“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation.”
-Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the National Endowment for the Arts Act (1965)
As summer approaches and people begin to travel from coast to coast, it is the perfect time to explore many of the free art museums that are a product of that reverence for art that President Johnson alludes to in the quote above. Thanks to agencies and programs like the National Endowment for the Arts and thanks to generous philanthropists as well, there are several museums across the United States that are free and perfect destinations for individuals and families enjoying a nice summer vacation.
The following lists contains some of the nation’s best free art museums that may even be close to your next summer vacation destination, so be sure to include a visit on your summer to-do list.
1. The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California
The Getty Center is part of the larger Getty Museum, funded by the Getty Family Trust, which was established by the prominent Getty family headed by industrialist J. Paul Getty; an oil billionaire who loved art and believed it could positively influence society. Because of this influence, he also believed that art should be freely available to the public.
2. The Saint Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis, Missouri
Admission to this museum is free to all, regardless of where they are from, and provided by the taxpayers of the area. Engraved above the entrance to the museum is the phrase, “Dedicated to art and free to all.”
3. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
This large institution houses over 43,000 works of art as part of its permanent collection thanks to a trust that was founded over 100 years ago. Much of the holdings found at the Cleveland Museum of Art have an emphasis on Asian and Egyptian art, although many works by American artists are also showcased.
4. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland
Any trip to the Baltimore area should include a stop by the BMA, which houses paintings from some of the world’s most well-known artists ranging from Picasso, Manet, to Renoir. Also, for those with a particular love for the works of Henri Matisse, this museum houses the largest collection of his works in the world.
5. Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa
This not-for-profit institution offers a collection of around 4,800 works by both local and international artists from the 20th and 21st century.
6. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In our nation’s capital, which is a very popular vacation and tourist spot for the summer, this museum also holds the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas.
7. Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
The foundation of this museum makes it interesting enough that it is worth a visit if your find yourself in Seattle. The founder, Charles Frye, set aside money in his will so that a museum could be constructed to house much of his family’s art collection. But money was not the only thing Mr. Frye left in his will. There were very specific instructions for the museum to remain free to the public and conditions for displaying the art, including stipulations on the proper lighting, the sizes of rooms that certain pieces would be displayed in and the type of floors (concrete).
8. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota
This large and free art museum has around 87,000 pieces as part of its permanent collection and was opened in 1915.
9. Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The ICA is known as the museum where iconic artists such as Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Agnes Martin, and Robert Indiana had their first museum shows in their careers.
10. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
After fleeing Nazi-occupied France, John de Menil, a businessman, philanthropist and art patron, along with his wife Dominique de Menil, established the Menil Collection in Houston. Although they maintained residencies in New York and their native France, Houston became their primary home. The museum holds a collection of close to 17,000 pieces, including a famous Picasso painting that made headlines after an artist vandalized it in an effort to make a statement.