Planning a trip to the nation’s capital? Once you’re done taking in the splendor of our political machine in action, it might be time for an art break. Washington D.C. boasts some of the most storied and cutting-edge collections of art in the country, and there’s no shortage of exciting, important work to peruse. But where to start? Don’t worry, we’ve got you.
Here’s a list of 12 must-see art galleries in Washington, DC.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Open to the public and free of charge, this stately museum lives on the National Mall, and boasts some of the most rarified pieces from robber baron Andrew W. Mellon’s iconic collection, including Titian’s Venuswith a Mirror and Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation. Keep an eye out for the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci currently housed anywhere in the Americas.
THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
This branch of the Smithsonian compound was established in 1968, and bears the distinction of being the first distinctly American collection of art in the world. Sharing a building with the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian’s archive spans from the pre-Colonial era through today, so there’s sure to be something riveting for everyone on tap, so to speak.
THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Another Smithsonian subsidiary, the National Portrait Gallery is the perfect place to go if you consider yourself a ‘people person.’ This museum is dedicated to telling the story of America through its luminaries, highlighting characters of remarkable achievement through a wide variety of media. Fun fact: this institution is renowned for being the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House.
THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN
While on the Smithsonian Subject, we’d be remiss in excluding the Hirshhorn from this round-up. One of the leading voices in ambitiously scaled contemporary art for the last 50 years, the Hirshhorn’s holdings include one of the foremost collections of postwar European and American art the world over. It’s focus on performance, digital media, technology, and video makes it a particularly thrilling and challenging visit.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART
Founded by Warren M. Robbins in 1964 as a private educational institution, the National Museum of African Art, which also exists under the Smithsonian umbrella, formally reopened to the public in 1981. The institution has built on its original cross-cultural pedagogical mission to include a forward-looking focus on modern and contemporary work from the continent of Africa, a central conceit it maintains to this day.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS
The NMWA is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to the championship of women through the arts, presenting ten world-class exhibitions featuring women artists annually and engaging visitors through a large rubric of public programs, research initiatives, and outreach committees.
THE KREEGER MUSEUM
The Kreeger is a modern and contemporary art museum housed in the former home of former GEICO CEO David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, a residence designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Philip Johnson. The collection focuses primarily on Impressionist, Modernist, and Expressionist heavy-hitters. Be sure to check out the property’s gorgeous Sculpture Terrace and wooded walking paths for pieces by Isamu Noguchi, Fracesco Somaini, and Jean Arp, among others.
FREER GALLERY OF ART
Back to the many-armed Smithsonian empire: The Freer Gallery is the premiere museum of Asian art in the country, preserving and interpreting artwork from Asia in an effort to facilitate intercultural dialogue and exchange. Famous for its Peacock Room, John McNeil Whistler’s aesthetic paean to China originally installed in Charles Lang Freer’s Detroit home, the Freer Gallery of Art takes a comprehensive view of Asia’s multivalent visual archive.
THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION
This art museum was founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips in memory of his Pittsburgh window glass millionaire father, and is credited with being the first institution apportioned to the promotion of modern art, featuring a permanent collection of nearly 3,000 works by American and European impressionists and modernists. Intimate and stylish, this museum is housed in Duncan Phillip’s 1897 Georgian Revival home, with two similarly scaled locations in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Located in a small building in the historic Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington, DC, the Fridge is an art gallery, performance space, music venue, classroom, and community center, operating as a creative lab for aesthetic expression and artistic community. Established in 2009, the Fridge has presented a large swathe of artistic enterprises, including slam poetry, stand-up, and acrobatics.
This five-year old hybrid of cultural center, art space, performance arena and art gallery lives inside a refashioned black Baptist Church, origianlly built in 1886. After an inspiring exterior makeover by muralist HENSE, the space has become a flashpoint for change and inspiration in Southwest DC.
This small gallery nestled on U Street primarily showcases the work of the Hamiltonian fellows, a group of artists selected for a rigorous two-year post-MFA immersive program based in the nation’s capital. The fellowship equips recipients with the training and resources needed to jumpstart their professional careers. As such, the gallery proves a never-ending font of inquiry and surprise, and an excellent venue for up-and-coming collectors with a keen eye.