First of all, what is modern art, and why do you need to know the best modern art museums in the world? Let’s take a step back in time to Paris during France’s Second Empire… Napoleon III has taken up his uncle’s mantle and he’s busy broadening Paris’ boulevards, helping to create some of the beauty the city is renowned for. Things are sailing smoothly, then bam! The notorious Édouard Manet, shows off his latest work – a naked woman having lunch on the grass with a couple of friends. Something must have been in the water that year, because two thirds of entries to the Académie des Beaux-Arts premiere art event, the Salon, were rejected alongside Manet’s work. Enter the Salon des Refusés.
Now, rather than grab the guillotine, the new emperor decided to set up an alternate Salon to present society’s more radical art. While Manet’s piece has all the elements of what we might view as classical art today, his painting was groundbreaking at the time. Not only for the scandal it caused – although it certainly got its due attention at the Salon des Refusés – but for its radical transitions between light and dark elements in the picture, rather than using gradations between tones.
After the success of the Salon des Refusés, the floodgates opened, and by the next century we had the wig-wearing, off-beat Andy Warhol dominating the art scene. Which leads nicely to number one on our list of the best Modern Art Museums in the world.
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1. See where it all began in the Musée d’Orsay
Let’s kick things off chronologically (and controversially). It might not fit the bill of what you think of as a modern art museum, for example, there isn’t any contemporary art in the halls of the Orsay – but it does go back to where it all began. Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is located on the museum’s top floor, surrounded by countless other masterpieces that helped kickstart movements like Impressionism and post-Impressionism.
Before you start your grand tour of the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, head to the top floor and make a beeline for the museum’s grand old clock. A relic of the Orsay’s days as a train station from 1900-1936, the clock holds onto its turn-of-the-century charm. With so much charm, it’s not a surprise that everyone wants a photo with it. It’s like retroactive installation art; those train station designers didn’t know what the next century held, but they created a multi-functional masterpiece without realising it. Don’t be surprised to find people queuing to snap a photo in front of it – if you’re planning on doing that, get there at opening time and make your way to the clock first so you can move on to enjoying the real star attractions.
Stars of the turn of the last century abound inside what is arguably one of the best art galleries in the world – the Musée d’Orsay. There’s a particularly impressive collection of Van Gogh’s works, including Starry Night Over the Rhône, The Siesta, self-portraits, and Van Gogh’s Room in Arles.
If you want to admire some of the most acclaimed artworks in the world – modern or otherwise – then the Orsay Museum is a must if you’re in Paris. Make sure you stop and see Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Renoir, Olympia by Manet, and Monet’s interpretation of London’s Houses of Parliament.
2. Take a journey through 19th and 20th-century art in MoMA
It’s not just a fun thing to murmur to yourself while your brain goes numb from COVID-related screen overload. MoMA. It’s also home to some of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century. MoMA. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), has been around since 1929! The timing of its opening was far from opportune, occurring just nine days after the Wall Street Crash – but it’s stood the test of time, turning into one of the Big Apple’s landmark attractions and one of the best modern art museums in the world.
The museum came out of the gate strong; its first set of loans exhibited works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne. Granted, with financial backing from names like Rockefeller and Sachs (of Goldman Sachs), success isn’t too surprising. Since then, the museum has done nothing but grow.
The artists under its roof are a veritable who’s who of 19th and 20th-century masters, with some of the world’s greatest works of art calling the museum home. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, and Monet’s Water Lilies triptych are just a minute fraction of what the museum holds behind its doors.
3. Be there and be square (well, cubed) at the Guggenheim
Just as fun to say as MoMA, but it uses entirely different parts of your mouth. Anyway, enough about that, onto why you came here – the art. It’s all about the art. So, what makes the Guggenheim one of the best modern art museums in the world?
We could go on an artsy-fartsy tirade about how the building itself is a work of modern art by the genius that is Frank Gehry. Instead, here’s a picture of it.
So, other than the building, what qualifies the Guggenheim as one of the best modern art museums in the world? In a word, cubism; the fandangled new craze launched by Picasso and Georges Braques that became one of the most influential art movements in the last century.
The Guggenheim proudly boasts a bunch of Braques, as well as a couple of works by his compatriots in cubism by the likes of Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, and Fernand Léger.
4. See beauty inside and out at the Guggenheim Bilbao
This famous modern art museum speaks for itself, the Guggenheim Bilbao. Cousin to the Guggenheim in New York, this Spanish counterpart shares the same architect in Frank Gehry. With its waterfront location, this museum helped put Bilbao on the map for tourism and the building has become an essential stop for anyone sightseeing in Spain.
The Guggenheim’s vast interior makes it the perfect location for large-scale works made specifically for the museum, and a regularly rotating roster of exhibitions featuring global artists promises the latest in contemporary art.
Alongside the exhibits, you can expect to see works by acclaimed names in postmodern and contemporary art like Rothko and Andy Warhol.
You can leave your ideas of traditional aesthetics at the door and see iconic art pieces from the 19th-21st century with movements such as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Postmodern art.
5. See Picasso’s masterpiece at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
The Shining is infamous for Room 237, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is famous for room 206. While the former contains the embodiment of Stephen King’s horror in the Outlook hotel, the latter contains Picasso’s expression of horror at the consequences of war. While King’s horror is imagined, Picasso’s anti-war outcry was influenced by real events of Guernica’s bombing which has been viewed as a terror bombing since the event – the sole target was women and children, which Picasso viewed as a direct attack on the core of mankind.
While Guernica is the undeniable jewel in the Reina Sofía’s crown, the entire museum is filled with other timeless works of art, including pieces by Dalí and Joan Miró. Modern art lovers will also find Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure in the halls.
Unlike the Guggenheim’s lavish architectural flair, the Reina Sofía is located inside a former hospital. As the saying goes, though, it’s what’s inside that counts, and that certainly qualifies it as one of the best modern art museums in the world. It was remodelled and converted into a museum in 1992 and now serves as Madrid’s premier collection of contemporary art.
Alongside the paintings, the museum also boasts an impressive collection of sculptures, including some colorful and distinctive works by Miró, and a bust of Picasso by Pablo Gargallo.
6. Get tantalised in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
Ranking highly amongst the best modern art museums in the world, London’s Tate Modern boasts an impressive gallery space in the heart of the city, just a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. You can cross the Millenium Bridge and arrive right beside the front door, or take a leisurely lope along the South Bank from the London Eye.
The museum was once a power station, and the curators have utilised the colossal spaces to the utmost. Perhaps the most breathtaking feature is the Turbine Hall, a five-storey-tall space with 3,400 square-metres of floor space. Each year, this huge area displays the work of a contemporary artist who has created work especially to fill the area.
If you prefer Mission Impossible to Modern Art, then you might recognise the Tate Modern as the building a moustachioed Henry Cavill escaped from in a helicopter. For copyright reasons we can’t show you, but we’ve asked Tiqets’ editor-in-chief to recreate the image using Microsoft Paint.
7. Get a taste of the contemporary at the Stedelijk Museum
Stedelijk in Dutch means “city… city-ish?” It’s a word. Well, one thing you can ascertain from that translation is it doesn’t mean modern art, but it is indeed in the city. Located in Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter, the Stedelijk Museum is the Netherlands’ home for modern art. Located right beside the Van Gogh Museum, and a stone’s throw from the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk adds something different to the old-fashioned flair housed in its heavy-hitting brothers.
Its permanent collection in the building’s lower levels houses work by Piet Mondrian, Roy Lichtenstein, and Damien Hirst. While this is impressive in its own right, with a wide array of work made up of art, design, sculpture, and photography, the Stedelijk also regularly rotates its exhibits. With modern and contemporary art at its core, this means it could be anything from filmmaking by international artists to a display of late 19th and early 20th-century art from the likes of Picasso and Chagall.
8. Get lost in Europe’s largest modern art museum at the Centre Pompidou
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room that is Paris. If you ask a Parisian to describe the Centre Pompidou it’s best summed up as, “scandalous, but loved”. The building is a statement that certainly doesn’t fit the rest of Paris’ look, but gods be damned if it doesn’t act as the perfect home to modern art.
The Centre Pompidou is a complex with a lot more to it than simply the home to Europe’s largest modern art museum, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, it’s also the location of a huge public library and centre for music research. Now you’ve got a fun fact to share should you visit. “You know this is also a library?”, everyone is impressed, you go eat escargots and drink red wine.
*Disclaimer: if you actually want a useful fact, Parisians never call it Centre Pompidou, they say Beaubourg, the name of the location where the Centre Pompidou was built.
So, just what does Europe’s largest museum of modern art – in the very city where it could be argued modern art was born – hold? Well, the list goes on and on, but let’s just say you’ll find all the main names of modern art present with works by Frida Kahlo, Matisse, Metzinger, and Kandinsky, plus movements that encompass everything from Fauvism to Surrealism.
The museum also houses a collection of work from the ‘60s to the present day, with pieces by Warhol and David Hockney on show.
Oh, and it goes without saying that Picasso is present.
9. Discover Japan’s artistic evolution inside MOMAT, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
It wouldn’t be a global list without mentioning MOMAT. But before we go digging through everything great in the museum’s archives, it’s worth talking about modern art in Japan. The delineation of modern art in Japan is much more difficult to ascertain than Europe. Western schools of art did find their way to Japan, with the first Western art school opened in 1876.
Japan embraced modernisation at breakneck speed and walking the line between traditional Japanese artistry and Western influence became a tight-wire act. The MOMAT showcases the masterpieces created by Japanese artists at the beginning of the 20th century as they navigated this scene of the old Japan and the Japan that would be.
There’s some 13,000 works – including paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, video, plus artistry from abroad – with which MOMAT presents a chronological passage of Japan’s 20th-century culture in a single sweep. While you’re there make sure to visit ‘A Room With a View’ where the sight of Tokyo’s cityscape is offered up as the ultimate piece of modern art.
10. Have a day off in the Art Institute of Chicago
While the museum covers some 5,000 years of art history its collection of modern works is so impressive that it would be remiss not to include it in a list of the best modern art museums in the world. The Art of Institute of Chicago is home to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks along with other US masterpieces like American Gothic.
If you love yourself a John Hughes flick, then you’ll recognise the Art Institute of Chicago from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you can’t get to the States, then the scene in question will give you a rundown of the major works on display, all while a whimsical version of the Smiths Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want plays in the background. Your visit might not be as introspective as the characters in an ‘80s teen comedy, but you might be able to share the director’s sentiment that the museum is a “place of refuge”.
You can expect to see the best collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings outside of the Orsay, notable works including Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, and a number of Monet’s Water Lilies and Haystacks.
Aside from acclaimed names from the late 19th century, there’s also a number of Picassos, including The Old Guitarist. As for contemporary work, you’ll find Jackson Pollock’s gargantuan drip canvasses and Andy Warhol’s Pop Art portraits of Marilyn and Mao.
11. Visit the Sydney Opera House’s neighbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
We started in Europe with the oldest modern art, so let’s end things on the other side of the world with contemporary art. Located on Circular Quay (the other side, away from the Sydney Opera House) the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) brings together a diverse collection of all art forms, from painting and photography to sculpture and moving image. The museum also showcases a strong representation of works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
Where the MCA shines is in its exhibits. Pipilotti Rist’s Sip My Ocean from 2018 made waves for Sydneysiders, offering visitors an ethereal experience in a forest of lights, the chance to lie on beds and watch projections fly on the ceiling to a melancholy, regret-filled soundscape, and an otherworldly stroll through hung sheets with scenes of Switzerland playing against them. The experience summed up how immersive contemporary art could be without being just an Instagrammable installation, it showed the evocative side of art.
Artists so important they got their own museums
Some artists are so monumental it comes as no surprise they’ve got their own museums.
12. Picasso Museums – particularly Musée Picasso
There are eight museums dedicated to Málaga’s native son Pablo Picasso. Four are in Spain (two of which are in Málaga), three in France, and one in Germany. So no matter where you are in Europe, Picasso is never far away.
Musée Picasso is perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. It holds 5,000 creations composed of paintings, drawings and prints, plus Picasso’s other artistic endeavours in sculpture, ceramics, and engravings. The large collection should come as no surprise considering the artist lived in France for some 70 years, from 1905 to 1973. If you want to take a more intimate glance into Picasso’s life you’ll also find notebooks and photographs. If you’re looking to tick another famous Picasso off your bucket list, then keep an eye out for another of his famous anti-war murals, Massacre in Korea.
13. Van Gogh
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is home to the world’s largest collection of the Dutch master’s drawings and paintings. Along with renowned paintings Sunflowers and Almond Blossoms, the museum also houses a vast array of Van Gogh’s paintings.
It’s right beside the Stedelijk Museum, so if you want to knock two of the best modern art museums in the world off your list, then you’re in the right place. Inside, you’ll have the chance to learn more about the artist’s somewhat tragic life as he made his way around Europe before finally devoting himself to becoming an artist in the last decade of his life. The museum chronicles that journey through the manifold letters Vincent sent to his brother Theo, and the evolution of his artworks from early pieces such as The Potato Eaters and Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette to Wheatfield with Crows painted in Auvers-sur-Oise in the final few months of his life.
14. Frida Kahlo
The museum has been around since 1958, and even though Frida Kahlo is a global name in modern art these days, it took some time for her impact to be felt worldwide. That’s not to say she didn’t see success in her lifetime like Van Gogh; in fact she caught the attention of chief Surrealist André Breton and had exhibitions in New York and France during the 1930s. On top of that she was also the first Mexican artist to have work bought by the Louvre! But, her huge presence as an artist was posthumous and her status as a cult icon who encapsulated Mexican tradition and showcased a realistic depiction of womanhood only began to be felt in the ‘90s.
Located in Mexico City, the Frida Kahlo Museum is both a house museum (Frida was born here in 1907 and died here in 1954) and an art museum. A visit will help you gain insight into the lifestyle of Mexican folk artists during the first half of the 20th century, as well as showcasing a number of Frida’s early works and an unfinished piece of Stalin she started before she passed.