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 ranks among our favorite things to do in any urban destination (yes, even more than devouring every single one of the best desserts in America). Since several cities offer more than their fair share of standout cultural destinations, 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. And, once you’ve perused through all the indoor offerings, don’t forget to browse through the best graffiti walls across America.
Best art museums in America
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 added 10 new galleries. The space contains about 250 works in all media—many of them new acquisitions—by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Kara Walker and Rachel Whiteread. The MFA’s globe-spanning collection encompasses 500,000 objects. Of particular note is the collection of American art, including Paul Revere’s silver 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; the Japanese collection (the first in America, and one of the finest in the world); and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including an impressive array by Monet—the second largest collection of his work in the U.S.
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, comprising approximately 17,000 pieces ranging from Byzantine icons to Surrealist paintings, are unified by the couple’s deep belief in the spiritual or transformational power of art. Thus, galleries of works by the likes of 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 and containing a suite of 14 canvases by Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko. In October 2017, the museum will also expand with the separate Menil Drawing Institute, the first freestanding facility dedicated solely to exhibiting modern and contemporary drawings.
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. When you need a break from the extensive network of galleries, get some air in the picturesque sculpture garden. Don’t forget to exit through the gift shop—the museum boasts one of the city’s best selection of offbeat tchotchkes.
As the country’s first museum dedicated to American art, the Smithsonian Art Museum is one of the leading collections of work from the Colonial period until today. The main collection is housed in the historic former Old Patent Building, and features work from 7,000 different artists like famed portraitist John Singer Sargent, painter Mary Cassatt and multi-media innovator Nam June Paik, as well as pieces by lesser known artists. The museum’s vast collection of classic pieces as well as unusual museum fare (like video games) are 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.
The Broad; Los Angeles, CA
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’s 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 made 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.
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—everything from the treasures of King Tut and the Impressionists to Edward Hopper and Keith Haring. The observation tower, which can be entered without paying admission and commands great views of the park, is worth the trip alone.
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 15,000 works is particularly strong on 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 most significant collections of American self-taught and vernacular art in the world. The vibrant special exhibition program recently showcased murals depicting the battle for civil rights by Atlanta-based artist Hale Woodruff and a major retrospective focusing on innovative photographer Vik Muniz.
Marjorie and Duncan Phillips opened this mansion as a 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 modern art, an outdoor sculpture terrace and café, an art and technology laboratory and an auditorium. The museum’s signature painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, enjoys pride of place in the permanent collection galleries. There, significant Van Gogh oils rub shoulders with Steiglitz prints and a solid selection of works by Picasso, Paul Klee, Bacon, Vuillard and Rothko—if a traveling show hasn’t deposed them temporarily, that is.
Though the decision to move the Barnes Foundation’s world-renowned collection from its original home in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) to its downtown location in Logan Square in 2012 was controversial, the merits of the pieces of art are undoubtedly staggering. The founder, Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy chemist who invented the medicine Argyrol, amassed one of the leading collections of works by impressionist and modernist masters, including Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-August Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. With so many noteworthy artists, it’s no wonder that the museum’s 4,000-holdings are worth an estimated $25 billion.
See the best art museums in American cities
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!
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
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.