Visit Washington DC’s Art Galleries

Art Attack: Art lovers don’t miss Washington DC’s many fabulous art galleries! 

Kasuma exhibit at the Hirshhorn (2)
Kasuma brought her incomparable art to the Hirshhorn Museum

Art enthusiasts know the Nation’s Capital is home to a bounty of world-class galleries. What’s your favorite?

Renwick Gallery 201628
The Renwick showcases contemporary art installations like this, part of Wonder.

The Renwick Gallery The unique and whimsical installations in this National Landmark Building founded in 1859 are always a must-see! The historic building is across the street from the White House and owned by the National Museum of American Art which has a second location in Penn Quarter. Visitors can see the whole gallery in about one hour. The changing exhibitions showcase contemporary American arts and crafts, and these exhibits change periodically to the thrill of local crowds. The most exciting show was called Wonder where one room was transformed into walls full of real bugs, a ceiling awash in colorful scarves and a giant paper tree to name a few. Currently they’re preparing a show inspired by the Burning Man concerts in a California desert. Can’t wait to see this one!

In this exhibit in the Renwick the whole room was decorated with exotic bugs.
National Gallery of Art fountain
The National Gallery of Art has this lovely fountain. We always say if I lose you meet me at the fountain!

The National Gallery of Art West Wing The National Gallery of Art’s imposing West Building has some of the world’s most treasured collections of European and American paintings, sculpture, and furniture dating from the 13th to the 20th century. The neoclassical West Building starts from was designed by John Russell Pope and clad in pink Tennessee marble. The massive museum is organized by time period. This is where you find the most well known artists including da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Vermeer, Raphael, Goya, Monet, Fra Lippo Lippi, El Greco, and David, just to name a few.  The gift shop runs the entire lower level with every imaginable item inspired by the collection and whatever happens to be on exhibit. Don’t miss the fabulous passageway between the East and West Wings of the National Gallery (pictured above)

National Gallery of Art DC
The design by IM Pei of the East Wing is a  breathtaking place to take in modern art.

The National Gallery of Art East Wing The I.M. Pei–designed East Building opened in 1978 and was renovated in 2014. Today the East Wing houses modern and contemporary art on four levels. The building itself is considered an architectural masterpiece with a wide selection of sculpture, paintings and photographic images. The rooftop balcony offers a panoramic view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol to nearly the White House. Everyone loves the giant blue hen that graces the rooftop.

The top of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art has a wonderful rooftop viewing area.
National Museum of the American Indian sunset
The National Museum of American Indian building is  art itself.

The National Museum of the American Indian This Smithsonian museum is a breathtaking four-story landmark and clearly the Mall’s first 21st-century museum design. Architecturally, it’s standout, with a sandstone exterior and gorgeous landscaped rock formations. But inside, it’s equally impressive as it showcases arts and traditional crafts created by Indian tribes in North America including Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America (though they’re less heavily represented). The gift shop is a must see, stocked with silver and turquoise (not knockoffs, the real thing), wood carvings, feather masks, fine pottery and glass, and ivory and stone carvings.

Hirshhorn Smithsonian Art Museum2
The Hirshhorn Museum has a distinctive buildling.

The George Washington University Textile Museum This unique collection of ancient and contemporary textiles had been on display in a townhouse on S Street, NW for decades but has reopened on the George Washington University Campus.  The museum presents rotating, thematic exhibitions featuring textiles from around the world and a variety of time periods.

Kogod Atrium
A favorite place to relax in Penn Quarter is inside the magnificent Kogod Courtyard between the two art galleries.

The National Portrait Gallery/American Art Gallery Nowhere will you find more enchanting portraiture, sculpture and folk art than this gorgeous combination of two important galleries of American art. On the Portrait Gallery side, the Hall of Presidents and other early American paintings offers an opportunity to time travel through the last 200 years since the founding of the nation. The new portraits of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were recently installed there. The Portrait Gallery also has collections featuring political heroes, scientists, noteworthy performing artists and athletes. In between the two galleries is the sublime Kogod Courtyard, where you can rest and grab a bite before moving on. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a wide variety of contemporary art pieces that will enchant and amaze you. These museums are open from 11 am to 7 pm so the facility is a fun place to meet after work. The must-sees are the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington in the Presidents gallery (Portrait Gallery), the model of the Statue of Liberty, and a huge folk-art piece made of found materials, scavenged furniture and chewing gum wrappers by handyman James Hampton discovered after his death.

Hirshhorn Smithsonian Art Museum3
The National Mall has several sculpture gardens including the National Gallery of Art and this one at the Hirshhorn Museum.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden The Smithsonian collection of modern and contemporary art is displayed in a circular building that allows visitors to experience art from the oldest on top to the most recent on bottom. There’s a wide range of paper, sculpture, video, photography or a mix—that inspire concentration and questioning. The cutting-edge art includes works by masters, such as Auguste Rodin, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and Henry Moore. The special exhibitions rotate and the museum has showcased what seems to be the most important current art installations in the world including creations by Chinese activist/artist Ai Weiwei and Yayoki Kusama. The outdoor sculpture garden contains impressive works by Rodin, Giacometti, and Alexander Calder. It’s a sublime place to meditate on a busy day of sightseeing.

The gift shop at the Hirshhorn Museum. 
The Phillips Collection outside
The Phillips Collection is a favorite hangout for locals. The art is world class and they  have lots of fun events.

The Phillips Collection Duncan Phillips founded this museum that was the first to be dedicated to modern art in the United States. The historic building was the family’s former mansion. The collection contains around 3,000 works and the art is constantly rotated. Luckily, it’s most famous painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, is always on display. Expect to see works by Monet, Picasso, Miró, Renoir, and Van Gogh, among other modern masters. Don’t miss the famous room specifically designed by Phillips and Mark Rothko to house some of the artist’s signature large color works. Although there’s a fee of about $10, it is a worthwhile stop for impressionist and modern art lovers.

The Kreeger Museum is in the Foxhall neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

Kreeger MuseumThis lesser known and somewhat difficult gallery to access was founded by philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife, Carmen, who began collecting art in the early 1950s. The works are primarily from the 1850s to the 1970s, including big names like Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, Chagall, Gauguin, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Miró, Calder, Noguchi, Moore, David Smith, and Gene Davis. In addition to arts fans, anyone interested in modern architecture should be certain to see this museum: Phillip Johnson designed it in 1963 as the Kreegers’ residence, museum, and recital hall all in one.

Smithsonian 2012 - 5 of 6
The eclectic and mesmerizing Enter art of Asia is featured at the Freer Gallery.

The Freer Gallery of Art Well-proportioned spaces, galleries illuminated by natural light, and quiet serenity are the hallmarks of this elegant landmark on the Mall, with its unusual blend of American and Asian paintings, sculpture, porcelains, scrolls, and wall furnishings, specifically the acclaimed Peacock Room, designed by James McNeill Whistler. The Peacock Room is considered the most important 19th- century interior in an American museum. Freer was a wealthy industrialist who left his collection to the Smithsonian after his death. However, Freer believed that “all works of art go together,” and filled his collection with pots from East Asia and the Middle East.

Smithsonian 2012 - 4 of 6
The Freer Museum has some art that will wow you!

The Sackler Gallery of Art This Smithsonian Museum features Asian art from antiquity to modern times. Descend through a granite-and-glass pavilion to view a collection of mostly Chinese treasures made of gold and jewels. The Sackler also contains statues, paintings, calligraphy and textiles. The gift shop is an exotic bazaar featuring paintings, textiles, ancient games, Zen–rock garden kits, and plenty of other Asian-influenced items. This is fine place to contemplate the diverse and inspiring work of artists around the world.

Asian art is featured at the Sackler Gallery. 

National Museum of Women In the Arts This groundbreaking gender-centric museum is the world’s most important collection of art by women with more than 4,000 paintings and sculpture created by women beginning in the 16th century to the present. Artists include Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Frida Kahlo, Judy Chicago, and Helen Frankenthaler. Inside the former Masonic Grand Lodge are striking architectural features, such as a crystal chandelier, a main hall and mezzanine, and the Grand Staircase. There is a $10 fee to enter. Don’t miss the enchanting gift shop of treasures here.


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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.

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