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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

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  • Midtown West

After a two-year renovation based on a design by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, MoMA reopened in 2004 with almost double the space to display some of the most impressive artworks from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. On the horizon is another expansion project, which will extend the museum into adjoining sites for an additional 50,000 square feet of gallery space. MoMA’s permanent collection encompasses seven 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, and 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 contains works by Calder, Rodin, and Moore, and the museum also has a destination 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 two million objects—preserve treasures such as an Egyptian temple from 10 B.C., but it is also in a state of constant self-improvement. Several areas have been renovated in recent years, namely the American Wing, the collection of Greek and Roman art, the European Paintings Galleries, and the rechristened Anna Wintour Costume Center. In December 2020, the museum opened A Look at Old Masters, developing new dialogues among time-honored pieces, including the role of female artists. Upstairs, the expanded European Paintings Galleries dominate the central-western section, which holds a fantastic reserve of old masters. The 19th-century and early 20th-century European galleries contain some of the Met’s most popular works, namely the two-room Monet holdings and a colony of Van Goghs that includes his oft-reproduced Irises.

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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, from antiquity to the present. Our favorite pieces in the Art Institute include the Japanese prints, blueprints and furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We are also in love with the light-filled Modern Wing, which is the perfect place to enjoy the architecture and design collections, modern and contemporary art, and 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, George Seurat's massive pointillism masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • National Mall

Pittsburgh investment banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon gifted the National Gallery’s neoclassical West Building to the nation in 1941, and 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 almond-eyed 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 boasting two spectacular towers and a roof terrace outdoor sculpture garden overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the towers hosts a jaw-dropping room featuring Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist masterpieces, the monochromatic  Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, contrasted with a collection of his contemporary Mark Rothko’s iconic, vivid, and colorful abstractions.

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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 George 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
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  • Art and design
  • Meatpacking District

After nearly 50 years on the Upper East Side, the Whitney decamped to the Meatpacking district at the foot of the High Line in 2015. Founded in 1930 by sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the institution holds more than 25,000 pieces by about 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. The nine-story, steel-and-glass building, designed by Renzo Piano, is roughly three times the size of the old premises. There is now space for a comprehensive display of the collection, including such iconic works 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 Hudson River and city views.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design

This 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. The Hirshhorn Museum now presents art of all types, 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 $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 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.

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  • Museums
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  • 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 more than 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 (1844-1916). 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 (1915-1923)—which the couple donated to the museum in 1950. The price of admission also gets you into the Rodin Museum, which PMA administers.

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The Cleveland Museum of Art celebrated 100 years in 2016 and is one of the best art museums in the nation. Renowned for its deep Asian and Egyptian holdings, it’s also strong on medieval art from Europe and America and boasts a growing collection of postwar masterpieces. An expansion, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2013, increased the museum’s floor space to a whopping 592,000 square feet. The myriad treasures on view range from an exquisite Egyptian hardstone sculpture of the head of Amenhotep III from 1391-1353 B.C. to Albert Pinkham Ryder’s symbolist painting The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1896-1908.

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  • Fenway/Kenmore
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Founded in 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts continues to improve and innovate. Hot on the heels of its dramatic American Wing (designed by Foster & Partners), its Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art has seven galleries. The space contains about 250 works in all media, including the Monet and Boston exhibit ends in mid-October. The MFA’s globe-spanning collection encompasses 500,000 objects. The collection of American art is impressive and includes Paul Revere’s silver Liberty Bowl and paintings by John Singleton Copley. The Egyptian collection is fantastic, much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century. The collection of Japanese art was the first of its kind in America and is one of the finest in the world. Finally, there are the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including one of the largest collections of Monet’s work in the U.S. Their general collection is second only to The Met.

  • Art

Housed in one of Renzo Piano’s earliest and most serene museum buildings, the Menil Collection opened in 1987 to exhibit the private collection of 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, commissioned in 1971, that contains a suite of 14 canvases by Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko. In November 2018, the museum expanded with the separate Menil Drawing Institute, the first freestanding facility dedicated solely to exhibiting modern and contemporary drawings.

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

Housing one of the largest collections of modern art in the nation, 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 that focused on novel and experimental work and education programs. We're talking dance, theater, and music on the MCA stage, Edlis Neeson Theater or 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 selection of offbeat tchotchkes.

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As the country’s first museum dedicated to American art, the Smithsonian Art Museum has one of the best collections of work from the Colonial period until today. The primary collection is housed in the historic former Old Patent Building and 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) can be interpreted as a reflection of modern-day America. SAAM’s separate Renwick Gallery, which was built in 1859 and was known as “The American Louvre,” now showcases craft objects and decorative arts created in the past two centuries.

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  • Museums
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  • 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, is notorious for its veil, a honeycomb-like structure that provides filtered daylight for the galleries and wraps around the vault, which houses The Broad’s collection. However, rather than hiding away their storage area, the vault contains viewing windows so visitors can peer right into their holdings and see the breadth of The Broad’s collection for themselves. Of course, given all of the iconic pieces and exhibits on view—three of John Michel Basquiat’s paintings, “Santo 2,” “Deaf,” and “Wicker” are on display for the first time here—you’ll barely miss the pieces not on display.

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  • Lowry Hill

One of the five most visited contemporary art museums in the U.S., the Walker Art Center was founded in 1879 by lumber baron Thomas Barlow. Since then, it has evolved into a 17-acre campus that combines the museum’s Edward Larrabee Barnes and Herzog & De Meuron buildings with the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. More than 90 percent of the visual art objects in the permanent collection were created after 1960 and include such international contemporary talent as Bharti Kher, Danh Vo, and Gabriel Kuri. Reflecting the museum’s commitment to art in all mediums, the Walker also offers an acclaimed performing arts program and a state-of-the-art cinema.

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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 dating from the 17th to 20th centuries. Rotating exhibitions cover a wide swath ranging from the treasures of King Tut and the Impressionists to Keith Haring and the current Hung Liu’s Golden Gate. The observation tower, which can be entered without paying admission and commands great views of the park, is worth the trip alone.

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From its early 20th-century beginnings in Mrs. Joseph M. High’s former mansion on Peachtree Street, the High Museum of Art has grown into a world-class institution housed in structures designed by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano, totaling 300,000 square feet of space. The permanent collection of more than 18,000 works is heavy in American and decorative 19th- and 20th-century art. 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 in the world. The vibrant special exhibition program is currently showing works by American painter and printmaker David Driskel, while the touring Calder-Picasso exhibit is in its final days with more than 100 paintings, sculptures, and works. 

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  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Dupont Circle

Marjorie and Duncan Phillips opened this mansion-turned-gallery in the 1920s as a memorial to Duncan’s father. Subsequent extensions to the Phillips Collection include the 2006 Sant Building, which added airy galleries dedicated to contemporary art, an outdoor sculpture terrace and café, 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. Here significant Van Gogh oils rub shoulders with a solid selection of works by Picasso, Paul Klee, Rothko, Gottlieb, Cézanne, and Lawrence—if a traveling show hasn’t deposed them temporarily, that is.

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  • Greater Philadelphia
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Though the 2012 decision to move the Barnes Foundation’s world-renowned collection from its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) to its downtown location in Logan Square was controversial, the merits of the pieces of art are undoubtedly staggering. The museum's founder (Albert C. Barnes) was a wealthy chemist who invented the medicine Argyrol and also amassed one of the leading collections of works by impressionist and modernist masters, among them Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-August Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Rousseau. With so many noteworthy artists, it is no wonder that the museum’s 4,000 holdings are worth an estimated $25 billion.

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Milwaukee Art Museum; Milwaukee, WI
Photograph: Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum/Jeff Millies

21. Milwaukee Art Museum; Milwaukee, WI

With an emphasis on the applied arts and works of self-taught geniuses, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s holdings include a comprehensive gathering of 15th- to 20th-century European and 17th- to 20th-century American visual and decorative arts from colonial to World War II eras; Ancient Mediterranean Art, 20th- and 21st-century design; prints and drawings from the late 1400s to the present day, with strengths in American decorative arts; German Expressionism; folk and 20th-century Haitian art; and American art after 1960. The museum is also strong on French Fauve, German expressionist, and European and American modernist works, as well as 20th-century photography and American art from after 1960. After undergoing renovations, MAM’s permanent collection reopened in 2015 with space for an additional 1,000 works, bringing the collection up to a staggering 30,000 pieces; though the new renovation allows only for the display of 2,500 pieces. 

Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, MD
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/clio1789

22. Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, MD

Following the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and a reappraisal of the city’s cultural needs, the Baltimore Museum of Art was founded in 1914 with a single donated painting. Today, the BMA owns more than 95,000 objects spanning Ancient Egypt to today. 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. The BMA’s biggest draw is probably the Cone Collection, assembled in the early 20th century and donated to the museum by the adventurous Baltimore sisters Claribel and 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 works by Matisse—the largest array of the artist’s pieces in the world.

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  • Museums
  • Central Business District

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, and it documents major art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and Light and Space. The museum’s renowned Asian art collection is housed in its original Art Deco building in Capitol Hill, while the nine-acre waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park shows off monumental contemporary sculptures by the likes of Calder and Serra. It also features spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound.

  • 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, spanning 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). Among the many highlights are John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo and Titian’s Europa. A new wing, designed by museum maestro Renzo Piano, houses gallery space for special exhibitions and other facilities.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Cultural Center

Founded in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts moved to its current Beaux-Arts building in 1927, when Detroit was the auto industry capital of the world. One of the best-known works in its collection, Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s modernist “Detroit Industry” fresco cycle (1932-1933), was created for the museum shortly after. Famous for the breadth of its collection, the DIA established a special curatorial department in 2000 charged with expanding its collection of African American art. In 2014, a federal bankruptcy plan for the ailing city saved DIA’s collection—rumored to be worth more than a billion dollars—from being auctioned off to help pay the city’s debt. This ensured that masterpieces such as Jan van Eyck’s luminous painting Saint Jerome in his Study (c. 1435) and John Sloan’s plainspoken canvas McSorley’s Bar (1912) remain on view.

MASS MoCA; North Adams, MA
Photograph: Courtesy MASS MoCA/Zoran Orlić

26. MASS MoCA; North Adams, MA

Located in a converted 19th-century factory complex in a former mill town, MASS MoCA is one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and the performing arts in the country. What that means is more than 250,000 square feet of exhibition space, 5,000 square feet of rehearsal space, a black box theater, and workshop and art fabrication facilities. The center’s primary focus is on presenting large-scale and complex installations that can’t be realized in more conventional exhibition spaces, such as American artist Ann Hamilton’s corpus (2003-2004), a 10-month snowfall of sheets of paper. An exhibition of more than 100 monumental wall drawings and paintings conceived by Sol LeWitt will be on view through 2043. The center is also the home of two music festivals: the Bang on a Can Summer Institute and the Wilco-curated Solid Sound Music Festival.

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