Explore Washington D.C.

7 D.C. Museums for World-Class Art

See a wide variety of art in Washington D.C.—much of it for free.

Washington, D.C.’s art scene offers a wide array of world-class art, from ancient marbles to modernist masters and everything in between, with plenty of venues in which to see them.

The Smithsonian occupies the biggest footprint, and opens its doors to visitors for free. And they have much to view here. The organization has undergone some big changes recently. The fall of 2015 saw the highly anticipated reopening of the Renwick Gallery after a multimillion-dollar renovation. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture becomes the newest member of the Smithsonian constellation, and the Freer Gallery (home of Whistler’s Peacock Room), undergoes renovation from Jan. to 2017.

Despite these renovation projects, there’s plenty to see. Read on for a few big hitters at the Smithsonian and beyond.

The Phillips Collection

The country’s first museum of modern art (founded by Duncan Phillips in 1921) provides an intimate setting for a renowned collection that includes works by Renoir, Cezanne, Bonnard, Matisse, Daumier, Manet, El Greco and Miro. Among other installations, Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room accommodates two visitors inside a meditative beeswax-lined niche.

The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
(Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 inches. Acquired 1923. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC)

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Located in Mount Vernon Square, this pioneering museum showcases the work of female artists. In this classical building, find 4,500 works by such leading women artists as Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo and Alma Thomas.

Angelica Kauffman The Family of the Earl of Gower
(Angelica Kauffman The Family of the Earl of Gower, 1772. Oil on Canvas. 59 1/4 x 82 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay)

American Art Museum

This Smithsonian museum features national collections from folk art to LED installations, plus a gallery dedicated to video and time-based artwork, including large-scale installations by artists like Nam June Paik. Stop into the airy Kogod Courtyard with its glass canopy for coffee from the cafe or a moment of quiet contemplation before heading out.

American Art Museum Kogod Courtyard with glass canopy
American Art Museum's Kogod Courtyard (©Tim Hursley/Smithsonian)

American Indian Museum

This curvilinear building is constructed of limestone and faces the rising sun, in keeping with Native American traditions. Don’t forget to dine at the museum’s well-regarded Mitsitam Cafe.

Curvilinear exterior of the American Indian Museum
Curvilinear exterior of the American Indian Museum (©Robert C. Lautman/Smithsonian)

Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, this circular building opened in 1974 holds Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s gift collection plus later acquisitions, including works by Dubuffet, Picasso, Rothko, Calder, Warhol and current stars.

The Hirshhorn's donut-shaped building
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Courtesy Smithsonian)

National Gallery of Art - West Building

The East Building remains closed for renovations, but expansive original wing remains open. Here, find one of the world's finest collections of American and European paintings and sculpture dating from the 13th century, including “Ginevra de’ Benci,” this hemisphere’s only da Vinci painting.

Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Genevra de' Benci
(Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519 Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478 oil on panel. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1967.6.1.a)

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Asian and Near Eastern artworks spanning 6,000 years are the focus of this dramatic underground building, which also features an outdoor sculpture garden with a view of the Smithsonian Castle next door. Whistler’s gilded Peacock Room may be shuttered for renovations over at the Freer Gallery, but its sister museum offers an impressive recreation in “Peacock Room Remix: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre.” In it, Waterston reimagines Whistler’s original room as a resplendent ruin, and explores the nature between artistic perfection and patronage.

Peacock Room Remix
Darren Waterston's reimagining of the Peacock Room (©John Tsantes/Smithsonian)