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Top Spots for Art Lovers in Washington DC

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Hi, I'm Liam!

Liam Greenwell is a writer and teacher based in Mexico City. He is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can read more of his work at liamgreenwell.com and find him on Twitter @liam_greenwell.

Washington, DC, is a city chock-full of things to do and see. As the nation’s capital, visitors are spoiled for choice regarding monuments and art, from the Lincoln Memorial to the varied Smithsonian Institution, which includes 21 separate museums. The city is lively, full of free events, live music, and African American culture and history. Use this guide to direct your first trip or your hundredth: places for DC art shows, street art, and installations, both the big names and more out-of-the-way possibilities.

1. National Gallery of Art

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Foto: Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock

Unmatched collections on the National Mall.

Housing one of the most impressive collections of historical and modern art anywhere in the world, the National Gallery of Art is a must-see for all art lovers on a trip to DC—even if you’ve already been to it. The complex is split between two buildings: start in the West Building, where you can see work by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet, and da Vinci before transiting the underground “concourse” to the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei in a striking geometrical manner. There, you’ll see works by Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Robert Motherwell, among other modern and contemporary art giants.

2. National Portrait Gallery

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Foto: LI SEN / Shutterstock

Famous American faces.

In contrast to the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery has a relatively narrow purview: portrait images of famous Americans from the country's founding until contemporary times. The collection lands in headlines every few years when, for instance, an outgoing US President commissions a new portrait for inclusion—such as when Barack Obama chose Kehinde Wiley as his artist, and the resulting leaf-covered canvas grabbed critical attention. Some of the other highlights are of others, including portraits of abolitionist John Brown, modern artist Beauford Delaney, painted by Georgia O’Keefe, and painter Mary Cassatt, portrayed by Edgar Degas.

3. Dupont Underground

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Foto: DC World Press Photo Exhibition / Tripadvisor

Hip, collaborative gallery space.

A self-proclaimed “citizen-driven” public art space that encourages collaboration in a city that is so focused on government initiatives, Dupont Underground hosts regular discussions, exhibitions, and workshops that seek to extend art production beyond its usual audience. The space is 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meters) of previously abandoned space at the busy Dupont Circle, home to most foreign embassies (which you can see best with a walking tour). Meanwhile, Dupont Underground feels miles away from what’s going on overhead—it’s a space for, about, and by DC locals.

4. Just Lookin’ Gallery

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Foto: Ruwan L / Tripadvisor

Black art from around the globe.

Take a trip out to Hagerstown, Maryland, around an hour outside of the city, for a gallery with a unique focus as a haven for African American and Black artists. Mosey through the several rooms, with space for over 1,000 original works at once, with a wide range of price points and styles. Come to see amateur artists alongside masterworks by Black American, African, and West Indian artists, and plan on taking a few home. African American art and history are essential to DC, making this gallery a must-see.

5. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

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Foto: Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock

Contemporary art HQ.

The Hirshhorn is officially part of the Smithsonian Institution, which includes several iconic DC museums. Despite its prominent location on the National Mall, the Hirshhorn is a little less well-known than its brethren by name. But visitors who do make the stop are richly rewarded: in addition to work by Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, and other contemporary greats, the sculpture garden features a Wish Tree sculpture by Yoko Ono that holds thousands of visitors’ desires written on small scraps of paper.

6. The Phillips Collection

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Foto: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

Rothko, O’Keefe, and much more.

The Phillips Collection is—in contrast to many other museums in DC on this list—a private institution, all derived from the ambition of a single collector. It is considered the first modern art museum opened in the United States and is known for contrasting work by more well-known artists with up-and-comers; in fact, purchases by the collection sustained the careers of such artists as Georgia O’Keefe before they were widely known. The highlight for contemporary art lovers, though, is the Rothko Room, a space on whose dimensions and design Mark Rothko himself consulted—the only exhibition for which that is true in the world.

7. National Museum of African Art

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Foto: grandbrothers / Shutterstock

African heritage, history, and art.

Founded to celebrate Black cultural heritage and increase historical consciousness from long-ago civilizations to contemporary societies, the National Museum of African Art features thousands of objects that range the breadth of the African continent. It has a broad focus, with recent exhibitions about Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry) and historical ties between Indian Ocean countries. But the real star is the incredible collection of historical work and photographs that show a complex and diverse view of historical Africa. If you’re interested in digging deeper, check out the library, which at 30,000 books is a world-class resource.

8. Blues Alley Club

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Foto: RJamie / Tripadvisor

Grooves in Georgetown.

No, it’s not a visual arts space, but an arts-focused trip to DC wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the city’s preeminent jazz bars. At Blues Alley, you’ll get up close and personal with the performers in a small space with superb acoustics. It’s the oldest continuously operating jazz “supper club” in the United States—Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Maynard Ferguson have all played here—and it’s a perfect place for experiencing a different side of DC art culture. Plus, it’s located in the Georgetown neighborhood, where you can also find the art galleries of Georgetown University, as well as great bars and restaurants.

9. National Museum of Women in the Arts

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Foto: Hiram Rios / Shutterstock

Overlooked accomplishments.

The founders of this museum believed that creating a space dedicated exclusively to women in art would celebrate artists' often-overlooked accomplishments and encourage more museums to focus on gender balance in their exhibitions. The big names are here—including the only painting by Frida Kahlo in DC—but the real joy is discovering work by women who were unfairly ignored by the mainstream during their time of production. The collections include work by more than 1,000 women artists, and in late 2023, it completed an extensive renovation, making it a perfect time to visit.

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