Art Walk America: Guide to Art Museums in the USA
When people want to see great art museums and great art, they head to Europe. And even if they don’t have much interest in art or museums, they usually go anyway – that’s what you do when in London, Italy, or France. And, let’s face it, Europe does house some of the best collections of western art in the world as well as have the lion’s share of celebrity art pieces (Mona Lisa, anyone?), so the reputation is entirely justified. But what about all the art museums in good old America? We don’t have the centuries of [art] history or the same wealth of old palaces lying around stuffed with pilfered antiquities and conquest spoils. Nor do we have the concentration of world-class art museums in a small area – the US is a big place and the best museums are spread throughout all the major cities. It’s easy to overlook America’s art scene, but to do so would be to miss out on some of the most innovative, unique, and, well, best, museums in the world.
US museums have capitalized on the fact that they can’t really compete with the old-school European greats (except for maybe the MET) and instead have focused on being the most technologically advanced, cutting edge, and well-curated museums out there. Also, the fact that they don’t have centuries worth of masterpieces already crowding the walls means they can constantly acquire new work as well as produce special exhibitions and retrospectives that draw art and visitors from around the world. Many US museums strive to stay consistently at the forefront of global contemporary art and are housed in buildings of modern architectural renown, reflecting the desire of most American museums to remain pioneers in art and art appreciation. Finally, we’ve got the most highly-developed online museum network in the world and children’s education and programs are a top priority. US museums are committed not only to exhibiting great art, but to using every contemporary resource available to accomplish and augment that goal as well as constantly changing and re-establishing their position in both the art world and society at large.
Here are a few of the big guns, a couple smaller, more particular collections, and some of my favorites – generally a list of some must-see art museums in the United States.
1. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY): The grand-daddy of huge, European-style art museums in America, the MET is also one of the largest museums in the world, with an enormous holding of pieces from around the globe. Not content with being labeled the American Louvre or Prado, the Metropolitan prominently features important contemporary artists, traveling shows, and uniquely curated exhibits of forgotten artists and eras in their numerous special exhibition spaces. Wandering the halls feels almost like a trip through every great museum in the world, but you never forget you’re in America – in place of the refurbished palace wings in European museums that reflect the buildings’ origins, the MET has American period rooms, including a Frank Lloyd Wright living room. While undoubtedly overwhelming, the MET is not a museum to be missed-one good way of getting a handle on both its literal and conceptual size is to focus on some of the more obscure holdings, such as the extensive and fascinating arms and armory gallery. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and from 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (closed Mondays). Admission is $15 recommended for adults and $10 recommended for students, although that “recommended” is more of a set price in practice.
2. MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY): The museum’s mission statement pretty much says it all – “the [MoMA] is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in their world.” That’s a pretty strong declarative statement, but the museum more than carries out their side of the bargain. Not only do they acquire accepted masterpieces of modern art as well as stay ahead of the curve in the contemporary art scene, they put a priority on educating visitors and questioning and re-evaluating what modern art is and should be. No other museum does such a thorough job of bolstering the central questions behind their collections’ pieces. The open and airy architecture of the museum, meticulously seamless gallery lay-out, and informed curator decisions make visiting the MoMA more than a field-trip to look at confusing art, the experience somehow becomes a sublime and almost meditative rumination on the nature and purpose of art in the world-really, what more could you ask of a museum? Also, I wouldn’t normally plug a museum store as a must-see, but the MOMA shop has far more than your expected posters and expensive coffee table books. In fact, you could almost look at their huge variety of award-winning industrial design house ware as a consumer gallery extension of the actual museum. Looking for an obscure, arty, and ostensibly useful gift with “personality”? Look no further. The museum is open from 10:30-5:30 every day of the week but Tuesday (closed) and Friday, when they are open until 8 p.m. Admission is a staggering $20 for adults and $12 for students, so make good use of their free Friday nights from 4-8 p.m.
–SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA): The SFMOMA is not affiliated with the New York museum (as far as I can tell), but the museums nevertheless feel similar and their purposes are closely aligned. The SFMOMA is worth a visit at the very least in order to wander through the magnificent Mario Botta-designed building – the futuristic atrium and central staircase make the visitor feel as if she’s stepped into a space-opera palace. The museum is the first and only museum in the Western states devoted to collecting and exhibiting 20th century art, and their special exhibitions are top-rate. They are open from 11:00-5:45 p.m. everyday except Wednesday (closed) and Thursday (open until 8:45). Adult admission is $12.50, students are $7, Thursday nights (from 6 p.m.) are half-off, and the first Tuesday of the month is free.
3. Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL): The art institute is both a world-famous museum and a top-ranked art school – a combination that makes a whole lot of sense if you think about it (many US university collections are among the best in the country). The museum has a large and diverse collection that puts it right up there with the greats, while its dual function as an educational institution means the institute features all manner of workshops, programs, courses, and performances meant to tailor and personalize the museum to each and every visitor. If you visit the museum, be sure to poke around the school as well and try to spot those artists that may be lining the walls of great museums for coming generations. The museum is open Monday-Wednesday and Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $7 for students-Thursday evenings are free (check the website for changing hours and free days).
4. Getty Museum (Los Angeles, CA): The J. Paul Getty museum, a program of the J. Paul Getty trust, is a prime example of architecture, public programs, and a unique location, location, location vaulting a museum to world-class status. The museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles has been recently joined by a brand new sibling-the Getty Villa in Malibu opened in early 2006 and was built to house the Getty’s impressive classical antiquities collection as well as re-imagine the Getty’s mission as an institution devoted to education and ongoing scholarship. The Meier-designed Los Angeles Getty complex is located at the top of a hill in the midst of the sun-baked Santa Monica Mountains, a stunning modernist complex of glass and white wall architecture, all curves and sharp angles serving to showcase the open-space gardens, sunshine, and views from the museum site. Taking the computer-operated tram up the hill from the parking lot the museum seems to occupy a rarified atmosphere far removed from and literally above the brightly sunny grit and concrete grayness of LA. Although the Getty’s collection of European and American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts is strong, it is the powerfully contemporary complex – in purposeful opposition with the traditional art collection-that makes this museum a must – see. Both the Getty Center and the Getty Villa are FREE (although the Villa requires advance, timed tickets). The Center is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (closed Mondays). The Villa is open Thursdays through Mondays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
5. Isabella Stewart Gardner (Boston, MA): A wonderful museum for both art fanatics and people who shun more “traditional” museums, the Gardner is both the home and collection of the American art collector eccentric Isabella Stewart Gardner. Isabella made it her life’s work to rectify what she saw as America’s “need” for art and amassed a collection of international significance (including rare and limited edition books, manuscripts, and letters) in a very short period of time. Per her instructions, the museum is left much the same as it appeared when she welcomed visitors into her home to view her collection. The Venetian palace style mansion wraps three stories of galleries around a sun and tropical flower-filled courtyard. Isabella felt that works of art should be appreciated on their own merits, and therefore organized the collection in an entirely organic manner (rather than by historical timeline or movement) and left most of the works free of signatory plaques.
The museum is rarely over-crowded and visitors are left to poke around the fully furnished dark and creaky mansion rooms and grand hallways to look for unmarked masterpieces stuffed in corners and first edition books and prints hidden under heavy velvet curtains. The museum is also the site of one of the most famous and successful (and unsolved – there is a standing $5 million award) art thefts in history – since curators are not allowed to re-organize the collection, the theft literally left blank spots and empty frames on the walls. This somewhat romantic travesty only adds to the feeling of having stumbled upon a Miss Havisham-esqe crumbling palace of priceless works left to be intimately re-discovered by each individual viewer. The museums piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance is a wall-sized Sargent, “El Jaleo”, a darkly vibrant painting set at the end of the cold stone Spanish Chapel hallway – one gets the feeling that this is how artists must have envisioned their works being displayed, instead of in sterile and brightly-lit galleries alongside countless other similar works. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11-5 p.m. and costs $5 for students and $10 for adults ($11 on weekends) – if your name is Isabella, you get in free forever.