You’re looking for the best art museums in NYC, but what does that mean? What makes a great art museum?
Whether it’s the paintings on the walls, the historic halls, or the feeling of having your perspectives challenged, New York City’s art institutions inspire millions of visitors every year. From collections of ancient art and medieval tapestries to contemporary artists and incredible installations, NYC is home to some of the most important art collections on Earth.
You might be planning a trip to the Big Apple or an afternoon’s cultural browsing in the city. Perhaps you just want to explore the best art museums in NYC from afar. Either way, read on for the official list.
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest and most-visited art museum in the United States. While bigger doesn’t always mean better, the Met is undoubtedly one of the best in the country.
Organized thematically, the permanent collection of the Met numbers around 2 million pieces, and the ever-changing calendar of temporary exhibitions is a hit with regular visitors.
The Met is a trove of priceless works forming a timeline of world history, with collections including everything from classical-age sculpture to masterpieces of the 20th century. The famed European Paintings Collection can name-drop the likes of Rembrandt, El Greco, Titian, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, and almost every other master you can think of.
Whatever intrigues you, whether it’s modern and contemporary art, American classics, antique armor and weapons (we see you!), or relics from ancient Egypt, you’ll find a corner of the Met to get lost in.
2. Bronx Museum of the Arts
Founded during a period of social and economic crisis for the Bronx borough in the early 1970s, the Bronx Museum of the Arts was started by a group of dedicated activists and community leaders, to share and celebrate local culture through the creativity of its people.
The museum really is the champion of contemporary art in the South Bronx area, and aims to reflect the huge cultural diversity of its parishioners. Over 50% of the museum’s annual visitors are from Latino or African American backgrounds. More than 2,000 artworks represent the heritage of these communities, with much of the permanent collection coming from artists who list the Bronx as crucial in their inspiration and development.
Paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and installations are on show in what was once a neighborhood synagogue, with a line-up of exhibitions from local and international artists. The museum is home to work from recognized New York names and outsiders drawn to the city, the likes of Alvin Baltrop, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Vito Acconci, and Martin Wong.
The museum’s place at the heart of its community is nurtured by its extensive education initiatives, and the museum is free to visit.
3. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
It was already one of the best-respected museums in the world, but a major 2019 renovation has elevated the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) even further up the ranks. It’s been a powerhouse museum pretty much since it was founded in 1929 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lilly P. Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan – wealthy art patrons and influencers of their time.
Located in Midtown Manhattan, MoMA is a world of Modern and Contemporary art with regularly changing highlight exhibitions and an enviable permanent collection.
The highlights include Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), Dalì’s Persistence of Memory (1931), and many more paintings by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Frida Kahlo. There’s also architecture, photography, sculpture, design, film, and more.
MoMA was recently listed as one of the best modern art museums in the world by Tiqets.
4. The Guggenheim Museum
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (nobody says that out loud, just call it the Guggenheim) is one of the best art museums in NYC, and stands apart as one of the city’s finest architectural monuments.
The hive-shaped, swirling design of Frank Lloyd Wright’s UNESCO-recognized building is an iconic sight at its spot overlooking the greenery of Central Park. Not bad for a building that – despite getting the presidential thumbs-up from Dwight D. Eisenhower – was originally likened to a giant washing machine and an inverted oatmeal dish.
There’s more to the Guggenheim than just controversial architecture though. Old Solomon’s love for snapping up art throughout his life, often before the artists were widely recognized, saw him amass an envious collection of modern art.
The usual names are all present on the museum’s spiraling walls – Picasso, Cézanne, Manet, Gauguin, and the like. It also boasts an important collection of Kandinsky’s vibrant paintings, including Composition 8 (1923) and Several Circles (1926).
5. The Frick Madison (The Frick Collection)
For so long, the ornate furnishings and opulent feel of the Frick Collection provided refuge for New Yorkers put off by modern, white-walled galleries. Housed in a Gilded Age mansion on 5th Avenue, and bequeathed to the people by industrialist Henry Clay Frick upon his wife’s death in 1931, the Frick Collection is the perfect place to spend an afternoon poring over masterpieces.
Right now, the Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Goyas are hostages five blocks away over at the Met’s former Breuer building at 75th and Madison, which is more supervillain headquarters than plush mansion house. Dubbed the Frick Madison, only the collection’s highlights are on show until the mansion is refurbished.
There are seascapes by Turner, looming portraits by Titian, and three Vermeers from the small number known to exist. One of the benefits of the move to Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist monolith is that these three masterpieces by the Dutch painter are holed up in their own room – a rare treat.
6. The Studio Museum in Harlem
Reopening in 2023
Harlem’s Studio Museum has come a long way. Opened in a space above a liquor store by a group of dedicated artists, local business owners, and Harlem residents in 1968, the Studio Museum is one of the best museums in the United States dedicated to Black culture and artists of African descent.
Having found its place at the table with NYC’s best art museums over the years, it needed a for-purpose home worthy of its status, and work continues on the Studio Museum’s multi-million dollar site on 125th Street.
The museum celebrates the work of established artists as well as up-and-comers. The permanent collection boasts thousands of pieces, including everything from drawings and prints to photographs and installations, all by Black American artists and members of the African diaspora.
The museum’s renowned artist-in-residence program offers three 11-month residencies each year, and many of these artists have gone on to forge hugely successful careers.
7. El Museo del Barrio
Not many leading cultural institutions begin life in a dank, unheated basement, but that’s just how El Museo del Barrio started. The Upper Manhattan museum was founded by a group of like-minded Puerto Rican artists, activists, and community leaders, who were tired of Latino art not getting its due from the wider art community.
Now, El Museo del Barrio, the “Neighborhood Museum”, is on Museum Mile in NYC, just a few blocks from the Spanish-speaking East Harlem neighborhood after which it is named, and is one of the foremost institutions dedicated to preserving the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States.
What you’ll see when you visit El Barrio is a collection of art forming an 800-year timeline, from pre-Columbian artifacts through to post-war works and contemporary photography.
See Taíno pan-Caribbean objects like delicate ceramics and stone carvings, over 200 years’ worth of graphic art by Latinx artists from the US and further afield, plus modern and contemporary artworks by Puerto Rican artists in New York.
8. MoMA PS1
PlayStation enthusiasts everywhere are regularly disappointed to find out that MoMA’s secondary site in NYC has nothing to do with retro video games. But, art lovers can earn plenty of cultural XP by wandering this contemporary art hub in Queens.
Originally founded in 1971 as the Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc, the museum merged with MoMA in 2000 and finalized the name in 2010.
There’s no permanent collection here – MoMA PS1 is an always-evolving exhibition space dedicated to contemporary art, breakthrough artists, and experimental installations. It’s in an entirely unique setting – the building used to be a school, and in some corners you can really tell. If you can get over the flashbacks of high-school traumas, MoMA PS1 is one of the best art trips in the city, with something new to enjoy every visit.
9. The Met Cloisters
The Met Cloisters is a horde of artifacts from the Middle Ages, a hit with art-lovers and roleplay enthusiasts everywhere. This church-like site overlooks the Hudson River and is designed to evoke a medieval atmosphere – it’s perfect for art fans who want to see more than just walls of paintings.
The Cloisters is home to everything from suits of armor and deathly swords to delicate sculptures, old instruments and priceless tapestries. Covering an expansive period of history, from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance, the museum is a comprehensive journey through medieval Europe.
There’s a peaceful, contemplative air to the Cloisters, not least because of several gardens full of flowers, herbs, and plants across the museum grounds.
Highlights include the Unicorn Tapestries, a symbolic, seven-panel depiction of the last hunt for the elusive unicorn in Europe, as well as the teeny-tiny Book of Hours, and various other extraordinary treasures revealing the depth of life and culture in the Middle Ages.
10. National Museum of the American Indian New York
The New York hub of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, this vital museum is housed at the George Gustav Heye Center at the old U.S. Custom House, a columned Beaux-Arts delight in Lower Manhattan.
The museum has its own permanent collection, as well as curating exhibitions of Native American art and culture. After making your way through the skylit, frescoed rotunda, you can access halls full of authentic artifacts – art, photos, clothing, instruments, ceremonial objects, and more, representing a huge number of Indigenous communities in the Americas.
There are also spaces for performance, dance, and lectures, as well as the interactive imagiNATIONS Activity Center, which is aimed at challenging perceptions of Native American culture. Lesser-known feats of mathematics, nutrition, engineering, medicine, physics, and architecture are all celebrated here.
11. The Morgan Library and Museum
If the Frick Collection’s splendor got your culture sense tingling, then there’s no better art museum in NYC than the Morgan Library and Museum.
What started as financier John Pierpoint Morgan’s personal collection of rare books and priceless artifacts has grown into an ode to creativity. The museum is a grand cabinet of curiosities, housing hand-penned manuscripts, drafts, sketches, sheet music, and more, as well as iconic finished articles from some of the greatest men and women in history.
There’s the colorful Crusader Bible and plenty more ancient heirlooms. Art masters are featured, everyone from Michelangelo and Raphael to Warhol and Lichtenstein. There are authentic items born from the minds of writers like Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien, plus the silent scribbles of musical geniuses like Mozart, Schubert, and Strauss.
The library itself is one of the main draws of The Morgan. Grand and atmospheric, you can feel the importance of the place as you explore what is as much an architectural wonder as it is a museum.
12. The Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum brings together incredible art from all corners of the world. This global, eclectic collection is housed inside a 19th-century Beaux-Arts palace, and is one of the largest art museums in NYC – it’s deservedly highlighted as one of the best art museums in NYC by locals.
Thousands of years of art history are curated within the museum’s walls, with just a selection of its 1.5 million treasures on display at any one time. Wander the halls and admire thought-provoking objects from Africa, the Americas, the Islamic world, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and, of course, the United States. The museum is well-known for its Egyptian wing – a favorite with visitors.
From Anubis to Snoop Dogg and Picasso portraits to contemporary photography, there’s something for everyone across five floors of the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. The Brooklyn Museum is a pay-what-you-like institution – support them if you can!
13. The Jewish Museum
Found inside the historic Warburg mansion on Museum Mile, the Jewish Museum has been protecting and exhibiting Jewish art and culture for over a hundred years. No Jewish museum outside of Israel can count as many items in its collection.
Within the walls of the French Renaissance-style building, there are works and objects forming a 4,000-year story of Jewish culture.
The museum’s collection is presented via the ongoing and regularly updated Scenes from the Collection exhibit, which displays artifacts and stories in seven different areas. Some of the most impressive and important items are found in the Constellations area, while Masterpieces and Curiosities picks out individual items to give them their time in the spotlight. Each curated scene is home to items from different Jewish cultures and eras from around the world.
14. Queens Museum
Formerly the Queens Museum of Art, this popular institution is found in Flushing Meadows Park, inside a building originally constructed for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair and that was once home to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
There’s much more to the Queens Museum than just Panorama, the incredible scale model of NYC (but it’s worth pointing out that if your house/apartment block/Bikram yoga studio existed before 1992 then you get to see it in miniature form!).
The exhibit – in which each inch of the mini-metropolis equates to 100 New York feet – is the size of two basketball courts, and even has a light simulation that moves from dusk to dawn in 15 minutes.
There’s also the colorful Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, with floral lamps and unique objects aplenty. The museum’s offering reflects the diversity of Queens through regular exhibitions, outreach initiatives, and educational programs.
15. The Whitney Museum of American Art
Unimpressed with what she saw as the American art scene’s obsession with European artists in the early 20th century, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney started a museum with the intention of championing the best in American art.
Opened in 1931, The Whitney Museum of American Art has long honed a reputation for buying the work of the best up-and-coming artists in the United States, with a continuing focus on living artists.
All the big names are represented at The Whitney: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Alexander Calder, and many more.
Highlights include Dempsey and Firpo (1924), George Bellows’ immersive ringside snapshot of a 1923 prizefight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Ángel Firpo; Three Flags (1958), Jasper Johns’ jarring stack of American flags; and Early Sunday Morning (1930), the iconic representation of New York’s 7th Avenue by Edward Hopper.
The Best Art Exhibitions in NYC
With all of these museums in mind (plus so many great places we didn’t mention), there’s a constant calendar of exhibitions that you won’t want to miss in NYC. Some of these temporary displays last for long periods, while others are more fleeting events.
With rare opportunities to see artist retrospectives and loans from institutions worldwide, it’s always worth checking what’s on before deciding on which New York art museum to spend your money on. Check out the list below for an up-to-date collection of New York’s best exhibitions.