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The Menil Collection
Photograph: Don GlentzerThe Menil Collection

The 29 best art museums in America

We’ve boiled the country’s vast visual art scene down to the essential must-sees—these are the art museums to include in your cultural itinerary

Written by
Time Out editors
&
Anne Doran
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Of course, landmark art museums like NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and D.C.’s National Gallery of Art are national treasures, but checking out an exceptional permanent collection or the latest exhibitions ranks among our favorite things to do in any urban destination. Since several cities have more than their fair share of standouts, we had to make some tough choices, but our short list includes some idiosyncratic gems among the encyclopedic art institutions. In our view, these are the best museums in the country for feasting your eyes on the finest paintings, sculptures, photography, installations and other visual art forms.

Best art museums in America

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Midtown West

Established by three women in the 1920s, the Museum of Modern Art, along with MoMA PS1 in Queens, attracts millions of visitors annually. It displays some of the most impressive artworks from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Its permanent collection encompasses six curatorial departments: architecture and design, drawings and prints, film, media and performance, painting and sculpture, and photography. Highlights include Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory and masterpieces by Giacometti, Hopper, Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Rothko, Warhol and many others. The Philip Johnson-designed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, which dates to 1939, contains works by Calder, Rodin and Moore. Don't miss the on-site Michelin-starred restaurant, The Modern, which overlooks the garden.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Central Park
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Not only does this massive institution—comprising 17 curatorial collections and more than 2 million objects—preserve treasures such as an Egyptian temple from 10 B.C.E., but it is also in a state of constant self-improvement. By 2025, the $70 million renovation of The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing should be completed, with collections focused on the arts of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas. The 19th-century and early 20th-century European galleries contain some of the Met’s most famous works, namely the two-room Monet holdings and a colony of Van Goghs that includes his oft-reproduced Irises. Don’t miss the Cloisters, with a chance to experience the art, architecture and gardens of medieval Europe, or the selection of modern/contemporary art by artists such as Kara Walker, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Grant Park
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You could spend the next four years getting to know this comprehensive institution, which owns nearly 300,000 artworks and artifacts from all over the world and from every era. Our favorite pieces include Japanese prints, blueprints and furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Meanwhile, the light-filled Modern Wing is the perfect place to enjoy the architecture and design collections, modern and contemporary art, and, to top it off, gorgeous views of Millennium Park. Several of the most famous paintings in the world call this museum their permanent home, including Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and, a favorite of Ferris Bueller’s, Georges Seurat's massive pointillist masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • National Mall

Pittsburgh investment banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon donated the National Gallery’s neoclassical West Building to the nation in 1941. His son, Paul, commissioned the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, which opened in 1978. The former’s sky-lit main floor covers European and American art from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation. The sculpture galleries contain the world’s largest collection of Edgar Degas’s wax and mixed-media sculptures. An underground concourse connects the two buildings via a moving walkway through Multiverse, a starry installation by American artist Leo Villareal. After three years of construction, the East Building reopened in summer 2022, boasting two spectacular towers and a roof terrace outdoor sculpture garden overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Miracle Mile

LACMA is truly a multi-day destination, given the size and scope of its collection. From Chris Burden’s iconic entrance installation Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around L.A., to the Pavilion for Japanese Art (temporarily closed for repairs), a day at LACMA can include works spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Highlights in the collection include Diego Rivera’s Portrait of Frida Kahlo, 17th-century artist Georges De La Tour’s The Magdalen With The Smoking Flame, and Henri Matisse’s La Gerbe. Exhibitions at the Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion have included retrospectives by artists such as Alexander Calder, James Turrell and Tim Burton.

Whitney Museum of American Art | New York City, NY
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Meatpacking District

Another woman-established art museum, the Whitney began as a studio in Greenwich Village and hopped to several different spaces before its current siting in the Meatpacking district at the foot of the High Line. Officially founded in 1930 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the institution holds more than 25,000 pieces from approximately 3,600 artists, including Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Claes Oldenburg. Yet, its reputation has rested primarily on its temporary shows, particularly the prestigious and controversial Whitney Biennial. Today’s nine-story, steel-and-glass building was designed by Renzo Piano with space for a comprehensive display of the collection, including iconic works such as Alexander Calder’s Circus and Jasper Johns’s Three Flags. The dramatic, asymmetrical structure features a series of outdoor terraces: on the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors, you can take in alfresco sculptures and installations while admiring sweeping views of the Hudson River and the city.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

The Smithsonian’s spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill was completed in 1974 to house the 20th-century painting and sculpture collection of self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn. Today, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presents all types of art, including paper works, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital, and video art. The galleries on the third level are home to the permanent collection, including one of the largest public collections of works by Thomas Eakins in the world. There is also a significant Giacometti collection and a pair of Willem de Kooning’s rare “door paintings” (the museum, too, boasts one of the largest public arrays). Located on the side of the gallery facing the National Mall, across Jefferson Drive, the Sculpture Garden features art by Rodin, Matisse, Koons, Calder and more.

Getty Center | Los Angeles, CA
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Westside

L.A.’s hilltop acropolis is a home for the contents of the J. Paul Getty Trust, but that’s the only straightforward thing about it. Architect Richard Meier started designing the museum in 1984, but it took 13 years, several additional designers (to work on the interior and landscaping), and a cool $1 billion to complete. The result is a remarkable complex of travertine and white metal-clad pavilions that resembles a monastic retreat with panoramic views that James Bond would dig. The Getty’s colorful, tranquil gardens are a highlight. The lobby is also a show-stopper, an airy, luminous rotunda that opens to a fountain-filled courtyard surrounded by six pavilions housing the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. You’ll view everything from medieval art to furnished rooms in the French decorative arts style to modern and contemporary works. Fun bonus: the visit starts with a light rail tram ride from the parking structure.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Ben Franklin Parkway - Kelly Drive
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The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the largest museums in the United States, with 200 galleries containing some 240,000 objects from the first century A.D. to the modern era. Its broad holdings include renowned American painting, sculpture and decorative arts collections, particularly 18th- and 19th-century American furniture and silver and Pennsylvania German art. The museum also houses the most important works by American realist artist Thomas Eakins. What has made the PMA a mecca for generations of artists is the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection of Modernist Masterworks—including Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, which the couple donated to the museum in 1950. In May 2021, 90,000 square feet were added to the historic Frank Gehry building. It’s worth noting that the price of admission also gets you into the Rodin Museum, which PMA administers.

  • Art
  • University

The Cleveland Museum of Art is a longtime art anchor with more than 45,000 objects in its collections covering 6,000 years of art-making within 16 departments. It’s one of the most wealthy and most visited art museums in the US; its endowment means admission is free. Renowned for its deep Asian and Egyptian holdings, it’s also strong on medieval art and boasts a growing collection of postwar masterpieces. The North Wing was designed by mid-century Modernist Marcel Breuer, while an expansion designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly doubled the museum’s floor space to a staggering 592,000 square feet. The myriad treasures on view range from a copper and iron ancestral commemorative head (uhunmwunelao) from mid-1500s-early 1600s Nigeria to Morning Glory with Black by Georgia O’Keeffe.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Fenway/Kenmore
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The Museum of Fine Arts’s globe-spanning collection encompasses nearly 500,000 objects. The collection of American art is impressive and includes Paul Revere’s silver Sons of Liberty Bowl and paintings by John Singleton Copley. The Egyptian collection—much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century—is also fantastic. Additionally, the exceptional array of Japanese art is the largest collection of such work outside of Japan. Finally, there are the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including one of the largest collections of Monet’s work in the US. There are also seven galleries devoted to Dutch and Flemish art. Our best recommendation? Walk through the contemplative space of the Japanese Tenshin-en, the 'Garden of the Heart of Heaven.'

  • Art
  • Museum District

Set on a 30 acre campus and housed in one of Renzo Piano’s earliest and most serene museum buildings, The Menil Collection exhibits the private collection gathered by John and Dominique de Menil. The museum’s holdings comprise approximately 17,000 pieces ranging from Byzantine icons to Surrealist paintings, and all follow the couple’s deep belief in the spiritual or transformational power of art. Thus, galleries of works by Duchamp, Warhol and Twombly are accompanied by such permanent exhibits as “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision,” a display of the sort of anthropological objects and other curiosities that fascinated and inspired the Surrealists. Also on the Menil campus is the interfaith Rothko chapel, which contains a suite of 14 canvases by Latvian-American painter Mark Rothko, and the Menil Drawing Institute, which furthers the study of modern and contemporary drawings. A number of bungalows in the area have been painted ‘Menil gray’ and add to the campus look.

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The Museum of Contemporary Art | Chicago, IL
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Streeterville

Housing one of the nation's largest collections of modern art, the Museum of Contemporary Art also hosts major touring exhibits, film screenings, and performing artists. Busy bees. The museum opened in 1967 as a kunsthalle, a non-collecting art gallery focused on novel and experimental work and education programs. We're talking dance, theater, and music on the MCA stage, Edlis Neeson Theater, or the Anne and John Kern Terrace Garden, as well as community meetings, panels, and artist projects at The Commons. When you need a break from the extensive network of galleries, get some air in the picturesque sculpture garden, but don't forget to exit through the gift shop—the museum boasts one of Chicago's best selections of offbeat tchotchkes. Bragging rights: it’s the first building ever wrapped by Christo in the US.

  • Museums
  • Art and design

As the country’s largest and most inclusive museum dedicated to American art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum showcases work from the Colonial period until today. The primary collection displays more than 7,000 artists, including famed portraitist John Singer Sargent, painter Mary Cassatt, multi-media innovator Nam June Paik, and pieces by lesser-known artists. The museum’s vast jumble of classic works and unusual museum fare (like video games and VR apps) can be interpreted as a reflection of modern-day America. SAAM’s separate Renwick Gallery, known as “The American Louvre,” now showcases craft objects and decorative arts created in the past two centuries; its 1858 building was the first in the US organized as a public art museum.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Downtown

Founded on the principle of making contemporary art more accessible to the public, The Broad offers free general admission to view their permanent collection of artwork which features 2,000 works by over 200 artists, including Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman and Takashi Murakami. The building itself, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, is distinctive for its ‘veil and vault’ concept. The veil, designed by architect Liz Diller, is a honeycomb-like structure which provides filtered daylight for the galleries and wraps around the vault, which holds The Broad’s storage. Rather than hiding off-exhibit objects as most museums do, the Broad offers viewing windows into the vault so visitors can peer right in. Of course, given all of the iconic pieces and exhibits on view—including several works from Jean-Michel Basquiat—you’ll barely miss the pieces not on display.

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  • Art and design
  • Lowry Hill

One of the five most visited contemporary art museums in the US, the Walker Art Center was founded in 1879 by lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker. Since then, it has evolved into a 17-acre campus with multiple buildings. Many well-known artists have debuted here with their first major exhibition, such as Joseph Cornell, Frank Gehry, and Kara Walker. Reflecting the museum’s commitment to art in all mediums, the Walker also offers an acclaimed performing arts program in the state-of-the-art McGuire Theater. You’ll recognize (and love) the Instagrammable Spoonbridge and Cherry installation in the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Golden Gate Park
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The most prominent feature of this futuristic-primitive building is the massive perforated copper tower that emerges from the surrounding canopy of trees, making those who approach from the Ninth Avenue entrance to Golden Gate Park feel like they’ve stumbled across an abandoned mothership. The de Young’s impressive holdings include some 27,000 paintings, sculptures, objects, crafts and textiles from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Rotating exhibitions cover a wide swath, ranging from the treasures of King Tut and the Impressionists to Keith Haring and the current Hung Liu’ exhibition Golden Gate. The de Young is one of the top 10 most visited US art museums. Bonus: the observation tower, which can be entered without paying admission and commands excellent views of the park, is worth the trip alone.

  • Museums

The High’s first home was Mrs. Joseph M. High’s former mansion on Peachtree Street, donated by her in 1926. Since then, it’s grown into a world-class institution housed in structures designed by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano, totaling over 300,000 square feet of space. The permanent collection of more than 18,000 works is heavy in American 19th- and 20th-century fine and decorative arts. In addition to its growing contemporary art and photography holdings—including a peerless stash of Civil Rights era photographs—the High has assembled one of the most significant collections of American self-taught and vernacular art worldwide. The vibrant special exhibition program currency features works by African-American designer Stephen Burks (through March 2023) and French sculptor Auguste Rodin (through January 2023). The Rodin sculpture The Shade outside the Stent Family Wing was given to the museum by the French government in memory of 122 Atlantans who died in a plane crash at Orly field after touring European capitals.

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  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Dupont Circle

Duncan and Eliza Phillips, son and mother, opened this mansion-turned-gallery in 1918 to overcome grief from the loss of Duncan’s father in 1917 and his brother in 1918 from the flu pandemic. Duncan and his brother had been gathering contemporary American paintings for two years with a $10,000 annual budget granted by their parents. Duncan married artist Marjorie Acker, in whose hands the directorship fell after his 1966 death. Subsequent extensions added airy galleries dedicated to contemporary art, an outdoor sculpture terrace and café, a library and archives, and spaces for education programs and community exhibitions. The museum’s signature painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, enjoys pride of place in the permanent collection galleries. You’ll also find a solid selection of works by Klee, Rothko, Lawrence and O’Keeffe—if a traveling show hasn’t borrowed them, that is.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Greater Philadelphia
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At the turn of the century, a white American chemist Albert C. Barnes collected and displayed French Impressionist paintings next to African masks and Native American jewelry, a believer in social justice and the idea that art, as well as people, should not be segregated. In 1927, he established a scholarship fund to support Black artists, writers and musicians and continued a lifelong commitment to racial equality. Today, the collections include works by Impressionist and Modernist masters—among them, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Rousseau—as well as Native American ceramics, Greek antiquities, Pennsylvania German furniture, African art and decorative ironwork. The works are grouped in ‘ensembles’ based on color, light or motif echoes rather than geography or era.

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This fun museum has an installation on its rooftop called ‘Burke Brise Soleil’ with winglike structures that open when the museum opens, close and reopen at noon, and close when it shuts its doors for the night. The collections are diverse, with work from antiquity to the modern day and contains more than 32,000 objects of all mediums. Some highlights include German Renaissance master clocks, 20th century Haitian art and works by the Ashcan School (who documented everyday life in New York’s poor neighborhoods), the turn of the century American painters group called The Eight, and Georgia O’Keeffe. There’s also folk and self-taught art collections, inspirational for those who want to create work but haven't been trained.

Following Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904 and thanks to its revitalization plan, the Baltimore Museum of Art was established in 1914 with a single donated painting. The BMA owns more than 95,000 objects spanning from today all the way back to ancient Egypt. With a holding of American art encompassing the Colonial era to the late 20th century, the museum is notable for its long history of collecting works by African American artists. Its Cone Collection was assembled in the early 20th century and donated to the museum by the adventurous Baltimore sisters Claribel and Dr. Etta Cone in 1949. The siblings visited the Paris studios of Matisse and Picasso, met Gertrude Stein, and eventually amassed a collection of some 3,000 objects, including 600-plus works by Matisse—the largest array of the artist’s pieces in a public institution. And while the building for the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC is being renovated, BMA will display 10 works from its permanent collection, through summer 2023.

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Founded in 1933, the Seattle Art Museum owns approximately 25,000 works spread over three separate facilities. In the main building in downtown Seattle, you’ll find the museum’s collections of ethnic, modern, and contemporary art. The cornerstone of the contemporary holdings is the Wright Collection of more than 200 works, documenting major art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Light and Space. When you build up an appetite, visit the Seattle Market Fishmonger & Eatery now housed in the museum: grab a lobster roll, Dungeness crab or oysters with a beer. A 20-minute walk away is the museum’s 9-acre waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park with monumental contemporary sculptures by the likes of Calder and Serra. It also features spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. To visit the museum’s renowned Seattle Asian Art Museum, you’ll have to hop in a vehicle or ride a bike; it’s more than 2 miles away in a 1933 Art Deco building that was SAM’s original home.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Mission Hill

As remarkable as its eccentric socialite founder, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th-century Venetian palace, complete with an exquisite interior courtyard. Conceived by Gardner and her husband to house their growing collection amassed during their extensive travels, the museum opened in 1903. Every item in the 16,000-piece collection—which spans European, Asian, and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century— is meticulously placed according to Gardner’s instructions. The downside is the empty frames that once contained priceless paintings, stolen in 1990. The museum’s tragic history is documented in being perhaps the only one whose website includes a tab called ‘Theft’ in which $10 million is offered to recover the 13 stolen works. Among the many still-there highlights are John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo and Titian’s The Rape of Europa. The 2012 New Wing, designed by museum maestro Renzo Piano and separated from the original building by a glass corridor, houses gallery space for special exhibitions and other facilities.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

Founded in 1885 but now housed in a 1927 Beaux Art building termed the ‘Temple of Art,’ the Detroit Institute of Arts offers a show-stopper across east and west walls in its vast open court: Diego Rivera’s modernist Detroit Industry Murals fresco cycle. The DIA is also known as holding the first Van Gogh painting to enter a US museum collection, his Self-Portrait from 1887, acquired in 1922. Currently, a ‘Van Gogh in America’ exhibition runs through Jan. 22, 2023, as well as an exhibition of ‘Van Gogh’s Artistic Roots’ which stays an extra week. With a diverse collection of 65,000 works–including the General Motors Center for African American Art curatorial department tasked with expanding the museum's collection of African American art, the DIA is in the top six of art museums in the nation.

Located in a converted 19th-century factory complex in a former mill town, MASS MoCA is one of the country's largest centers for contemporary visual art and the performing arts. As such, visitors can expect 250,000 square feet of exhibition space, 5,000 square feet of rehearsal space, a black box theater, and workshop and art fabrication facilities–along with a sandwich shop, brewhouse, cafe and retail shopping. The center’s primary focus is on presenting large-scale and complex installations that can’t be realized in more conventional exhibition spaces. An exhibition of more than 100 monumental-sized wall drawings and paintings conceived by Sol LeWitt will be on view through 2043 (yes, that year is correct: wall drawings ‘til we drop!)

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