Museums aren’t always cheap, but several exhibition spaces across San Francisco offer free daily admission, or host free admission days on a monthly basis. From ancient artifacts to contemporary art, we profile ten museums ideal for art lovers on a budget.
Banners in the entrance hall of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco proclaim “Asia is not one place.” Indeed, the museum — with a permanent collection spanning 6,000 years of history, from Turkey to the Philippines — hosts a program of international exhibitions. Be sure to see the Indian watercolor paintings, Japanese inrō (carrying cases), and gilded bronze Buddha sculptures. The museum also hosts as many as half a dozen major exhibitions each year, with special lectures and talks on Thursday nights, when admission is just $5 after 5pm. Conveniently located near Civic Center Station, the Asian Art Museum is free on the first Sunday of each month.
Founded in 1975 by Peter Rodríguez in order to promote Mexican art, the Mexican Museum has since expanded to include Chicano and Latino art throughout the Americas, with historical and cultural emphases. The impressive permanent collection consists of over 16,000 artworks, including pre-Hispanic, colonial, popular, and folk art. The museum also hosts a variety of educational programs. The Mexican Museum is currently housed in Fort Mason, but will eventually move to the Yerba Buena arts district, where it will be able to display more of its collection to the public. Admission is free every day.
Linger in Fort Mason to visit the Museo Italo Americano, which offers daily free admission. Founded in 1978, this museum was the first U.S. institution dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Italian art and culture. Its modest yet diverse permanent collection includes both contemporary and historical Italian and Italian-American artworks spanning a variety of media. The Museo Italo Americano also offers inexpensive Italian classes, lectures, and other programs.
The little-known San Francisco Camerawork is in fact one of the best places in the city to view contemporary photography. Founded in 1974, this intimate gallery both showcases individual artists and curates small group exhibitions. Recent subjects have included survivors of HIV and breast cancer, gentrification, and contemporary Mexican photography. SF Camerawork also regularly hosts discussions, film screenings, and book signings. This gallery is free every day, but in order to maximize your trip, visit on a Tuesday or Sunday, when other institutions in the Civic Center-Powell area offer free admission.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum is one of the many San Francisco museums to offer free admission on the first Tuesday of every month. Encompassing history, culture, and art, the museum emphasizes the diversity of the Jewish experience, and encourages artists from a variety of backgrounds to interpret and incorporate into their work aspects of Jewish life. Recent exhibitions have explored the work of children’s illustrator J. Otto Seibold, mah jongg and the intersection of Chinese and Jewish people, and the legacy of Warren Hellman. The events calendar includes a mixture of lectures and family programs, making the CJM an attractive destination for people of all ages. Plus, it’s conveniently located between Powell and Montgomery Stations, near SF Camerawork, the Asian Art Museum, and more.
Leaving the Contemporary Jewish Museum, walk just one block to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, whose galleries also offer free admission on the first Tuesday of every month. YBCA annually hosts between seven and ten special exhibitions, a mix of solo artist and group shows. Thought-provoking, politically informed works predominate; highlights of current and upcoming exhibitions include a survey of performance art by three generations of black visual artists and a multimedia installation exploring American consumer culture.
Located in Dogpatch, the Museum of Craft and Design is a small yet vital space. Recent exhibitions have explored the powerful role craft has played as a channel for creativity, rehabilitation and transformation in the lives of veterans since World War II, and two artists that combined glass with fiber and other materials to make powerful social and political statements. The museum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of every month, but if you visit on a Thursday evening, you can participate in adult programs such as the MCD Craft Lab, MCD Design Lab, MCD Speaker Series and MCD Film Series. All of these programs are taught by noted artists – be sure to check that they’re free beforehand, as some do have an attendance fee.
Founded in 1963, The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum was the first museum in the country to highlight the contributions of the Chinese in America. The museum staff is more than willing to help interested students and professionals access the collection for research purposes. Admission is free every day.
In the midst of picturesque Lincoln Park, The Legion of Honor — a three-quarter-scale model of the Parisian museum of the Légion d’Honneur — is one of the most elegant structures in San Francisco. Its outstanding permanent collection includes gems of Dutch and Flemish painting, Rococo decorative arts, and Rodin sculptures. Although the Legion’s free admission day is the first Tuesday of each month, the admission fee is especially worth paying on Sundays, when the museum gives chamber music concerts.
Free on the first Tuesday of every month, the de Young Museum is conveniently located near the 9th and Irving entrance to Golden Gate Park. Its permanent collection includes over 1,000 American paintings, art of Oceanic peoples, and decorative art (including works by Dale Chihuly). The Museum store offers a large selection of art reproductions, which make excellent gifts. Climb up to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the surrounding park.