Did you know that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is often ranked as one of the top 20 museums in the world? In addition to this fabulous museum, the art scene in DC constantly amazes me, with world class art and cutting edge exhibits found on the National Mall and beyond. As part of of my resolution to “explore local” in 2018, I’m looking forward to spending more time visiting these national treasures. With free admission, it’s easy to pop in and out every few months and enjoy the latest exhibits, not to mention the unique shopping opportunities found in the museum gift shops. So come along as we take a walk through some of the free art museums that call DC home.
The National Gallery of Art. DC is filled with history and the National Gallery of Art has a great story to tell. Development began in 1936 when Andrew Mellon offered then President Franklin D. Roosevelt his amazing art collection and the funds to build a national museum to house these works. As the collection grew over the years, the original museum building, now known as the West Building, was later joined by the East Wing, dedicated on June 1, 1978 (and built with funds from Andrew Mellon’s children). The current collection is quite extensive, and I was excited to see famous works from Degas, Monet, Raphael, Matisse and Picasso, to name a few. Visitors might be surprised to know that the National Gallery is home to the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in North America. If you are short on time, try one of the various audio tours, or follow along on a free docent-led tour. Before or after your visit, be sure to stroll through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, which houses an outdoor ice skating rink during the winter months. It’s always fun to see the larger than life artwork in the garden.
The National Portrait Gallery. Take a short walk from the National Mall to the National Portrait Gallery and you won’t be disappointed. Start with the “America’s Presidents” Gallery, where visitors will find the only complete collection of Presidential Portraits that can be found outside of the White House. Visitors with kids can download the Self-Guided Family Tour, or check out a Portrait Discovery Kit. The kits are available during select times on weekends, and are suggested for kids 4-14. The building is shared with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where you’ll find a vast collection of art including the work of Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollack. Be sure to wander into the Kogod Courtyard during your visit, where you can relax and grab a bite to eat.
The Renwick Gallery. Not far from the White House, is the colorful Renwick Gallery, where the exhibits are never boring! The building itself is a National Historic Landmark and was the first building in the USA that was specifically built as an art museum.
Several months ago, my daughter and I visited and saw two unique exhibits, Parallax Gap and Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. In the latter exhibit, we examined a series of true-crime dioramas about the size of dollhouses, each recreating a crime scene right down to the miniature corpses. We learned that the dioramas were actually created to train real-life homicide investigators. It was definitely not something you would expect to find during your average art museum visit! Don’t miss the beautiful glass chandelier from Dale Chihuly on the upper floor. The gallery will be closed beginning February 20, until March 30th, when it reopens with No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, which will fill the entire building. Looking forward to checking that out later this spring.
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Back on the National Mall, these two spaces are also part of the Smithsonian complex and contain a vast collection of Asian and American Art. The Freer was the first Smithsonian Museum to open in 1923, and contains the famous Peacock Room, Download the free Freer Thinking Audio App before you go, and then no matter which way you wander through the exhibits, the app will use your location to point out highlights along the way. Other cool things include regular programs for teens, age-appropriate family workshops and sketch pads that are available to borrow while visiting.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Love contemporary art? Then head to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, another no-fee museum on the National Mall where visitors can explore the modern art scene. Don’t miss the Sculpture Garden, which offers a year-round display of more than 60 pieces of art. The circular design of the building has received both praise and criticism over the years, and it definitely stands out among many of the other historic buildings in DC.
One more gem worth mentioning in the Smithsonian collection is the National Museum of African Art. Along with its unique collection of African art, the museum shop is not to be missed if you are looking for unique items reflecting the culture of Africa. The Smithsonian website is a helpful resource for planning a visit to any of its museums, with the most current information regarding exhibits, hours of operation and tips for when to visit, such as early on weekends or late on weekdays.
Finally, there’s been a lot of local buzz lately about ARTECHOUSE, opened last summer and described as “an interactive digital art gallery.” The current immersive exhibit, Parallel Universe, is running now through March 4, 2018, and does have an admission fee. From what I’ve heard, it’s definitely a unique experience!
Visit the Guide to Visiting Washington, DC on this website for all kinds of helpful information, including places to eat and stay during your visit.
Walking Route Map