Who says L.A. lacks culture? Aesthetes and culture vultures can get their fix for free in L.A., from beachside Santa Monica to the hilltops of Griffith Park. Whether you prefer the greatest hits at LACMA or off-the-beaten-path museums, there is such thing as a free museum visit. Here are the best free museums in Los Angeles, whether they offer free admission year-round or free museums days.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of free things to do in L.A.
Free museums and museum days in Los Angeles
LA's newest contemporary art museum, the Broad, is the public home for Eli and Edythe Broad's collection of 2,000 post-war works. The free museum is an exciting addition to LA's roster of institutions; visitors should appreciate its encyclopedic survey of contemporary art, complete with a handful of spectacle pieces. The Broad opened with an inaugural exhibition featuring Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Barbara Kruger, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and more rockstars of the 20th century—plus a whole lot of Jeff Koons.
Free with reservation.
Los Angeles's hilltop acropolis was conceived as a home for the hitherto disparate entities of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that's the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier was hired to build the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and the landscaping) and $1 billion to complete. The end result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a kind of monastic retreat designed for James Bond. Its relative inaccessibility is more than compensated for by the panoramic views, from the hills and the ocean in the west all the way around to Downtown in the east.
Free admission; $15 parking.
While LACMA's collections have long been the most impressive in the city, the 20-acre complex of buildings in which they've been housed had been quite the reverse. At last, though, things have improved thanks to a few exquisite focal points: Chris Burden's Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around LA, restored to working order; the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Renzo Piano-designed home to a dazzling selection of modern work; and Levitated Mass, a 340-ton boulder commissioned by Michael Heizer that "floats" above a pathway.
Free second Tuesday of the month and select holidays; free after 3pm Monday—Friday for LA County residents
The main branch of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) houses thousands of artworks crafted from 1940 until now. Spend half an hour or an entire afternoon absorbing contemporary pieces from lesser known artists, punctuated by sightings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock works. For just $12 ($7 students and seniors), you can have your run of the place, including a free audio tour and access to outdoor installations.
Free every Thursday 5-8pm; free with juror ID.
The bequest of entrepreneur Henry E. Huntington is now one of the most enjoyable attractions in the Los Angeles region. It's also not a destination that you should attempt to explore in full during a single day: between the art, the library holdings and the spreadeagled outdoor spaces, there's plenty to see, and most of it is best enjoyed at lingering leisure rather than as part of a mad day-long dash. From a Gutenberg Bible to an exquisitely landscaped Japanese garden, nearly every inch of the estate's ever-growing grounds and collection is essential.
Free first Thursday of the month with advance ticket.
In 1974, oil magnate J. Paul Getty opened a museum of his holdings in a faux villa on a Malibu clifftop. Eventually the decorative arts and paintings were moved to the Getty Center, and the villa was closed for conversion into a museum for Getty's collection of Mediterranean antiquities. Today, there are roughly 1,200 artifacts on display at any one time, dated between 6,500 BC and 500 AD, and organized under such themes as Gods and Goddesses and Stories of the Trojan War. Even if you're not interested in the art, the palatial courtyards and manicured gardens are worth the visit.
Free admission; $15 parking.
The Marciano Art Foundation has taken over an old Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard and turned it into a massive contemporary art museum. Though it's mainly a means for Guess co-founders Maurice and Paul Marciano to store and show off their private collection, the brothers also intend for the space to be an artist's playground. In turn, they've birthed a museum that balances traditional white-walled gallery spaces with cavernous halls whose only limitation is an artist's creativity. Admission is free, though timed tickets are required and are available a month in advance.
Free with timed tickets.
Serving Torrance and the rest of the South Bay since 1960, the Torrance Art Museum's two gallery spaces focus on modern and contemporary work from both local and world renowned artists. The museums also hosts a number of educational programs throughout the year, including artist talks, lectures and symposia.
The city's premier showcase for post-war art, MOCA started life in a humongous bus barn on the edge of Little Tokyo. That's now the Geffen Contemporary—its spacious, raw interior designed by Frank Gehry in the 1980s—considered by some to be one of his gutsiest spaces. MOCA stages the more mainstream exhibits, leaving the Geffen Contemporary to concentrate on more esoteric artists. Up to half a dozen shows can be viewed at any single time between the two galleries and the West Hollywood outpost at the Pacific Design Center.
Free every Thursday; free with juror ID.
The NHM's original Beaux Arts structure was the first museum building in Los Angeles, opening with Exposition Park itself back in 1913. Its massive collection spans more than 35 million objects and specimens (not all of them are on display at any one time), making it second in size only to the Smithsonian's. It's an immense place, so it's well worth planning your visit. Those with only a little time to spare should head directly to the truly dazzling collections in the Gem & Mineral Hall; the revamped dinosaur and mammal halls, as well as "Becoming L.A.: Stories of Nature and Culture," fill out the rest of the museums worthwhile spots.
Free the first Tuesday of every month (except July and August).
Industrialist Armand Hammer founded this museum, primarily to house his own collection. Now, under the ownership of UCLA, the Hammer stages fascinating themed shows of modern art, photography and design. The former have included everything from video installations to American comic art; the latter are often drawn from UCLA's Grunwald collection of graphic arts.
A fusion of two longstanding prior facilities, the California Science Center opened in 1998 in a bright, airy building directly in front of the Rose Garden in Exposition Park. Permanent exhibit galleries explore life sciences, human innovation and powered flight. But the real attraction here is the recent addition of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was very pubicly paraded through LA to reach its temporary home at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion—a permanent structure is slated to open in 2018. While the rest of the museum is free, Endeavour requires $2 time tickets, a bargain to come face to face with one of this country's most iconic engineering marvels.