Four Free Museums for Art Lovers
If you’re like me, you might have champagne taste on a lite beer budget. And that’s okay! Part of what I love to do includes helping people find the best deals to fit their lives, whether that’s in the form of a great car insurance policy or finding the best combo deal for airfare and vacation destinations.
But beyond helping folks on their car insurance or vacation-planning journey, I’m also an art lover, the son of a folk artist, and now a self-proclaimed cultural critic. The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso claimed, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” We could all use a little more truth in our lives, and thus, we could all use a little more art.
And even though I can sometimes afford champagne now, trust me, I still love a good deal no matter what it’s on. That’s why I’m highlighting four of my favorite free art museums in the United States.
#1 – Williams College Museum of Art – Williamstown, MA
Tucked away in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, the Williams College Museum of Art is a leader in educational art museums that are also free and open to the public. They describe their collection as “a dynamic source of inquiry, interpretation, and creative production,” and they are not wrong.
This museum showcases work from well-known artists like Ansel Adams and Edward Hopper to up-and-coming stars like Kehinde Wiley and Sally Mann. And although the museum is small in size, it makes up for it in depth and variety.
Another added benefit of the Williams College Museum of Art? It’s situated in one of the most picturesque settings of the United States and only a stone’s throw away from two art museum powerhouses: the Phillips Collection and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA).
#2 – National Portrait Gallery – Washington, DC
No list of our country’s best free art museums would be complete without at least one Smithsonian Institution on it. Housed in a historic building in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood, the National Portrait Gallery is one of the most dynamic and innovative of our nation’s “high art” museums.
An interesting fact about the National Portrait Gallery is that it was once a hospital where famous poet Walt Whitman served during the Civil War. Both the history and the present of this museum lie in the arts.
The National Portrait Gallery is perhaps best-known for its collection of portraits of presidents and their families, from Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington to already iconic portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
But the National Portrait Gallery has more than just presidential portraits and classic American art. It also houses a rotating exhibition of some of our nation’s greatest emerging artists working in forms that include medium diversity such as from fiber to video.
An added bonus of this museum is a small, peaceful courtyard. When I was a graduate student in Washington, one of my favorite places to escape the grind of the city was the beautiful atrium courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery, which includes soothing fountains, a variety of beautiful plants, and a delicious cafe.
Be responsible while you travel, and take some time to relax in this calm outdoor space before heading off to the next free (or not) attraction in DC.
#3 – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – Bentonville, AR
You might be surprised to see a museum tucked away in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas on this list. But in all honesty, Crystal Bridges is one of the best collections of American art anywhere. This museum provides displays that are housed in one of the most unique and organic structures I’ve ever visited.
Plus, thanks to support from the Walton family and their charitable trust, the museum is committed to being free and open to the public forever.
Crystal Bridges houses many greats from the canon of American Art, from Mary Cassatt to Andy Warhol. You can also tour a 1957 Usonian house by Frank Lloyd Wright on the museum’s grounds. But what I love best about the museum is the building itself, designed by Moshe Safdie.
“The architecture of Crystal Bridges is as stunning and inspirational as the artwork housed inside it,” The museum’s resourceful website explains. “In a ravine surrounded by native Ozark forest, the Museum’s muscular gray concrete walls rise up from the bedrock, banded in rough cedar and curved to echo the shape of the hillside.”
Crystal Bridges certainly takes advantage of its beautiful, natural surroundings. Including on the surrounding land are several trails for walking, hiking, and biking spread across its 120-acre campus.
#4 – The Getty Center – Los Angeles, CA
One of the most iconic structures in Los Angeles, the Getty Center also offers some of the City of Angels’ best views and gardens. The center of the Getty’s art collection is the collection of museum founder J. Paul Getty himself.
According to their website, this collection “comprises Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art from the Neolithic to Late Antiquity; European art—including illuminated manuscripts, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and decorative arts—from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century; and international photography from its inception to the present day.” It includes paintings and sculptures by artists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
One of the most impressive parts of the Getty, however, is its collection of illuminated manuscripts. Since the manuscript collection’s founding in 1983, “the Museum has built an expansive and balanced representation of the art form,” their website explains, “with holdings totaling over 200 complete books and individual leaves that span the ninth to sixteenth centuries.”
The artistry in these manuscripts was so surprising, at several points, it quite literally took my breath away.
Great Art Museums Don’t Have to Be Expensive
Art is sometimes underappreciated, but there are so many wonderful places that offer displays freely to the public. Art helps us to relax from stress, and find a way to better see ourselves and the world around us.
And as you can see, experiencing great art doesn’t have to cost a ton of money! Traveling is so good for our souls, and some trips can change your life, so pack up and head out to see great art at the best price.
About the author:
D. Gilson, PhD, is a writer for the car insurance comparison site, CarInsurance.org. He has taught writing and popular culture studies at the university level for more than a decade.