There are so many art museums in DC! Washington DC actually has a thriving art scene and some of the best art museums in the world are located here. From free museums to reasonably priced ones, there are many art exhibits to explore no matter which kind of art you enjoy.
Best Art Museums In Washington DC: Free Admission
If you are interested in seeing Washington DC’s art scene, you are in the right place. Below we cover all the best art museums in DC and some in the surrounding areas. If you are interested in art galleries, check out WanderDC’s picks for best art galleries in Washington DC.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
One of the most frequently visited art museums in Washington DC is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The SAAM shares its building with the National Portrait Gallery. So, you get two great museums in one spot!
As the name suggests, this museum showcases art made by American artists. From the early days of the U.S. to today, you’ll see the country’s story through art. The artwork here includes paintings, sculptures, photographs and folk art.
The museum is housed in a historic building called the Old Patent Office. This building started its life in the 1830s. It was where inventors sent their ideas to get a patent. During the Civil War, this building was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. Later, President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball here.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is located in the heart of the vibrant Penn Quarter neighborhood in downtown Washington, D.C. between 7th and 9th Streets, Northwest, and F and G Streets, Northwest. It was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962 with the mission to acquire and display portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.
The only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House can be found here. This is because this is the only museum that is home to the “America’s Presidents” exhibition, which is the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits that is on public display.
The Kogod Courtyard is a famous part of this museum, This courtyard has a magnificently high glass ceiling allowing tons of light to enter. You can sit down at many of the tables here and enjoy some time taking in your surroundings.
Admission is always free and it is open 7 days a week from 1130 AM to 7 PM. Most museums are only open until the early evening so this is a good art museum in DC to visit in the later parts of the day.
The Hirshhorn Museum
The Hirshhorn Museum, focuses on modern and contemporary art. It is also part of the Smithsonian group of museums. In addition to the museum itself, there is also a sculpture garden that is part of the Hirshhorn Museum.
This museum is conveniently located With its ever-changing displays, this museum offers a continuous stream of artistic exploration. What’s more, the Hirshhorn Museum welcomes visitors of all ages, as it offers free admission with no reservations or timed passes required. Whether you’re a young child or a seasoned art enthusiast, this institution provides an enriching and enjoyable experience for all.
The National Gallery Of Art Sculpture Garden
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, situated in the heart of the nation’s capital, is a great destination for art lovers. You can easily visit here because there is free admission to all visitors and you do not need to reserve timed passes ahead of time. Step into this enchanting outdoor oasis and immerse yourself in a world of awe-inspiring sculptures. From the young to the young at heart, people of all ages can revel in the beauty and wonder of this captivating garden.
Of course you can enjoy a visit here alongside a visit to the indoor portion of this museum which is the National Gallery Of Art. You will find this sculpture garden just across from the National Archives and adjacent to the Natural History Museum.
The National Gallery Of Art (pictured above)
If you walk past the sculpture garden you will find the National Gallery Of Art. This art museum isn’t just one building, but two: the West Building and the East Building. These buildings are connected by an underground passage.
The West Building is the older part, with a grand, classical look. Inside, you’ll find art from the Middle Ages up to the 1800s. This means you can see paintings by famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, and many others.
The East Building is more modern, both in its design and the art it holds. Here, you’ll find art from the 1900s and beyond. So, if you like newer, contemporary art, this is the place to be.
The Phillips Collection is an art museum located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., United States. When it comes to art displays, this is one of the most visited museums due to its amazing collection.
It was founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips as the Phillips Memorial Gallery. The museum is known for its collection of modern and contemporary art, including works by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Glenstone Outdoor Museum is a local favorite with a focus on modern artists. It is not located in downtown Washington DC, but is about a 40 minute drive outside of DC. The best way to travel here is by car or ride share. There is no convenient public transporation nearby. There is a parking lot onsite with ample parking.
If you love art and you love the outdoors, this will be a great experience for you. The Glenstone Museum has sprawling grounds that provide an immersive experience for visitors. You can walk from building to building to explore the exhibits and pass life size art pieces on the way. The museum was started by a billionaire who lives with his family on site.
While admission to this unique art museum is free, it is important to note that entry is restricted to individuals aged 12 and above. Additionally, visitors between the ages of 12 and 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
There is also a cute cafe where you can enjoy a bite indoors or outdoors as you take a break from exploring. Be sure to check the website before heading over because this museum is not open everyday of the week. It is usually only open Thursdays to Sundays. Timed entry passes are recommended but if you have a small party you may be able to walk in without any issues.
The National Museum Of American History
The National Museum of American History, a renowned institution within the Smithsonian complex, caters primarily to older children and adults. The National Museum of American History is not an art museum. But it does house several pieces of art work that are critical to the exhibitions. For example, the ceramics collections has many examples of American and European art glass as well as pottery. It is very close to the National Mall making it an easy destination for tourists and visitors to Washington DC.
The National Museum Of African American History And Culture (NMAAHC)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is part of the Smithsonian Institution. This museum, though not a traditional art museum, has a vast collection that includes artwork, photographs, textiles, and other visual culture items that represent the rich history and contributions of African Americans.
Being that it is part of the Smithsonian, admission is free to this museum.
The National Museum of the American Indian, an institution dedicated to honoring and celebrating the indigenous peoples of America, beckons with its free admission and ticketless entry. More than just a museum, it serves as both a cultural showcase and a research facility. Visitors can immerse themselves in a multitude of exhibitions that rotate regularly, while others remain permanent fixtures. For those fascinated by or studying the civilizations of Native Americans, this museum serves as an invaluable resource and an enriching experience.
Freer Gallery Of Art
The Freer Gallery of Art is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It’s a museum that showcases Asian art and some American art. The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer, an American businessman and art collector. He donated his extensive collection of Asian and American artworks to the nation, leading to the establishment of the museum in 1923.
The Freer Gallery holds impressive collections of art from countries like China, Japan, and India. It also has some special pieces by American artists, including works by James McNeill Whistler.
One unique thing about the Freer is that it’s connected to another museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and together they make up the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. So, if you’re interested in Asian culture and art, the Freer Gallery is a must-visit place in D.C.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, often just called the Sackler Gallery, is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It’s a museum that focuses on Asian art, complementing the nearby Freer Gallery of Art. Together, these two galleries make up the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.
The Sackler Gallery was named after Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, a physician and art collector who donated many pieces and funds to the museum. The gallery opened its doors in 1987 and is located underground, connected to the Freer Gallery.
Inside the Sackler Gallery, visitors can see a variety of artworks from different parts of Asia, including sculptures, ceramics, paintings, and more. The collection includes pieces from ancient times to contemporary art, providing a broad look at the diverse cultures and artistic traditions of Asia.
National Building Museum
The National Building Museum in the nation’s capital is not primarily an art museum. Instead, it is dedicated to exploring and celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning.
Depending on your interpretation of art and your interests, this may be an interesting place to visit. The museum offers exhibitions and programs that showcase the impact of the built environment on people’s lives, the history of building, and the process and responsibility of design and construction.
While the National Building Museum does contain elements of artistry through its exploration of design and architecture, its primary focus is on the broader context of the built environment rather than traditional art forms like painting or sculpture.
Renwick Gallery Of The Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Renwick Gallery is located in its own separate building, but it is a part of the bigger Smithsonian American Art Museum. The gallery is right next to the White House, in a place called Lafayette Square.
This isn’t a traditional art museum. The Renwick Gallery specializes in craft and decorative art. That means things like pottery, glass, and woodwork made by very skilled artists and crafts experts. The Renwick Gallery curators bring in new exhibits regularly, so there’s always something fresh to see.
Best Art Museums In Washington DC: Paid Admission
There are several art museums in DC that are worth paying for as well. Here is a list of our favorite art museums that are worth the price of admission.
Artechouse has a few locations around the country and luckily, Washington DC is one of them. This is a really fun immersive museum that is truly great for all ages. We have seen families with toddlers here as well as couples on dates.
Tickets here cost less than $20 and you will need a timed entry pass. If you don’t mind paying a little bit more you can buy a ticket for the day and visit whenever you want.
If you enjoy a creative cocktail, there is also a bar here. The bar also offers an immersive experience and opens in the early evening on weekdays and even earlier on weekends.
The temporary exhibits here change throughout the year. Each one typically is there for about 3 to 4 months. The website has all the information you need to book and visit.
The Rubell Museum has two locations, one in Miami and one in Washington DC. The museum showcases the Rubell Family’s huge modern art collection. Originally called the Rubell Family Collection for 31 years, it changed its name to the Rubell Museum in 2019 when it moved to a bigger space in Miami. This change highlighted its goal to be more public and allow more people to see the art.
Mera and Don Rubell began collecting art in New York after they got married in 1964. Late in 1982, their son, Jason Rubell, started helping them grow the collection, set up art shows, and improve their museums.
The Rubell Museum has a wide variety of art, including paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, and more. Over the past 30 years, they’ve had over 50 art shows with pieces from their own collection.
Admission to the art museum is free for DC residents and certain other groups. But, if you are visiting from out of town or do not have a DC ID, there is a small cost to admission.
On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, the museum has a pay what you wish policy. Typically, this is around 5 to 10 dollars per person. On the weekends, the admission is $15 for adults. You can see more detailed information on their website.
The Kreeger Museum
The Kreeger Museum is a hidden gem for art lovers. It’s set away from the hustle and bustle of downtown D.C., so it feels peaceful and relaxing. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM.
Before it was a museum, the building was the home of David and Carmen Kreeger. They loved art and curated this museum’s collection of extraordinary art pieces. The building itself is pretty awesome. It’s modern and has lots of open spaces, big windows, and a beautiful reflecting pool outside.
The museum has a mix of art from different times and places. You’ll find paintings by famous artists like Picasso, Monet, and Cézanne. In addition, there are several African and Asian sculptures.
The Kreeger Museum also is a great event venue. The museum also hosts music concerts and other cool events from time to time. You can find events like Yoga in the garden, as well as mask making for young children. Check their website for details on upcoming events.
The National Museum Of Women In The Arts
The National Museum Of Women In The Arts re-opened in October 2023 after being temporarily closed for a renovation. NMWA has an extensive collection of over 5,000 artworks created by women from the 16th century to the present. This includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more. Specifically, this museum showcases works from artists like Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, and Judy Chicago, among many others.
The building itself is an impressive piece of art. It is a renovated old Masonic temple, and the design of the building provides a stunning backdrop for the artwork inside. There is also a cute cafe inside if you want to enjoy a light bite.
The museum was founded by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband Wallace Holladay in 1981. The couple’s vision was to address the underrepresentation of women in the art world.
The website has the hours and information on ticket purchases. Adults who are over 21 will have to pay for admission, but those guests who are 21 or younger have free admission. It is a stunning collection and well worth the ticket price.
Art Museums In DC: Summary
The vast array of free museums in DC makes it a very popular destination to visit. The majority of art museums in Washington DC offer free admission. Some of the popular ones to visit include The National Gallery Of Art and it’s sculpture garden, the Hirshhorn Museum and its sculpture garden, as well as the Freer Gallery Of Art and the Sackler Gallery Of Art. If you don’t mind a short drive outside of DC, check out Glenstone. For a small admission price, you can also visit the Kreeger Museum as well as The National Museum Of Women In The Arts.