The USA’s Top 10 Modern Art Museums | The Ultimate Guide

Lani Seelinger

The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed an unprecedented amount of development in art, with myriad artistic movements rising, staking out their place, and then stepping to the side to make way for something new. The museums below are some of the best places in the USA to view this changing and shifting landscape of art.


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Founded in 1935, SFMOMA was the first modern art museum on the West Coast, and it still holds a notable place in the country’s art scene. It started out with a bang: in the first decade of its existence, it had already shown works by Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse, and granted Jackson Pollock his first solo exhibition. Various other acquisitions over the years eventually piled up, making this one of the premier destinations to view the work of American modern artists. The building is currently under renovation, but it is scheduled to open up again in early 2016, and in the meantime, pieces of SFMOMA’s collection are popping up all around the city.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St, San Francisco, CA, USA

1. MoMA

Art Gallery, Building, Museum, Opera House

While New York City’s flagship modern art museum may not have opened at the auspicious time – nine days after the stock market crash that launched the country into the Great Depression in 1929 – it has since grown to become one of the world’s most important modern art museums. MoMA’s collection contains over 150,000 pieces of work, and several of them are true household names: Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, for example, or Andy Warhol’s Cambell’s Soup Cans. A museum like this is not only a mecca for those who already love modern art, but also a magnet with the potential to draw in even the most skeptical visitors.

2. Pérez Art Museum Miami

Art Gallery, Museum, Park

Pérez Art Museum Miami

PAMM, as the Pérez Museum is commonly known, is a relative newcomer on the list, but its unique collection definitely makes it worth a visit. Only actively collecting art since 1996, PAMM has managed to build up a significant and diverse collection of work from artists not only in the US, but also in all of the countries in the Atlantic Rim, which includes the Americas, Western Europe, and Africa. Some of the more notable aspects of the collection are its focus on African-American and Central and South American works.

Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL, USA, +1 305 375 3000

MCA Chicago | © Celine/WikimediaCommonsMCA Chicago | © Celine/WikimediaCommons

3. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago


MCA museum of Contemporary Art with Lake Michigan in the background in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
© EQRoy / Shutterstock
Chicago’s MCA has an illustrious history of exhibitions, including Frida Kahlo’s first one in America, Christo’s first building wrap, and Jeff Koons’ first solo exhibition. The building itself, however, also turns the city into a work of art, with several glass walls that offer striking views of the city and its constant, chilly companion, Lake Michigan. Its permanent collection spans several artistic traditions from the post-war era, including surrealism, pop art, minimalism, and post-modernism, and they are constantly adding ever more contemporary pieces. Beyond just artwork, however, the MCA also plays host to theatre, music, and dance performances.

4. The Whitney Museum of American Art

Building, Museum, Art Gallery

The Whitney, founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, has always been an important stop along the way for rising American artists. They have Annual and Biennial shows that endeavor to host artists who are new to the scene and to give them a chance to shine. Just a few of the more well known artists represented in their sizeable permanent collection include Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, and Alexander Calder. They have also put on shows in a different vein, perhaps most famously the 1976 exhibition of live bodybuilders, which included former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

5. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Museum, Shop, Building

Only established in 1979, the MOCA has quickly become probably the most impressive collection of modern art in the country. The collection built up mostly through gifts from private collectors, many of whom served on the museum’s board. Its focus is American and European art since 1940, and as such it is a place to see pieces from many key figures in several movements, including many mentioned above and more, like Claes Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko. The collection continues to grow, though, encompassing not only paintings and sculptures but also video art and performance art shows.

6. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Art Gallery, Building, Museum, School

While the Guggenheim does contain a notable collection of work ranging from Impressionist to contemporary, the building itself is the most recognizable part of it. Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be the greatest American architect of all time, designed it as a ‘temple of the spirit,’ with a wider top than bottom, and a ramp circling around the inside that lets visitors meander up through the artwork towards the skylight at the top. The design of the building allows the viewer to sink even more deeply into the artwork, simply moving up through it and never having to consciously change directions or leave one room for another.

7. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Building, Museum, Market

While the museum itself has a history stretching back to the 1930s, it only moved into its current, beautiful building on Boston’s waterfront in 2006, which is also when it launched its first permanent collection. Before that, though, they hosted exhibitions and shows for many important American and European artists in buildings across the city. The new building includes performance space as well, so several dance companies, like the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company have had their world premieres here.

8. Dia:Beacon

Art Gallery, Museum

The Dia Art Foundation has existed since 1974 with the sole aim of supporting the world of art, and while they have several locations throughout the country, Dia:Beacon in Beacon, NY, is their flagship space. Once a factory, the foundation converted it into an art museum where each of the spaces is specifically designed to house the artwork it contains, using elements like lighting and walls to display the artwork as they were truly meant to be displayed. Beacon is a site of pilgrimage for those who want to see modern and contemporary art at its finest.

9. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

Building, Museum

Another converted factory, MASS MOCA really embraces its industrial roots by keeping the exterior of the building much as it would have been as its previous self. Much of MASS MOCA’s focus is experimental and performance art, so visitors should expect something beyond the typical experience of walking through a building surrounded by paintings. Some current exhibitions include Tree Logic by Natalie Jeremijenko, which is six live trees that have been hung upside down, or Oh, Canada, which is the largest collection of contemporary Canadian art ever put together outside Canada.
landscape with balloons floating in the air


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