Washington DC has such a surfeit of world-class museums that it’s nearly impossible to narrow down the offerings, but there are a few heavy hitters no art enthusiast should miss. From the Smithsonian Institution to independent galleries, here are the capital’s must-see museums.
National Gallery of Art
Among the world’s largest and most esteemed art museums, the colossal National Gallery of Art is home to some 141,000 artworks, which primarily represent European and American traditions dating from the Middle Ages to the modern period. Today, the museum is spread across three locations: its neoclassical West Building, I.M. Pei–designed East Building, and a sculpture garden. Collection highlights include pieces by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphel, and Van Gogh.
Opened in 1974 and located right on the National Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum (and its companion sculpture garden) is part of the Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum complex. One of the county’s most-visited art museums, this showcase for contemporary art has hosted retrospectives by artists the likes of Ai Weiwei and Yayoi Kusama.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Another highlight of the Smithsonian Institution, the Smithsonian American Art Museum holds one of the largest American art collections in the world. Alongside the Renwick Gallery—a satellite branch of the museum—it showcases everything from early American colonial art to cutting-edge contemporary pieces by luminaries such as Kerry James Marshall and Nam June Paik.
National Portrait Gallery
Open since 1968 in Washington DC’s Old Patent Office Building, the National Portrait Gallery displays upwards of 23,000 portraits across all mediums. The museum is particularly well-known for its blockbuster presidential portraits, and President Obama’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley (paired with First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald) is among its most sought-out works.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Another major art institution located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art was the country’s first museum devoted to African art when it was established in 1964. It has since been described as a mainstay of the international art world and showcases close to 12,000 objects, which span centuries, cultures, and media.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Still the only major museum in the world dedicated to women’s achievements in the arts, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, founded in 1981, celebrates female artists across the centuries. Located in the city’s old Masonic Temple (a National Historic Landmark), the museum’s collection includes pieces by roughly 1,000 artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Judy Chicago, and Helen Frankenthaler.