Museum-going in New York can be an expensive proposition, but luckily, most institutions—including the Guggenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art—offer free museum days and hours where admission is pay-what-you-wish (which can pretty much amount to the same thing). The trick is knowing when to take advantage of these bargains. To find out, look no further than our complete guide to the best free museums and discount hours in New York. After all, the city has the greatest concentration of museums in the world, so what are you waiting for?
Free museum days
The Asia Society sponsors study missions and conferences while promoting public programs in the U.S. and abroad. The headquarters’ striking galleries host major exhibitions of art culled from dozens of countries and time periods—from ancient India and medieval Persia to contemporary Japan—and assembled from public and private collections, including the permanent Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III collection of Asian art. A spacious, atrium-like café, with a pan-Asian menu, and a beautifully stocked gift shop make the society a one-stop destination for anyone who has an interest in Asian art and culture.
Friday, 6–9pm, Labor Day through June
Founded in 1971 and featuring more than 1000 works, this multicultural art museum shines a spotlight on 20th- and 21st-century artists who are either Bronx-based or of African, Asian or Latino ancestry. The museum sporadically offers family programming.
One of Kings County’s preeminent cultural New York attractions, the 560,000-square-foot Brooklyn Museum made history as the first American art museum to exhibit African objects as artwork. In addition to the more than 4,000 items in the Egyptian holdings, museumgoers can scope pieces by masters such as Cézanne, Monet and Degas, plus an entire center devoted to feminist art. (The venue is the permanent home of Judy Chicago’s massive installation The Dinner Party.) Beyond its art shows, the spot draws crowds with its BrooklyNites Jazz music series and the perennially popular free Target First Saturdays. And don't miss the Brooklyn Museum Shop, which offers handmade wares from local designers and artisans.
First Saturday of every month, 5–11pm
The opulent residence that houses a private collection of great masters (from the 14th through the 19th centuries) was originally built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The firm of Carrère & Hastings designed the 1914 structure in an 18th-century European style, with a beautiful interior court and reflecting pool. The permanent collections include world-class paintings, sculpture and furniture by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Renoir and French cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener.
First Friday of every month, 6–9pm
The Jewish Museum, housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, contains a fascinating collection of more than 28,000 works of art, artifacts and media installations. The two-floor permanent exhibition, “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” examines how Judaism has survived and explores various Jewish identities throughout history. There is also a permanent exhibit specifically for children: The Café Weissman serves contemporary kosher fare.
Saturday, free all day
Considering the MoMA’s reputation for having one of the world’s finest collections of art from the 18th century through today, it’s no surprise that around nearly every corner of the venerated museum is a seminal piece by an artist trumpeted in art history or coveted by contemporary collectors. During the height of tourist season, around Christmas and again in late spring and summer, expect a shoving-match just to catch a momentary glance at Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Special exhibitions, including retrospectives of masters like surrealist René Magritte and large installations like the blockbuster Rain Room, have enough draw that some people will wait for hours just for the one exhibit. Meanwhile, no matter the time of year or temporary display, cash-strapped New Yorkers come in droves at the end of the work-week for free friday nights (4pm-8pm). If you really want to experience the museum and all it has to offer go on a weekday and buy your all-inclusive ticket online ($25). You’ll skip the line and find yourself unencumbered as you stop to contemplate the meaning of time in front of Salvador Dali’s melted-clock painting The Persistance of Memory or checking out the movie times in the attached theater.
One of the most elegant museums in NYC, Neue Galerie New York is located in the William Starr Miller House at E 86th St and Fifth Avenue, where it joined the Upper East Side’s famed “Museum Mile” in 2001. It was founded as an institution devoted to early 20th-century German and Austrian art and design, the brainchild of two men: art dealer and curator Serge Sabarsky and cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder. Lauder opened the Neue Galerie seven years after Sabarsky’s death, filling it with his personal collection of works by such artists as George Grosz, Vasily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Franz Marc among many others. Also on view are swank examples of decorative art and furniture created by such Wiener Werkstätte luminaries as Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. The collection centerpiece is Klimt’s dazzling gold-flecked 1907 portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which Lauder bought at an auction in 2006 for the then-record price of $135 million. The painting—known as the “Viennese Mona Lisa”—occupies pride of place in the museum’s second-floor art galleries. Like the Frick Collection, Neue Galerie New York offers visitors a chance to see art in a luxurious setting that also offers space for quiet contemplation.
First Friday of every month, 6–8pm
When Studio Museum opened in 1968, it was the first black fine-arts museum in the country, and it remains the place to go for historical insight into African-American art and the art of the African diaspora. Under the leadership of director Thelma Golden (formerly of the Whitney), this neighborhood favorite has evolved into the city’s most exciting showcase for contemporary African-American artists.
First Sunday of every month, all day
Pay what you wish
Founded in 1897 by the Hewitt sisters, granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper, the only museum in the U.S. solely dedicated to design (both historic and modern) has been part of the Smithsonian since the 1960s. The museum hosts periodic interactive family programs that allow children to experiment with design.
Located in Spanish Harlem (a.k.a. El Barrio), El Museo del Barrio is dedicated to the work of Latino artists who reside in the U.S., as well as Latin American masters. The 6,500-piece permanent collection ranges from pre-Colombian artifacts to contemporary installations. The space also features updated galleries, an exposed courtyard for programming and events, and a Pan-Latino cafe that serves tacos, chili, and rice and beans.
Third Saturday of every month, all day
The Guggenheim New York Museum is as famous for its landmark building—designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and restored for its 50th birthday in 2009—as it is for its impressive collection and daring temporary art shows. The museum owns Peggy Guggenheim’s trove of cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist works, along with the Panza di Biumo Collection of American minimalist and conceptual art from the 1960s and ’70s. In addition to works by Manet, Picasso, Chagall and Bourgeois, the Guggenheim Museum holds the largest collection of Kandinskys in the U.S. In 1992, the addition of a ten-story tower provided space for a sculpture gallery (with Central Park views), an auditorium, and restaurant the Wright. The structure is one of just two Frank Lloyd Wright commissions in Manhattan.
The first new art museum ever constructed from the ground up below 14th Street, the aptly named New Museum of Contemporary Art marks a major contribution to the continuing revitalization of downtown Manhattan. The bold seven-story building, designed by the cutting-edge Tokyo architectural firm Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA, opened in December 2007, housing three main art gallery levels, a theater, a café and roof terraces. The focus here is on emerging media and surveys of important but under-recognized artists—further evidence of its pioneering spirit.
Occupying an 11.5 acre footprint, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY’s biggest museum), which opened in 1880, is impressive in terms both of quality and scale. However, this iconic New York attraction—one of the world's top art museums—is surprisingly easy to negotiate, particularly if you come early on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Hang out in an Egyptian temple, gawk at period costumes and take pictures on the gorgeous rooftop garden, showcasing views of Central Park and the city skyline.
Every day is pay what you wish at the ticket counter
Even before the Whitney moved to its Meatpacking District location, plans were afoot for The Metropolitan Museum of Art to take over the Whitney’s former Marcel Breuer-designed home on Madison Avenue. Breuer’s name graces what’s basically an entirely new institution intended to make the Met’s a major player in the current art scene: In addition to housing the Met’s collection of modern and contemporary art, the museum will mount major exhibitions of recent artists. According to its agreement with the Whitney, the Met will rent the building for the next eight years. What officially happens next is up in the air at this point, but it’s likely the Met will hang onto the place. And, who knows? It may even use it to launch its own Biennial.
Every day is pay what you wish at the ticket counter
Originally designed in 1964 by Radio City Music Hall architect Edward Durell Stone to house the Gallery of Modern Art, 2 Columbus Circle (nicknamed the "Lollipop Building" because of the Candyland-like columns that lined its base) was a windowless monolith that had sat empty since 1998. After an 18-month overhaul (with a price tag topping $90 million), the ten-story building now has a 150-seat auditorium for public events, classrooms, a restaurant and four floors of exhibition galleries, including the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery. Founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, the institution brings together contemporary objects created in a wide range of media—including clay, glass, wood, metal and cloth—with a strong focus on materials and process. Visitors can now watch as resident artists create works in studios on the sixth floor, and curators are able to display more of the 2,000-piece permanent collection in the larger space, including porcelain ware by Cindy Sherman, stained glass by Judith Schaechter, black-basalt ceramics by James Turrell, and Robert Arneson’s mural Alice House Wall, on view for the first time in two decades.
After nearly 50 years in its Marcel-Breur-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, the Whitney Museum decamped in 2015 to a brand new home in Lower Manhattan's Meatpacking District, conceived by international starchitect Renzo Piano. Planted at the foot of the High Line along Gansevoort Street, the new Whitney building boasts some 63,000 square feet of both indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Founded in 1931 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt, the Whitney Museum—NYC's top art museum for 20th- and 21st-century American art—is dedicated to presenting the work of several young American artists. Its collection holds about 15,000 pieces including paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs by nearly 2,000 artists, including Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper (the museum holds his entire estate), Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg. Still, the museum’s reputation rests mainly on its temporary art shows, particularly the exhibition everyone loves to hate, the Whitney Biennial. Held in even-numbered years, the Biennial remains the most prestigious (and controversial) assessment of contemporary art in America.