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Listing or ranking the best art museums in the US is like trying to list or rank the best American rock bands. The Eagles or Metallica? The Beach Boys or Guns and Roses? “Best” is subjective and depends on individual tastes. Was country music supergroup Alabama “better” than Aerosmith or Pearl Jam?
When thinking about the best art museums in the US, there also isn’t “Billboard” chart rankings or record sales to judge the entries like you could with music groups.
Size and breadth of the collection? Size of the galleries? Exhibition schedule? “Caliber” of the paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, objects?
“Caliber” again relies upon personal preference; individual attraction to medium further splinters consensus. For example, if you have a passion for glass art, you might think the Toledo Museum of Art is the best art museum in the US.
If your favorite artist is Georgia O’Keeffe, who’s to tell you the best art museum in the US isn’t the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM? If it’s Egon Schiele, the Neue Galerie in New York may be your “best.”
Having been an arts contributor at Forbes.com since 2018 focusing primarily on museum exhibitions, my aim here is to provide a general consensus of the best art museums in the US by both geography and genre based on my writing, reporting and travels. I’ve visited most of these museums; I’ve written about all of them.
Filling the top two spots feels easy to me, from there, that’s up to you!
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
- The Museum of Modern Art (New York)
- Best Art Museums in Northeast
- Best Art Museums in Southeast
- Best Art Museums in Midwest
- Best Art Museums in West
- Modern and Contemporary Art
- American Art
- Native American Art
- African American Art
- Asian Art
- Chicano Art
- Female Artists
- Western Art
- Hispanic/Spanish Art
- Individual Artist Museums
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
The biggest art museum in America, the most visited, one of the oldest, the most prestigious, an astonishing collection of items, the best-of-the-best, covering 5,000 years of history, remarkable depth and breadth, premier exhibitions, yeah, The Met is the best art museum in the US. For my money, it’s also the best art museum in the world.
Every single one of its nearly 20 areas of collecting focus from Greek and Roman antiquities to ancient Egypt, Native American art, European paintings, photography, Modern and Contemporary art, drawings and prints, costume and fashion, Asian art, arms and armor, and on, and on, and on are a 10 out of 10 for quality and significance to the genre.
The Met is about five great museums all under one roof making it impossible to get through in one visit unless you’re there from open to close or just breeze through.
The Met is unsurpassed in America in the presentation of antiquities. The Egyptian material boggles the mind. If you like “stuff” – fancy spoons and plates and bowls and sculptures and vases – so-called “art objects,” The Met is for you.
Similarly, the collection of European paintings takes a backseat to no one. El Greco, Velasquez and Vermeer through to Manet, Monet, Cézanne and van Gogh. The best collection of van Gogh paintings in America undoubtedly.
The Met has the best group of Abstract Expressionist paintings I’ve seen.
Because of all this, the museum can be crowded. Take advantage of late-night hours Friday and Saturday when The Met is open until 9PM. After 7, you’ll have the place to yourself. The museum is closed on Wednesdays.
Here’s another pro tip. Adult admission for non-New Yorkers is a full $30! An individual annual membership costs $110 and includes a free guest entry ticket on each visit. That means, if you plan on going more than once in a year and bring someone each time, a membership will save you money, and allow you EARLY entry!
The Met 5th Avenue location in Central Park is what people refer to as “The Met,” although there is a branch of the museum known as The Met Cloisters displaying the European Medieval collection.
The Museum of Modern Art (New York)
Unlike The Met, which is an “encyclopedic” museum, meaning it attempts to collect and present a comprehensive gathering of artistic creation across the globe from antiquity to today, the Museum of Modern Art in New York – MoMA – focuses, you guessed it, on Modern art. And Contemporary.
For the purposes of clarity, while the terms “Modern” and “Contemporary” are often used interchangeably when discussing art, “Modern” art technically refers specifically to the period from about 1850 through 1960. Think Manet to Warhol. “Contemporary” comes after “Modern” chronologically; think Warhol through today.
MoMA is distinguished by the dumbfounding quality of its collection. Paintings which define their genres or artists. Paintings almost everyone in the Western world will be familiar with.
Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, the one on all the bags and posters and screensavers and mousepads. MoMA has it.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the most important single painting in Modern art according to many critics. MoMA has it. It’s WAY bigger than you expect.
Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory – the painting with the melting clocks. MoMA has it. It’s WAY smaller than you expect.
Incandescent Monet Water Lillies. MoMA
Matisse’s Dance. MoMA. The Red Studio? MoMA. The Swimming Pool Room? MoMA.
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair and Family Tree. MoMA.
And on, and on, and on, and on.
For Modern art, painting in particular, MoMA is the best in the world.
Like The Met, it can get crowded, especially in the morning. Plan your visit for after 2:00; the museum is open until 5:30 daily and 7PM on Saturdays.
The Met and MoMA are the best art museums in the US. Literally hundreds of others, however, are worth your time, each possessing individual objects or areas of collection strength that compare to the New York Two.
These are the best of the rest, honorable mention for best art museums in the US.
Best Art Museums in Northeast
Think of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – MFA Boston – as a “mini-Met.” It probably wouldn’t like that categorization, but it’s accurate. An exceptional encyclopedic collection, not quite as broad or as deep or as prestigious as The Met’s overall, but one of the great art museums not only in America, but the world, by anyone’s standard.
MFA Boston’s special exhibition program may be the best in the country.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has a distinction not even The Met can claim. It’s the only museum in the Western Hemisphere with a da Vinci painting in its permanent collection! A painting, not a drawing.
Like the MFA Boston, the National Gallery is an encyclopedic museum offering superior breadth and depth and caliber.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a tick behind these two.
Best Art Museums in Southeast
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans is the best and only art museum in the US strictly for the display of artworks from Southern artists.
If you’re interested in Folk Art, self-taught artists, so called “visionary” artists, particularly with a Southern flavor, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is tops.
RELATED: Best Florida Art Museums.
Best Art Museums in Midwest
When it comes to famous individual paintings, the Art Institute of Chicago tops even The Met. Nighthawks, American Gothic, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, van Gogh – if you want star power, the Art Institute has you covered.
In that league just below The Met for best art museums in the US with MFA Boston and the National Gallery, that’s where the Art Institute resides. A spectacular institution.
From the first van Gogh painting acquired by a US museum to the astonishing Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals and an exceptional collection of Modern and Contemporary art with an increasing focus on African American and female artists, the Detroit Institute of Arts belongs on this list.
Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Indianapolis all have great art museums – amazing collections, worth a visit – but they aren’t as good as Chicago or Detroit.
Best Art Museums in West
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LACMA – tops the list of best art museums in the US west of the Mississippi River for its encyclopedic holdings.
If it’s Greek and Roman antiquities you’re after, the Getty Villa Museum takes a back seat to no one, not even The Met.
The Dallas Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Denver Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art merit recognition as well.
Modern and Contemporary Art
While not as esteemed as MoMA, since it’s only two-miles away (and only a couple blocks from The Met) with free admission, the Guggenheim is a must-see for those interested in Modern and Contemporary art.
What the Guggenheim wouldn’t trade with any other art museum in the world is its iconic, Frank Lloyd Wright designed building.
The Phillips Collection, a small museum in Washington, D.C. with a heavyweight Modern collection including Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party belongs on this list, as does the Barnes Foundation in Philly for its Modern art paintings and the Buffalo AKG Art Museum which has been dedicating to collecting art of its time since opening in 1862. Buffalo AKG has a particular emphasis on abstraction.
If your interest is specifically art from American artists, also in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art is tops. The Whitney hosts the Whitney Biennial, the most prestigious exhibition/survey of contemporary American art.
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth, TX has an extraordinary collection with a particular focus on Western art, Western as in Fredric Remington and Charles Russell.
A fast riser on any list of the best art museums in the US is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR. Bentonville, AR? That’s the home of Walmart and the money behind this museum which was only opened in 2011, amassing a nationally significant collection of American art in that brief period, is Alice Walton, one of the retail giant’s heirs.
Native American Art
I have a particular interest and fondness for Native American art. The Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Denver Art Museum top the list here.
If Native American jewelry is your query, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe has the best collection in the world. Period.
Pueblo pottery? The School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
The Met’s overall collection of Native American art is outstanding as well.
African American Art
The Studio Museum in Harlem has been the beacon institution for Black art in America since opening in 1968. It’s famed Artist-in-Residence program has birthed Contemporary art superstars David Hammons, Titus Kaphar, Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is home to more than 45,000 objects, stewarding one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art. Works date from antiquity to the present spanning China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world,
The Met has a distinguished collection of Asian Art.
I think this list of the best art museums in the US exclusively focused on Asian art holds up as well.
Actor and comedian Cheech Marin has been a serious collector of Chicano art since the 1980s. In 2022, the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture opened in Riverside, CA displaying his personal collection, the highest quality, most focused presentation of Chicano art in America.
Art institutions across America and around the world have shamefully and purposefully omitted the contributions of female artists for hundreds of years. Only in the 21st century has that been changing.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. collects, displays and promotes female artists exclusively.
In addition to Native American art, I also have an fondness and focus on art of the West – the landscapes, the animals, the culture. The Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City and the Denver Art Museum are the best I’ve visited.
I have not been to the Autry Museum in Los Angeles.
The Meadows Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in Upper Manhattan newly reopened in April of 2023 are the best art museums in the US for Spanish and Spanish Colonial art.
Individual Artist Museums
In addition to Georgia O’Keeffe, numerous fine art museums in the US are dedicated to the collection, interpretation and presentation of individual artists. There’s an Andy Warhol museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh, a Clyfford Still museum in Denver and a Salvador Dalí museum in St. Petersburgh, FL.
If any of them are your favorite artists, then those may be your favorite museums.