If you love art and visiting galleries, it’s helpful to know which cities make the cut for the top eight cities in the United States worth visiting for art museums. Most of the cities with the best art museums happen to also be popular hot spots for traveling Americans, as art often collects in cities that are already historically rich and culturally diverse. However, each of these cities could pride themselves on their fantastic art collections alone. A great art museum will house an expansive collection, often with several eras’ worth of art. The best of them have educational events, artist talks, and rotating exhibits to keep even the locals coming back again and again. Should you be lucky enough to live in one of these great art cities, you’ll never be hungry for visual culture and all that art has to offer.
New York City is one of America’s largest cultural hubs, acting as a breeding ground for creativity, talent, and of course, starving artists. However, among all of the starving contemporary artists who can barely pay their rent, there are some world-famous art museums featuring work by their contemporaries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been around since 1870, and features an extensive collection of art from classic antiquity and ancient Egypt to modern art and everything in between. One can get a substantial education in art history simply by walking the halls at the Met, which span an entire quarter of a mile in length. The Museum of Modern Art, affectionately called MoMA, will appeal to more contemporary tastes with some outlandish, turn-of-the-century work. While it has a superb collection of paintings by modern artists, it also features video work, drawings, installations, photography, sculpture, and about a dozen other forms of creative expression. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is most known for its iconic, spiraling architecture and houses mainly Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art. Likewise, there are hundreds of small, independently owned galleries dotting New York’s crowded streets. For an art-lover, New York is essentially paradise, boasting art openings every night and art talks with local critics willing to share their opinions.
Chicago is home to the Art Institute of Chicago. Founded in 1879, the Art Institute is both a school for art and a museum with more than 300,000 works of art. Its central location in downtown Chicago attracted 1,440,599 visitors last year alone, according to The Art Newspaper. While the museum’s most esteemed collections are its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which reside there permanently, it also has impressive work from Old Masters, European and American decorative arts, Asian art and modern and contemporary art, among others. The lucky students who attend the school portion are able to constantly take in the wealth of rotating and permanent collections. Chicago also has a Museum of Contemporary Art, which covers work done from 1945 onward. Like most contemporary art forums, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art hopes to usher a discussion about mostly current, living artists relevant to our culture. Thus, Chicago natives get a nice dose of both antiquated art and modern, not to mention Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, Smart Museum of Art, and Museum of Contemporary Photography.
People often discredit Houston, as the rest of Texas isn’t especially known for its impeccable art scene (with the exception of Fort Worth, that is). However, Houston should never be taken for granted, as it contains renowned galleries and museums such as The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Menill Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, and the Rothko Chapel. With an excess of 300,000 square feet of space, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is one of the largest art museums in America, and has a surplus of 63,000 art pieces. Art from all over the world travels to this Houston museum, where exhibitions are held on a regular basis. Much of the museum’s works can be seen online, which you can make note of to then go visit in person. The Menill Collection officially opened on June 7, 1987 and holds the large, personal collection of John and Dominique de Menil. The structure was conceived by Italian architect Renzo Piano, known for his work on the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The collection is composed of mainly 20th century art. The de Menils also had the Rothko Chapel built, which was made to be a meditative place for people of all beliefs to gather. Its walls are lined with Rothko’s paintings, each one black and reflective of the quiet chapel itself. Lastly, Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum is a non-profit museum founded in 1948. It showcases international, national, and regional art of the contemporary variety and holds educational programs. While small, it packs a punch of relevant artistic culture.
The National Gallery of Art is Washington’s premier art museum with historical value as well as its huge art catalogue. The National Gallery of Art was created in 1937, as a gift of financier and art collector Andrew W. Mellon. Set forth by Congress, the art was for the people of America, and when the building was completed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself accepted the building for the citizens of the United States. Since its conception, hundreds of donors have added to the collection, which includes highlights such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait, and Raphael’s Cowper Madonna. The Smithsonian American Art Museum features art done exclusively by artists in the United States, representing more than 7,000 American artists. Some notable contributors include John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and Roy Lichtenstein — although that barely grazes the surface. The National Portrait Gallery, owned by the Smithsonian Institution, features the faces of various Americans. Washington, D.C. is also home to the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Hirshhorn Museum.
Philadelphia has the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art, and Woodmere Art Museum, but its most prominent art museum is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With more than 227,000 art pieces, it opened its doors on May 10, 1877 shortly after Philadelphia celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Its 200 galleries span a staggering 2,000 years’ worth of art. The University of Pennsylvania loaned the museum a great deal of Chinese porcelain, while the museum gave the University most of its Roman, Pre-Columbian, and Egyptian pieces. Thus, most of the art reflected is from the Western world and China. The museum’s arms and armor collection is the second largest in the United States. The museum also holds some alternative forms of art, such as costumes and textiles. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is visited by almost a million people per year. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts functions both as an art school and museum, much like the Art Institute of Chicago. Founded in 1805, it is the oldest art museum and school in the United States. It primarily holds American works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Likewise, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art is part of the University of Philadelphia’s campus, and was the first museum to exhibit works by Andy Warhol. The Woodmere Art Museum’s collection is mostly artists from Delaware Valley.
The Museum of Fine Arts of Boston is the 54th most visited art museum in the world, according to The Art Newspaper, and boasts more than 450,000 works of art. As over a million visitors step through its doors each year, it has a wide variety of Egyptian artifacts, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, 18th and 19th century American art, Chinese art, and the largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan. It opened on July 4, 1876 on the nation’s centennial. The Harvard Art Museums, which include the Fogg Art Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, house around 250,000 different works of art from antiquity to modern day. Boston also has an Institute of Contemporary Art.
Los Angeles’ most prolific art museums are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art holds more than 150,000 works from all across the world and throughout time. Located on Miracle Mile, it was originally part of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. Its most famous show, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” received 1.2 million visitors in a mere four months in 1978. The museum is divided into modern and contemporary art, American and Latin American art, Asian art, and its permanent installations. It is also the largest art museum in the western United States. Meanwhile, the J. Paul Getty Museum features mostly European paintings, drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, and decorative arts, as well as European and American photographs. The building itself is sensational, with stunning architecture and beautiful views of the Los Angeles skyline. Visitors have to take a tram up the gallery, as it sits on a hill, but the pilgrimage is worth it; the gardens are equally noteworthy and can be accessed after viewing the art inside.
San Francisco is a vibrant city to begin with, and it should only be expected that its art reflects this quality. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum on the West Coast to catalogue only 20th century art. As a nonprofit museum, the people who run it are concerned first and foremost with the importance of art in people’s lives. The museum was founded in 1935, and has a wide collection of both well-reputed contemporary artists and lesser-known, local artists. The building also houses a library and archives for educational purposes, with books, periodicals, artist files, and recorded lecture series. Nearby, the De Young Museum sits in San Francisco’s Golden Gate park. The original structure was damaged by an earthquake in 1906, rebuilt, and damaged by another earthquake in 1989. In 2005, it transferred to its current building. The De Young exhibits mainly 17th through the 21st century American art, contemporary European art, textiles, costumes, and art from the Pacific and Africa.