Coast, the Graham Foundation makes project-based grants to individuals and organizations and produces public art programs. The house also hosts free exhibitions that center around architecture and design, as well as a bookstore that sells everything from publications written by grantees to obscure design magazines. 

Photograph: Courtesy of National Veterans Art Museum

15. National Veterans Art Museum

Things to do Literary events Portage Park

Just down the street from the Portage Theater, the National Veterans Art Museum explores the nature of war through art created by U.S. combat veterans. From portraits of soldiers to pieces inspired by the implements of combat, this free gallery pays respect to individuals who continue to serve their nation with their creative spirit.

16. Sullivan Galleries

Art Galleries Loop

The Art Institute of Chicago contains masterpieces from throughout history, but you might a get glimpse of work by the next Da Vinci or Rembrandt in the School of the Art Institute's Sullivan Galleries. Shows at the galleries are organized by faculty and student curators and predominantly display work by emerging artists in a variety of media. The exhibitions are all open to the public, free of charge.


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