Perhaps New England is known best among travelers for its quaint towns, historic charm, and vibrant fall foliage. As if that weren’t reason enough to visit, you’ll find plenty of local and world-class art in the region. Here are what we think are the best art museums in New England to round out your itinerary.
CONTENTS: In this article, you will discover the following New England Art Museums:
- The Portland Museum of Art
- Peabody Essex Museum
- The RISD Museum
- Yale Center for British Art
- Norman Rockwell Museum
- The Smith College Museum of Art
- Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)
- Bowdoin College Museum of Art
The Portland Museum of Art in Portland Maine
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Portland, Maine is one of the most charming places in the US to visit in the summer. But you can’t spend the entire time in Portland eating lobster and enjoying the ocean! For a little culture, check out the Portland Museum of Art. It’s one of the oldest art museums in the United States and an excellent place to spend an afternoon.
You might even consider taking this small group walking tour of Portland, which will give you a great intro to the area and includes a visit to the museum.
The Portland Museum of Art has an amazing collection of American painters, with a special emphasis on artists associated with New England. They feature many works by the legendary Wyeth family and Winslow Homer.
Homer spent a great deal of time painting Maine’s stunning seascapes at his home in Prouts Neck, Maine, and his studio now belongs to the Portland Museum of Art. Tours of Homer’s home leave from the museum in the summer season.
Even travelers who are on a strict budget can enjoy the Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture park for free. If the weather is nice, which happens often in Maine in the summer, you’ll be able to enjoy the fascinating sculptures. Kids can even climb on Play Sculpture by Isamu Noguchi.
If you like architecture, don’t miss the chance to see the McLellan House, which used to house the museum when the collection was smaller. Admission to the McLellan House is included with the museum ticket. Keep an eye out for the impressive “floating staircase” inside the McLellan House. It looks precarious, but don’t worry; it’s safe to walk on.
Some other must-see works include:
- Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten
- NC Wyeth’s Dark Harbor Fishermen
- Mary Cassatt’s Helene is Restless
The Portland Museum of Art is open every day but Monday and Tuesday. But you might prefer to visit on a Friday when they have free admission.
Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
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Who would imagine that one of the oldest art museums in the United States would be located in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts? Or that Salem is more than the location of the Salem Witch Trials?
Dating to 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has its roots in the East India Marine Society and its members. By 1825, the East India Marine Hall had opened with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and many remote corners of the world.
By the late 1860s, the institution had transformed into the Essex Peabody Museum. Located less than 30 miles from Boston, it is now one of the largest museums in the country.
The Peabody Essex has extensive collections of African, American, Asian, maritime, and Native American art.
Must See Exhibits at Peabody Essex Museum
The must-see’s at The Peabody Essex include:
- the Gardner-Pingree house, built in Salem in 1804
- Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old ancestral home of a merchant that was transported from China and re-constructed (permanent display). Visiting requires a separate scheduled timed ticket for entry ($6).
- The East India Marine Hall which contains some of the original artifacts is now an annex of the Peabody.
Within the museum itself are also hands-on interactive exhibits and performance spaces.
We saw a very interesting exhibit of Hans Hoffman’s abstract work when we last visited.
There is a beautiful, airy and light-filled atrium for the break that you will definitely need while visiting the museum.
Currently open from Thursday through Sunday, visits to the Museum is via advance purchase timed tickets with Adults paying $20, seniors over 65 at $18 and students with ID at $12. Youth under 16 and residents of Salem are admitted for free.
Check the website for other complimentary visits – the museum is part of the free museum day which takes place annually in September.
If you like street art, check out the outdoor gallery at the Punto Urban Art Museum on the other side of town.
To avoid the fall crowds drawn to the area as Halloween nears, you might instead consider visiting Salem in the summertime. It’s a lovely waterfront destination north of Boston.
Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Providence, Rhode Island
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One of the many fun things to do in Providence, you’ll find a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum is also one of the best art museums in New England.
Founded back in 1877 through an affiliation with the Rhode Island School of Design, the RISD Museum houses about 100,000 pieces of art from around the world across five buildings that are connected by a stunning glass bridge.
The current configuration of the complex was conceived by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jose Rafael Moneo and compliments the displays and exhibits within. Around 3,000 pieces of art are on view in the museum at any one time, with a diverse collection representing various cultures from ancient times to the present.
The RISD Museum Collection
If you’re curious about classical art, you’ll be intrigued by the accumulation of Greek coins, sculptures, mosaics, and Roman jewelry. The textiles exhibition is particularly noteworthy, showcasing items and the evolution of the artform from 1500 BC until now. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist canvases are other active areas of the collections. Among the pre-eminent international and American artists featured are Picasso, Monet, Paul Revere, Andy Warhol, and Chanel.
As you might expect, the museum also features distinguished works by Rhode Island artists and designers, including 18th-century furniture makers Goddard and Townsend,19th-century Rhode Island painters John Noble Barlow and Gilbert Stuart or the more modern glass artist Dale Chihuly (who studied at RISD).
Three must-see works of art include:
- The Dale Chihuly Gilded Frost and Jet Chandelier
- The iconic Mid-Century Modern American coffee pot by John Prip
- The entire collection of Indian saris and Chinese ceremonial robes
Visiting is surprisingly affordable for a museum of this quality ($15 for adults). Still, for those who cannot afford this cost, admission is free every Sunday (10 am–5 pm) and on the third Thursday evening of each month (5–9 pm). You can spend a whole day here, but around 3 hours is enough to see it all without rushing.
If you plan your day right, you could even add a trip to the Newport Mansions to your itinerary.
Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut
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As one of the best art museums in New England, the Yale Center for British Art is surely not to be missed. Located in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of Yale University’s museums, the Center holds the most extensive collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom.
Its collection includes thousands of pieces during the Center’s designated period–from the 1400s through the present day, ranging from paintings, sculptures, and photographs, to research volumes on the history of British art. Included in its numbers are various works by Americans who were living in Britain during this timeframe.
While the collection was initially given to Yale by alum Paul Mellon in 1966, the sustainable building was designed and constructed by Louis I. Kahn in 1977, and sits directly across the street from another of his designs, the Yale University Art Gallery.
The Center offers tours to the public of the collections, special exhibitions, and architecture, and promotes a research program that includes lectures, conferences, and workshops. It also has an app you can view in the museum or at home as a guide to the works.
Notable Works at Yale Center for British Art
Notable works include:
- Pumpkin with a Stable-lad (1774) by George Stubbs
- The Blacksmith’s Shop (1771) by Joseph Wright of Derby
- Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed (1818) by J. M. W. Turner
- Cloud studies (ca. 1821–25) by John Constable
You can spend a whole day wandering through the Yale Center for British Art, and since admission to the museum is free, it makes for an easy addition to any New Haven itinerary.
Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
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At the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, you’ll find the world’s largest collection of original Norman Rockwell art. On display are hundreds of Rockwell’s original paintings, along with the complete series of Saturday Evening Post covers.
Must-see Rockwell paintings on-site include:
- Triple Self-Portrait
- Four Freedoms
- The Problem We All Live With
- The Runaway
- Main Street Christmas
You’ll also find a grand collection of Rockwell memorabilia at the museum, including sketches and reference photos.
Next, stroll through the artist’s studio, which has been relocated from its original location across town to this idyllic spot overlooking the Housatonic River.
One visit to the Normal Rockwell Museum will reveal why this masterful artist and illustrator was considered one of the best-loved U.S. artist.
You can find more details in this in-depth review of the Norman Rockwell Museum.
The Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts
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Another one of the best art museums in New England is the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts. With over 27,000 pieces of artwork, it has been recognized as one of the leading academic museums in the US. The artwork ranges in date from ancient Greek pottery to modern video art and comes from all over the world.
SMCA has both permanent and rotating exhibits. An exceptional temporary exhibit called Black Refractions highlighted the works of various artists of African descent from the Studio Museum in Harlem. From their permanent collection, you’ll want to take a look at these must-see works of art:
- Ornate French reliquary made between 1200-1210
- “Orphan Man with Walking Stick” painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1882
- “Market Scene” painted by Diego Rivera in 1930
- “Buzkashi, from the series Musharaff” painted by Saira Wasim in 2003-2004
Oddly enough, visitors are encouraged to check out the bathrooms on the lower level directly adjacent to the exhibition gallery. They have been designed as functional art and are quite beautiful. Just be sure to knock before you go in.
Admission to SCMA is $5 for adults and free for kids ages 0 to 18, but on the second Friday of the month from 4 to 8 p.m. admission is free to all visitors. You should plan to spend about two to three hours there. Should you visit this awesome art museum, you’ll find it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Western Massachusetts.
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA
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One of the best art museums in New England is the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, which is located right next to the famous Fenway neighborhood.
The MFA was first opened to the public in 1870 and has been Boston’s best art museum ever since! The museum holds almost half a million different historical pieces of art and relics. You could honestly visit and find something new every time because it’s just so large!
Many of the exhibits in the MFA are permanent collections, but the museum hosts its fair share of rotating collections as well. Some of the best permanent pieces in the museum that you won’t want to miss are:
- Tremont Street Boston by Philip Harry
- The Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet
- Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley
- Madonna of the Clouds by Donatello
In order to fully experience the MFA, it’s best to block out 5 to 6 hours of time. It’s possible to even spend a whole day here, especially if you’re a huge history and art nerd!
While you’re in the area, be sure to go to some of the best places to eat in Boston, a majority of which are only 1 T stop away!
To visit the MFA for free, be sure to visit on a Wednesday night past 4 p.m. During this time, donations are taken but you can go in for free!
If you’re staying overnight, you might even consider staying over at a 5-star Boston hotel in trendy Back Bay.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine
Bowdoin College’s Museum of Art is an unexpected gem in Brunswick Maine. It won’t take you long to go through, but it’s a great take if you’re in the area.
The exhibit space is housed in a gorgeous Renaissance-style building with a modern entrance on Bowdoin’s bucolic college campus. Two floors represent an impressive range of art from antiquities to contemporary work—some with poignant messaging.
You’ll be delighted to find select works by some renown artists in the collection, including:
- Andrew Warhol
- William Wegman
- Alexander Calder
- Pablo Picasso
- Gilbert Stuart
- John Copley
- Mary Cassatt
- Andrew Wyeth
Bowdoin’s robust showing of classic and ancient art is noteworthy too.
Writers might be interested to know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne were Bowdoin graduates. And, the college recently purchased the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was penned over a two year period.
Admission is free to the public.
A visit to New England might be considered incomplete without taking the opportunity to appreciate one of these excellent art museums. Whether world-famous, like Boston’s MFA, or another small but world-class museums, they are an essential stop on any New Englan itinerary.
Have you been or do you plan to visit any of these museums? What other New England museums top your list? Let me know in the comments below.
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