A tour of DC’s art museums may have you wondering whether the capital has more paintings or politicians. Heavyweights such as the National Gallery of Art, which houses masterpieces from Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum with its impressive collection of large-scale contemporary works, are among the best museums in DC, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Even better for culture lovers, most of the city’s major museums don’t charge admission, making an afternoon of art appreciation one of the most gratifying free things to do in DC.
Best art museums and galleries in DC
Since Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith opened their gallery in 1999, they have been showing prints, photographs, paintings and sculptures by the kind of cutting-edge artists Washingtonians usually travel to New York to see. The pair’s expansive gallery on Florida Avenue, NE, is unrivalled in DC—the massive, flexible space has played host to Leo Villareal (whose LED-based light sculpture Multiverse is in the National Gallery of Art’s collection) and video artist Federico Solmi. Strong shows by DC’s younger artists have been well received.
This spectacular, aggressively modern cylindrical building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill enlivens the predominantly neoclassical architecture lining the Mall. The purpose of the structure, which was completed in 1974, was to house self-made Wall Street millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture. The museum now presents art in a range of media, including works on paper, painting, installation, photography, sculpture, digital and video art.
This mansion was opened as a gallery in the 1920s by Marjorie and Duncan Phillips as a memorial to his father. The building was remodeled in the 1960s and underwent further renovation in the ’80s, when an extension increased its space by almost 20,000sq ft. In 2006, the museum unveiled its Sant Building, another expansion project that added airy galleries for 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—that is, if a traveling show hasn’t deposed them temporarily.
The Sackler contains some of the most important holdings of Asian art in the world. It has more flexibility than its neighbor, the Freer Gallery, whose mandate forbids the exhibition of anything from outside its collection. The Sackler, on the other hand, stages international loan exhibitions of Asian art (a recent show featured Ai Wei Wei). Connected to the Freer by an underground passageway, the Sackler was built up around a 1,000-piece Asian art gift from Dr Arthur M Sackler. Visitors enter through architects Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott’s first-floor granite pavilion (a similar pavilion, by the same firm, is at the National Museum of African Art). You then head below ground into a maze of overlapping bridges and long passageways that give the feel of an ancient temple.
Pittsburgh investment banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon was born the son of a poor Irish immigrant but went on to serve as US Treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932. In 1941, he presented the National Gallery’s West Building as a gift to the nation. Mellon’s son, Paul, created the gallery’s East Building in 1978. Mellon junior, who had donated over 900 artworks during his lifetime, bequeathed $75 million and 100 paintings—including works by Monet, Renoir and Cézanne—on his death in 1999.
A longtime Downtown favorite, David Adamson Gallery decamped to Logan during the great gallery exodus of 2004. Now a stand-alone exhibition space that’s separate from its internationally recognized printmaking studio, the gallery continues to exhibit the fruits of its printmaking collaborations with contemporary art heavyweights such as Renate Aller and Chuck Close. One of Washington’s blue chip spaces.
When Detroit business magnate Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) began collecting the works of American painter James McNeill Whistler in the 1880s, the artist encouraged him also to collect Asian art while on his travels to the Middle and Far East. Freer did so, and he eventually amassed Neolithic Chinese pottery, Japanese screens and Hindu temple sculpture, along with works by 19th-century American painters—which included over 1,300 works by Whistler. A room interior, the Peacock Room, painted by Whistler in 1876-77, is probably the gallery’s best-known piece.
This museum’s entrance pavilion, designed by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, lies across the amazing Enid Haupt Garden from its twin, the Sackler. The primary focus of the collection, which opened in 1987, is ancient and contemporary work from sub-Saharan Africa. The museum offers a changing selection of "highlights", drawing viewers into different aspects of African art and—by extension—culture.