Art shouldn’t cost a dime. From Madrid to Washington, D.C., and Tokyo to Mexico City, the people of the world agree: Art is a public service, and seeing it should be absolutely free. Thankfully, that’s the motto at many of the globe’s finest art museums. Here, 15 of our favorite free-to-enter art meccas. Snag a plane ticket and leave your wallet in your pocket—you won’t need it where you’re headed.
1. Museo del Prado, Madrid
Madrid’s Museo del Prado is not only one of Spain’s largest museums but also one of its oldest. The institution goes back almost two centuries to a time when art collections were more about amassing the works of a select few artists than collecting a few pieces from a broad range of artists. The strategy has left Museo del Prado with hundreds of works by famed Spanish painters El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, and others. The museum costs 15 euros to enter most hours of the day, but you can score free entry between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.
2. The Broad, Los Angeles
One of 2015’s most hyped new museums, the Broad entered Los Angeles with a bang—and a banging deal. The museum dedicated to the contemporary art collection of Eli Broad is always free, but guests must RSVP in advance to secure a spot. There is a standby line for those of us who did not plan ahead. (You can even follow it on Twitter @thebroadstandby for updates on how the line’s looking.)
3. The Smithsonian Museums, Washington, D.C.
With 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo, the Smithsonian Institute is a behemoth of education and preservation. In keeping with the goal of spreading knowledge, all of its museums in Washington, D.C., are free to visit, including the African Art Museum, the American Art Museum, the Archives of American Art, Cooper-Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, and the Sackler Gallery. Spread over these nine art museums and galleries is an expectedly impressive selection of works, ranging from a collection of presidential portraits and contemporary crafts to an early 20th-century harp from the Congo and a behind-the-scenes look at famous artists’ processes.
4. The National Gallery, London
There are over 2,000 priceless works of art within the walls of London’s National Gallery, so it’s a bit shocking that visitors can expect to breeze in through the entrance without once swiping a credit card. This is where you’ll see the greats, from Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent van Gogh. If a walk through inspires you to dig a little deeper, the museum also offers workshops and lectures on topics such as the art of Michelangelo, hands-on tapestry weaving, and religious symbolism (for a fee).
5. The Met, New York
One of New York’s—and the country’s—most famous museums, the Met employs a pay-what-you-can scheme at its ticket counter (there is no pay-what-you-can option when booking online, so make sure to buy in person if you’re looking to take advantage of it). That’s a great deal considering you could get your entire art education from the two-million-plus works housed in this museum’s permanent collection. Organize your viewing by geographic location of origin, date or era, or department (23 options cover everything from Egyptian art to arms and armor), and plan to come back for more: This is one museum it takes a lifetime to truly see.
6. The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel, Houston
Less than a block apart in Houston, the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel constitute two of the world’s modern artistic wonders. The former houses the owners’ private art collection—full of works from the likes of Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, as well as ancient artifacts—and the latter offers a spiritual meeting space for every religion, social class, ethnicity, and political ideology. Commissioned by the Menil family and designed by Mark Rothko, the chapel is as much eye candy as it is food for the soul. Inside, would-be worshippers will find holy books from the Bible to the Quran and the Kordeh Avestra. Both the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel are always free to experience.
7. Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris
The Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, housed in a prime example of 1930s Parisian architecture between the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower, is worth a visit just to see the stunning facade. Inside, you’ll find something even more impressive: The museum’s collection of modern and contemporary artwork numbers a staggering 11,000 works, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in France. The permanent collection is free to view and includes Matisse’s first—and uncompleted—version of La Danse as well as Raoul Dufy’s La Feé Électricité and works by Picasso and Modigliani.
8. British Museum, London
When it opened in 1753, London’s British Museum became the first national public museum in the world. Admission has always been free, and the museum doubles down on that promise by also offering visitors free guided tours through its various halls of ancient crafts, weapons, and household tools. By placing a huge focus on research and preservation, the British Museum has become one of the world’s leaders in the conservation of ancient artifacts. Head inside its walls to travel through time and across countries, from ancient Egypt and Sudan to 20th-century Europe and America.
9. The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
Although the entire collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney isn’t free to the public, the institution always has several rotating exhibitions that won’t cost you a cent. The museum has a special focus on modern and contemporary art from Australian artists, so no matter what’s on at the time you go, you can expect exhibitions to give you a crash course in the country’s modern art movement. Right now, the MCA’s second-floor gallery features an ongoing exhibit of works that ponder the question of how history influences art in the future, and another second-floor exhibit pays homage to new Australian art with “The National,” on through June 18.
10. The National Art Center, Tokyo
Instead of housing a collection, the National Art Center in Tokyo uses all of its 150,000 square feet as exhibition space. Special exhibitions range in price and are occasionally free—as is the case with every exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary this year. Even if there aren’t any free exhibitions on when you go, you can walk into the building without a ticket and see the free shows that usually occupy the building’s second- and third-floor galleries. Expect art that spans the globe but maintains a tie to Japan or Asia.
11. Museo Soumaya, Mexico City
Museo Soumaya opened its doors in 1994 with the goal of showcasing Mexican and European heritage through art. Since then, it’s grown into a world-class museum full of the greats, from Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo to Spanish artists Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, while also showcasing works from Italy, France, Germany, and South America. Six centuries’ worth of art are available at the fingertips of Mexico City’s inhabitants as well as visitors from all over the world—without any entrance fee.
12. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires always welcomes visitors inside to view its entire collection for free—a big deal when you consider that it holds the largest public art collection in Latin America. More than 12,000 works cover 19th-century European art and a wide selection of Argentine and Spanish art, including pieces by Goya, El Greco, and Argentine master Pueyrredón.
13. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum houses an unbelievable number of objects—2.3 million—spanning 5,000 years of art and design across the globe. That permanent collection is always free to visit (the museum sometimes charges for special exhibitions), and it tackles topics such as Alexander McQueen, art deco, the artwork of the Islamic Middle East, and 1960s fashion.
14. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
While it’s true that some exhibitions will cost you, the majority of the art at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is available for viewing totally free of charge. Botticelli, Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh are just a few of the famous names that grace the National Gallery’s walls. But the institution’s largest collection, unsurprisingly, is filled with the works of Scottish painters—Ramsay, Raeburn, McTaggart, and more—through the ages.
15. The Getty Museum, Los Angeles
A Los Angeles icon, the Getty Center (and its sister institution the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades) is both an architectural and artistic hot spot. Visitors can walk the center’s halls and catch Kodak-moment views of downtown L.A. from the Getty’s perch in the hills, then wander inside the museum—free of charge—to see all manner of 19th- and 20th-century American, European, and Asian art, contemporary sculptures, drawings, and more.
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