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The 32 best art museums in America

We’ve boiled the country’s art scene down to the essential must-sees—these are the best art museums in America

Written by
Time Out editors
,
Tolly Wright
,
Anne Doran
&
Jen Woo
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Home to some of the best collections of art in the world, museums in America boast many of the largest assemblages of works from the likes of Monet, Matisse, Willem de Kooning’s rare “door paintings,” and Edgar Degas’s wax and mixed-media sculptures, as well as Asian art. While the beloved New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and D.C.’s National Gallery of Art are must-visit cultural institutions, more novel contemporary destinations are making waves around the country. You have The Broad in Los Angeles, one of the most Instagrammed museums worldwide with its glittering Yayoi Kusama exhibition. Or how about the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which hones in on experimental works through touring exhibitions, film screenings, and performing arts? And who can forget The Brooklyn Museum’s feminist exhibit and education center?

Spending a day perusing centuries of creative history is one of the best things to do, whether seeking a cultural fix in your town or taking a road trip, especially when more than 1,000 museums will be offering free entry one day this month. Here are, for our money, the best art museums in America. Afterward, check out these incredible art installations or some of the best graffiti walls across the country

Best art museums in America

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • 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.

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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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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
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  • 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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  • 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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  • University

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.

See the best art museums in American cities

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  • Arts centers
In New York, there’s a museum for every aesthetic and intellectual taste. But it’s especially rich in museum holdings of art, with something for everyone. The city is home to some of the world’s finest examples of Ancient, Old Master, Impressionist, Modern and bleeding-edge contemporary work. To help you find the exact sort of edification you’re looking for, we’ve compiled this list of New York’s very best art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and more. And when you plan your visit, make sure to check for free museum days as well!
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Okay, Angelenos, it's time to come clean. We know museums in Los Angeles are pretty spread out, and it's always soooo nice outside, and sometimes it's just hard to choose indoor attractions in Los Angeles or dino bones at the Natural History Museum over a 75-and-sunny day at the beach. Except, you really should, because the caliber of museums here rivals that of Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York—without a doubt. To get you started (or to continue your education) we've narrowed down LA's long roster of museums to the essentials. Locals, consider this your must-see list (and if you've already visited them all, check out these great off-the-beaten-path museums). No short-on-cash excuses either—many of these are free museums and all of them offer free admission on select days. Visitors, whether you'll be in LA for a couple of days or longer, make sure you hit at least a few of these. RECOMMENDED: Free things to do in LA
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  • Museums
Whether you’re just visiting or you’re a local pondering how to spend a day off, you’d be remiss if you didn’t dig into Chicago’s museums. We’ve got a world-class museum scene—while the Art Institute makes us an international destination, our science, history and nature institutions make up some of the best attractions in Chicago. From Hyde Park to Pilsen to the Loop, these are the ten best museums in Chicago. Oh, and, while you’re at it, make sure you take advantage of free museum days. Talk about a no-brainer.  
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