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From Contemporary Craft to 17th Century Allegories: Boston’s Best Art Museums

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Boston is home to several renowned art museums that showcase a diverse range of artworks from various periods and regions. Perhaps best known are the MFA and the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum—the latter of which is world-famous for the largest art heist ever reported. However, Boston boasts many other prestigious art institutions. From contemporary craft art at the Fuller to an extensive pigment collection at the Fogg, this is our comprehensive art museums guide to Boston.

Masterpieces in Massachusetts: 10 of the Best Museums in Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)—established in 1870—stands as one of the most comprehensive art museums globally. It has the largest collection in Boston under one roof—encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art. Located in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood of Boston, the MFA offers visitors an expansive view of art history—from artifacts of ancient Egypt to contemporary pieces.

Collections at the Boston Art Museum include significant holdings of Asian, European, African, Oceanic, Middle Eastern, and American art. These collections offer sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, textiles, and musical instruments.

Over the years, the MFA has undergone several expansions. Its current Beaux-Arts building—designed by Guy Lowell—opened its doors in 1909. The museum has since added the Art of the Americas Wing and the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art—further solidifying its position as a leading cultural institution.

In addition to its permanent collection, the MFA hosts rotating exhibits, educational programs, and special exhibitions, drawing over one million visitors annually. Its commitment to preservation, research, and public engagement has made the MFA an essential destination for art enthusiasts, scholars, and tourists alike.

Current Exhibitions

  • The Provincetown Printmakers
  • Otherworldly Realms of Wu Junyong
  • Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Art RocksStrong Women in Renaissance Italy
  • Fashioned by Sargent
  • Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances
  • Stories Artists Tell: Art of the Americas, the 20th Century and Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—situated in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood of Boston—is a unique institution that reflects the personal vision and collection of founder Isabella Stewart Gardner. Established in 1903, the museum is housed in a Venetian-style palazzo—meticulously designed to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace. The palazzo also boasts a beautiful interior courtyard filled with flowering plants.

The museum’s collection comprises over 15,000 pieces—including European, Asian, and American art. Notable works include pieces by Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Vermeer, among others. The arrangement of the collection remains—for the most part—as Gardner originally intended.

Beyond its remarkable collection, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is best known for a notorious art heist that occurred in 1990. Two thieves dressed as police officers entered the museum and stole 13 pieces of art valued at around $500 million—making it the largest-value theft of private property in recorded history.

Despite extensive investigations and a substantial reward offer, the stolen artworks have never been recovered, and empty frames still hang in their original locations as a reminder of the loss. The museum continues to be a beacon of art and culture in Boston, drawing visitors for its unique ambiance, impressive collection, and the enduring mystery of the heist.

Current Exhibitions

  • Inventing Isabella
  • Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History
  • Carla Fernández: Tradition Is Not Static

Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston showcases both modern and contemporary works. Founded in 1936, the ICA has been at the forefront of presenting groundbreaking visual art, film, and performance.

While it has occupied several locations throughout its history the ICA has been housed in a striking building designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro since 2006. That building is located on the waterfront in Boston’s Seaport District. This architectural marvel—with its cantilevered design overlooking Boston Harbor—has become an iconic part of the city’s skyline and reflects the museum’s commitment to innovative and forward-thinking presentations.

Inside, the ICA offers rotating exhibitions that feature leading contemporary artists from around the world. Its programming is known for its emphasis on new and experimental works—providing a platform for emerging artists and introducing audiences to the latest trends and discourses in contemporary art. In addition to its exhibition spaces, the ICA boasts the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater—which hosts performances, film screenings, and lectures.

The museum also places a strong emphasis on educational and outreach programs, aiming to engage diverse audiences and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of contemporary art and culture.

Current Exhibitions

  • Taylor Davis Selects: Invisible Ground of Sympathy
  • 2023 James and Audrey Foster Prize
  • Tammy Nguyen
  • Barbara Kruger
  • Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today

Harvard Art Museums

Located in Cambridge, this is a combination of three museums: the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Together, they house an extensive collection of Western, Near East, Islamic, and Indian art.

The Fogg Museum & Collection

The Fogg Museum is one of the oldest and most respected art institutions in the United States. Established in 1895, the museum was initially housed in a Beaux-Arts building designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Over the years, the Fogg Museum has amassed an impressive collection of Western art—ranging from the Middle Ages to the present. Its collection includes significant holdings in Italian early Renaissance, British pre-Raphaelite, and 19th-century French art. It encompasses paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, photographs, prints, and drawings—making the collection a comprehensive repository of Western art history.

In 2014, the museum reopened after a period of closure. Along with the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, it was consolidated into a single state-of-the-art facility designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano. This unified structure—while modern—pays homage to the Fogg Museum’s original 1927 building.

The museum serves not only as a showcase for its esteemed collection but also as a center for research, scholarship, and education. Its affiliation with Harvard University ensures that it remains at the forefront of art historical research and pedagogy—making it a vital institution for both the academic community and the general public.

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The Busch-Reisinger Museum & Collection

The Busch-Reisinger Museum is the only museum in North America dedicated exclusively to the study of art from the German-speaking countries of Central and Northern Europe. Founded in 1901 as the Germanic Museum, its initial mission was to promote the study and appreciation of German art and culture.

Over time, the museum expanded its focus to include a broader range of Central and Northern European artworks—encompassing pieces from the Middle Ages to contemporary works. The collection is particularly strong in its holdings of German Expressionist art, medieval sculpture, 18th-century German porcelain, and contemporary art from German-speaking countries.

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum & Collection

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum is renowned for its distinguished collection of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean art. Established in 1985 following a significant gift from Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the museum quickly became a leading center for the study and appreciation of Asian art in the region.

Its holdings encompass a wide range of objects—including Chinese jade and bronzes, Japanese woodblock prints, Islamic decorative arts, and Greco-Roman sculptures. The collection provides a comprehensive overview of artistic achievements from these diverse cultures, spanning several millennia.

Boston Athenæum

The Boston Athenæum—founded in 1807—is one of the oldest and most distinguished independent libraries and cultural institutions in the United States. Located on Beacon Street in Boston, the Athenæum has historically been a hub for intellectual and cultural discourse within the city. The Athenæum’s collections are extensive, comprising books, maps, manuscripts, and artworks, with particular strengths in areas such as Boston history, New England state and local history, biography, English and American literature, and the fine and decorative arts.

In addition to its role as a library, the Boston Athenæum has been a significant patron of the arts. Its art —which spans the 18th century to the present day—includes paintings, sculpture, prints, photographs, and decorative arts. The Athenæum regularly hosts exhibitions—showcasing objects from its own collections as well as works from other institutions.

Current Exhibitions

  • Developing Boston: Berenice Abbott & Irene Shwachman Photograph a Changing City
  • The Caponigro Collection: Boston in 1959
  • Re-Reading Special Collections at the Boston Athenaeum
  • 18th Century Miscellany

Rose Art Museum

The Rose Art Museum—located on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts—is recognized for its significant collection of modern and contemporary art. Established in 1961, the museum has been a pivotal institution in the Boston area—dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting 20th and 21st-century art.

Its holdings encompass a wide range of media—including paintings, sculptures, photographic works, and installations. The collection places a particular emphasis on American art from the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years, the museum has acquired works by notable artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cindy Sherman—making its collection one of the finest in New England.

The Rose Art Museum’s mission extends beyond its role as a repository of art. It serves as an active center for art education and research, offering a variety of programs, exhibitions, and events that engage both the Brandeis community and the broader public. The museum’s commitment to fostering dialogue around contemporary art issues—combined with its robust collection—positions the Rose Art Museum as a leading institution in the region for the study and appreciation of modern and contemporary art.

Current Exhibitions

  • Arghavan Khosravi: Black Rain
  • re: collections, Six Decades at the Rose Art Museum
  • Frida Kahlo at the Rose Art Museum
  • Mark Dion: The Undisciplined Collector
  • Chris Burden: Light of Reason

Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) is a prominent institution located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. Established in 1969, the museum is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the cultural and artistic contributions of Black artists from around the world.

Its collection encompasses a diverse range of art forms—including visual arts, music, dance, and literature, reflecting the rich tapestry of Black artistic expression. The museum’s holdings feature works from various periods—from traditional African art to contemporary pieces.

In addition to its permanent collection, the Museum of the NCAAA is committed to promoting understanding and appreciation of Black culture through a variety of educational programs, exhibitions, and events. It regularly hosts rotating exhibitions that spotlight both established and emerging Black artists—offering them a platform to showcase their work and engage with the community.

Through its endeavors, the Museum of the NCAAA plays a crucial role in championing the significance of Black art and culture—ensuring that it remains an integral part of Boston’s cultural landscape.

Current Exhibitions

  • ASPELTA: A Nubian King’s Burial Chamber
  • Think About It – The Art of Lawrence Pierce

Fuller Craft Museum

The Fuller Craft Museum—located in Brockton, Massachusetts, just south of Boston—is the only museum in New England dedicated exclusively to the realm of contemporary craft. Established in 1946 as the Brockton Art Center, the institution underwent several transformations before embracing its current focus on craft-based art in the 2000s.

The museum’s collection emphasizes materials and techniques inherent to the craft discipline—created by both renowned and emerging artists. It highlights the intricate processes, creativity, and innovation within the contemporary craft movement.

In its mission to engage and educate the public about the world of craft, the Fuller Craft Museum offers a dynamic array of exhibitions, programs, and events. Rotating exhibitions ensure that visitors are continually introduced to new artists, techniques, and thematic explorations within the field.

Current Exhibitions

  • Brockton Youth Creates: A Brockton High School Exhibit
  • Amy Genser: Shifting
  • Lagomorphs: Rabbits and Hares in Contemporary Craft

Where Will You Go in Boston?

Boston museums near Science Park with a special exhibition in each space. Some offer free admission and tours.  Most do not allow photography.

With some of the world’s most comprehensive art museums, Boston is a destination for art lovers everywhere. From the Museum of Fine Arts to the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, let us know which you visit in the comments below. And if you have kids in tow, don’t forget to make a stop at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Did you enjoy this article about Boston’s best art museums? Explore this piece about Philadelphia’s.