Art museum

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The Louvre in Paris, France, was the most visited art museum in the world in 2018. Le Louvre - Aile Richelieu.jpg
The Louvre in Paris, France, was the most visited art museum in the world in 2018.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

An art museum or art gallery is a building or space for the display of art, usually from the museum's own collection. It might be in public or private ownership and may be accessible to all or have restrictions in place. Although primarily concerned with visual art, art museums are often used as a venue for other cultural exchanges and artistic activities, such as performance arts, music concerts, or poetry readings. Art museums also frequently host themed temporary exhibitions, which often include items on loan from other collections.



An institution dedicated to the display of art can be called an art museum or an art gallery, and the two terms may be used interchangeably. [1] [2] [3] This is reflected in the names of institutions around the world, some of which are called galleries (e.g. the National Gallery and Neue Nationalgalerie), and some of which are called museums (e.g. the Museum of Modern Art and National Museum of Western Art).

The phrase 'art gallery' can also be used for businesses which display art for sale, but these are not art museums. [2]


Private collections

Throughout history, large and expensive works of art have generally been commissioned by religious institutions and monarchs and been displayed in temples, churches, and palaces. Although these collections of art were private, they were often made available for viewing for a portion of the public. In classical times, religious institutions began to function as an early form of art gallery. Wealthy Roman collectors of engraved gems (including Julius Caesar) and other precious objects often donated their collections to temples. It is unclear how easy it was in practice for the public to view these items.

The art collection at the Palace of Versailles in France was periodically open for 'respectable' public viewing. Zuidgevel Corps de logis rond 1675 Anonieme schilder.jpg
The art collection at the Palace of Versailles in France was periodically open for 'respectable' public viewing.

In Europe, from the Late Medieval period onwards, areas in royal palaces, castles, and large country houses of the social elite were often made partially accessible to sections of the public, where art collections could be viewed. At the Palace of Versailles, entrance was restricted to people wearing the proper apparel – the appropriate accessories (silver shoe buckles and a sword) could be hired from shops outside. The treasuries of cathedrals and large churches, or parts of them, were often set out for public display. Many of the grander English country houses could be toured by the respectable for a tip to the housekeeper, during the long periods when the family were not in residence.

Special arrangements were made to allow the public to see many royal or private collections placed in galleries, as with most of the paintings of the Orleans Collection, which were housed in a wing of the Palais-Royal in Paris and could be visited for most of the 18th century. In Italy, the art tourism of the Grand Tour became a major industry from the 18th century onwards, and cities made efforts to make their key works accessible. The Capitoline Museums began in 1471 with a donation of classical sculpture to the city of Rome by the Papacy, while the Vatican Museums, whose collections are still owned by the Pope, trace their foundation to 1506, when the recently discovered Laocoön and His Sons was put on public display. A series of museums on different subjects were opened over subsequent centuries, and many of the buildings of the Vatican were purpose-built as galleries. An early royal treasury opened to the public was the Green Vault of the Kingdom of Saxony in the 1720s.

Privately established museums open to the public began to be established from the 17th century onwards, often based around a collection of the cabinet of curiosities type. The first such museum was the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, opened in 1683 to house and display the artefacts of Elias Ashmole that were given to Oxford University in a bequest.

Public museums

The Kunstmuseum Basel is the first public art museum in the world. Basel - 2017 - Kunstmuseum Basel - Altbau.jpg
The Kunstmuseum Basel is the first public art museum in the world.

The Kunstmuseum Basel, through its lineage which extends back to the Amerbach Cabinet, which included a collection of works by Hans Holbein the Younger and purchased by the city of Basel in 1661, [4] is the first museum of art open to the public in the world.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, many private collections of art were opened to the public, and during and after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars many royal collections were nationalized, even where the monarchy remained in place, as in Spain and Bavaria.

In 1753, the British Museum was established and the Old Royal Library collection of manuscripts was donated to it for public viewing. In 1777, a proposal to the British government was put forward by MP John Wilkes to buy the art collection of the then late Sir Robert Walpole who had amassed one of the greatest such collections in Europe, and house it in a specially built wing of the British Museum for public viewing. After much debate, the idea was eventually abandoned due to the great expense, and twenty years later, the collection was bought by Tsaritsa Catherine the Great of Russia and housed in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. [5]

The Bavarian royal collection (now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich) was opened to the public in 1779 and the Medici collection in Florence around 1789 [6] (as the Uffizi Gallery). The opening of the Musée du Louvre during the French Revolution in 1793 as a public museum for much of the former French royal collection marked an important stage in the development of public access to art by transferring the ownership to a republican state; but it was a continuation of trends already well established. [7] [ full citation needed ] The building now occupied by the Prado in Madrid was built before the French Revolution for the public display of parts of the royal art collection, and similar royal galleries were opened to the public in Vienna, Munich and other capitals. In Great Britain, however, the corresponding Royal Collection remained in the private hands of the monarch and the first purpose-built national art galleries were the Dulwich Picture Gallery, founded in 1814 and the National Gallery, London opened to the public a decade later in 1824. Similarly, the National Gallery in Prague was not formed by opening an existing royal or princely art collection to the public but was created from scratch as a joint project of some Czech aristocrats in 1796.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is generally considered to have been the first art museum in the United States. [8] It was originally housed in the Renwick Gallery built in 1859. Now a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Renwick houses William Wilson Corcoran's collection of American and European art. The building was designed by James Renwick, Jr. and finally completed in 1874. [9] [10] It is located at 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. [11] Renwick designed it after the Louvre's Tuileries addition. [12] At the time of its construction, it was known as "the American Louvre". [13] [14]

University museums and galleries

The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.jpg
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
University of Tartu Art Museum is the oldest museum in Estonia. TU kunstimuuseum, sinine saal.JPG
University of Tartu Art Museum is the oldest museum in Estonia.

University art museums and galleries constitute collections of art developed, owned, and maintained by all kinds of schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities. This phenomenon exists in the West and East, making it a global practice. Although overlooked, there are over 700 university art museums in the US alone. This number, compared to other kinds of art museums, makes university art museums perhaps the largest category of art museums in the country. While the first of these collections can be traced to learning collections developed in art academies in Western Europe, they are now associated with and housed in centers of higher education of all types.

Galleries as a specific section in museums

Ateneum, an art museum in Helsinki, Finland Ateneum Helsinki.jpg
Ateneum, an art museum in Helsinki, Finland

The word gallery being originally an architectural term, [15] the display rooms in museums are often called public galleries. Also frequently, a series of rooms dedicated to specific historic periods (e.g. Ancient Egypt) or other significant themed groupings of works (e.g. the collection of plaster casts as in the Ashmolean Museum) within a museum with a more varied collection are referred to as specific galleries, e.g. Egyptian Gallery or Cast Gallery.

Works on paper, such as drawings, pastels, watercolors, prints, and photographs are typically not permanently displayed for conservation basis. Instead, public access to these materials is provided by a dedicated print room located within the museum. Murals generally remain where they have been painted, although many have been removed to galleries. Various forms of 20th-century art, such as land art and performance art, also usually exist outside a gallery. Photographic records of these kinds of art are often shown in galleries, however. Most museum and large art galleries own more works than they have room to display. The rest are held in reserve collections, on or off-site.

Similar to an art gallery is the sculpture garden (or "sculpture park"), which presents sculpture in an outdoor space. Sculpture installation has grown in popularity, whereby temporary sculptures are installed in open spaces during events like festivals.


"The Leaning House" of the Tartu Art Museum in Tartu, Estonia Tartu Kunstimuuseum.JPG
"The Leaning House" of the Tartu Art Museum in Tartu, Estonia

Most larger paintings from about 1530 onwards were designed to be seen either in churches or (increasingly) palaces, and many buildings built as palaces now function successfully as art museums. By the 18th century additions to palaces and country houses were sometimes intended specifically as galleries for viewing art, and designed with that in mind. The architectural form of the entire building solely intended to be an art gallery was arguably established by Sir John Soane with his design for the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1817. This established the gallery as a series of interconnected rooms with largely uninterrupted wall spaces for hanging pictures and indirect lighting from skylights or roof lanterns.

The late 19th century saw a boom in the building of public art galleries in Europe and America, becoming an essential cultural feature of larger cities. More art galleries rose up alongside museums and public libraries as part of the municipal drive for literacy and public education.

In the middle and late twentieth century, earlier architectural styles employed for art museums (such as the Beaux-Arts style of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Gothic and Renaissance Revival architecture of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum) succumbed to modern styles, such as Deconstructivism. Examples of this trend include the Guggenheim Museum in New York City by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry, Centre Pompidou-Metz by Shigeru Ban, and the redesign of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by Mario Botta. Some critics[ which? ] argue these galleries defeat their purposes because their dramatic interior spaces distract the eye from the paintings they are supposed to exhibit.

Cultural aspects

Museums are more than just mere 'fixed structures designed to house collections.' Their purpose is to shape identity and memory, cultural heritage, distilled narratives and treasured stories. [16] Many art museums throughout history have been designed with a cultural purpose or been subject to political intervention. In particular, national art galleries have been thought to incite feelings of nationalism. This has occurred in both democratic and non-democratic countries, although authoritarian regimes have historically exercised more control over administration of art museums. Ludwig Justi was for example dismissed as director of the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) in Berlin in 1933 by the new Nazi authorities for not being politically suitable. [17]

The question of the place of the art museum in its community has long been under debate. Some see art museums as fundamentally elitist institutions, while others see them as institutions with the potential for societal education and uplift. John Cotton Dana, an American librarian and museum director, as well as the founder of the Newark Museum, saw the traditional art museum as a useless public institution, one that focused more on fashion and conformity rather than education and uplift. Indeed, Dana's ideal museum would be one best suited for active and vigorous use by the average citizen, located near the center of their daily movement. In addition, Dana's conception of the perfect museum included a wider variety of objects than the traditional art museum, including industrial tools and handicrafts that encourage imagination in areas traditionally considered mundane. This view of the art museum envisions it as one well-suited to an industrial world, indeed enhancing it. Dana viewed paintings and sculptures as much less useful than industrial products, comparing the museum to a department store. In addition, he encouraged the active lending-out of a museum's collected objects in order to enhance education at schools and to aid in the cultural development of individual members of the community. Finally, Dana saw branch museums throughout a city as a good method of making sure that every citizen has access to its benefits. Dana's view of the ideal museum sought to invest a wider variety of people in it, and was self-consciously not elitist. [18]

Since the 1970s, a number of political theorists and social commentators have pointed to the political implications of art museums and social relations. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, argued that in spite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (such as classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly tie in with their social position. So called cultural capital is a major factor in social mobility (for example, getting a higher-paid, higher-status job). The argument states that certain art museums are aimed at perpetuating aristocratic and upper class ideals of taste and excludes segments of society without the social opportunities to develop such interest. The fine arts thus perpetuate social inequality by creating divisions between different social groups. This argument also ties in with the Marxist theory of mystification and elite culture. [19]

Furthermore, certain art galleries, such as the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris are situated in buildings of considerable emotional impact. The Louvre in Paris is for instance located in the former Royal Castle of the ancient regime, and is thus clearly designed with a political agenda. It has been argued that such buildings create feelings of subjugation and adds to the mystification of fine arts. [20] Research suggests that the context in which an artwork is being presented has significant influence on its reception by the audience, and viewers shown artworks in a museum rated them more highly than when displayed in a "laboratory" setting [21]

Online museums

Museums with major web presences

Most art museums have only limited online collections, but a few museums, as well as some libraries and government agencies, have developed substantial online catalogues. Museums, libraries, and government agencies with substantial online collections include:

Online art collections

There are a number of online art catalogues and galleries that have been developed independently of the support of any individual museum. Many of these, like American Art Gallery, are attempts to develop galleries of artwork that are encyclopedic or historical in focus, while others are commercial efforts to sell the work of contemporary artists.

A limited number of such sites have independent importance in the art world. The large auction houses, such as Sotheby's, Bonhams, and Christie's, maintain large online databases of art which they have auctioned or are auctioning. Bridgeman Art Library serves as a central source of reproductions of artwork, with access limited to museums, art dealers, and other professionals or professional organizations.


There are also online galleries that have been developed by a collaboration of museums and galleries that are more interested with the categorization of art. They are interested in the potential use of folksonomy within museums and the requirements for post-processing of terms that have been gathered, both to test their utility and to deploy them in useful ways.

The is one example of a site that is experimenting with this collaborative philosophy. The participating institutions include the Guggenheim Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Museum lists

International and national lists

Local area lists

European local areas

North American local areas


NOTE: There are relatively few local/regional/national organizations specifically for ART MUSEUMS. Most art museums are associated with local/regional/national organizations for ARTS or HUMANITIES or MUSEUMS. Many of these organizations, in the US, are listed on these websites, with web links:

International and topical organizations

National organizations

Other organizations (for multiple museums)

Regional, provincial, and state museum organizations

  • Canada, Ontario: Ontario Museum Association and Ontario Association of Art Galleries
  • USA, western states: Western Museums Association
  • USA, western states: Museums West Consortium, an association of 13 museums of the American West.
  • USA, western states: Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC)
  • USA, CA (California): California Association of Museums
  • USA, FL (Florida): Florida Art Museum Directors Association—an affiliate of the Florida Association of Museums

District, local and community museum organizations

  • USA, DC, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, the official national museum, and controlling organization for most major art and cultural museums in Washington, D.C., national museums with major art collections, as well as other national historic and cultural facilities nationwide. The Smithsonian also—directly or indirectly, and through traveling exhibits—coordinates some federal government support of museums (art and other), nationally. Also partners with many museums throughout the United States, each designated as a "Smithsonian Affiliate" institution.
  • USA, FL, Miami Miami Art Museums Alliance
  • USA, NM, Taos: Taos art colony
  • USA, NY, New York City: Art Museum Partnership
  • USA, NY, New York City: Museums Council of New York City
  • USA, TX, Houston: Houston Museum District Association

See also

Related Research Articles

Louvre Art museum and Historic site in Paris, France

The Louvre, or the Louvre Museum, is the world's second-largest art museum and a historic monument in Paris, France, and is best known for being the home of the Mona Lisa. A central landmark of the city, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city's 1st arrondissement. Approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square meters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum was closed for 150 days in 2020, and attendance plunged by 72 percent to 2.7 million. Nonetheless, the Louvre still topped the list of most-visited art museums in the world in 2020.

Museum Institution that holds artifacts and other items of scientific, artistic, cultural or historical importance

A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance. Many public museums make these items available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. The largest museums are located in major cities throughout the world, while thousands of local museums exist in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Museums have varying aims, ranging from the conservation and documentation of their collection, serving researchers and specialists to catering to the general public. The goal of serving researchers is not only scientific, but intended to serve the general public.

Smithsonian Institution Group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government

The Smithsonian Institution, often referred to simply as the Smithsonian, is a trust instrumentality, an organization established by the U.S. government as a public trust. It was founded on August 10, 1846, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge" and is composed as a group of museums and research centers. The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. It was originally organized as the United States National Museum, but that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.

Federal Art Project New Deal relief program to fund the visual arts

The Federal Art Project (1935–1943) was a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. Under national director Holger Cahill, it was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the largest of the New Deal art projects. It was created not as a cultural activity, but as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. The WPA Federal Art Project established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country, researched and documented American design, commissioned a significant body of public art without restriction to content or subject matter, and sustained some 10,000 artists and craft workers during the Great Depression.

Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum in Washington, D.C., United States

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a museum in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian Institution. Together with its branch museum, the Renwick Gallery, SAAM holds one of the world's largest and most inclusive collections of art, from the colonial period to the present, made in the United States. The museum has more than 7,000 artists represented in the collection. Most exhibitions take place in the museum's main building, the old Patent Office Building, while craft-focused exhibitions are shown in the Renwick Gallery.

Renwick Gallery United States historic place

The Renwick Gallery is a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, located in Washington, D.C., and focuses on American craft and decorative arts from the 19th to the 21st century. It is housed in a National Historic Landmark building that was begun in 1859 on Pennsylvania Avenue and originally housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art. When it was built in 1859, it was known as "the American Louvre".

Print room

A print room is a room in an art gallery or museum where a collection of old master and modern prints, usually together with drawings, watercolours, and photographs, are held and viewed.

Adrian Saxe is an American ceramic artist who was born in Glendale, California in 1943. He lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

Albert Paley

Albert Paley is an American modernist metal sculptor. Initially starting out as a jeweler, Paley has become one of the most distinguished and influential metalsmiths in the world. Within each of his works, three foundational elements stay true: the natural environment, the built environment, and the human presence. Paley is the first metal sculptor to have received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects. He lives and works in Rochester, New York with his wife, Frances.

Robert Ebendorf is an American metalsmith and jeweler, known for craft, art and studio jewelry, often using found objects. In 2003–2004, the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized an exhibition of 95 pieces, titled The Jewelry of Robert Ebendorf: A Retrospective of Forty Years.

Mark Lindquist is an American sculptor in wood, artist, author, and photographer. Lindquist is a major figure in the redirection and resurgence of woodturning in the United States beginning in the early 1970s. His communication of his ideas through teaching, writing, and exhibiting, has resulted in many of his pioneering aesthetics and techniques becoming common practice. In the exhibition catalog for a 1995 retrospective of Lindquist's works at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, his contributions to woodturning and wood sculpture are described as "so profound and far-reaching that they have reconstituted the field". He has often been credited with being the first turner to synthesize the disparate and diverse influences of the craft field with that of the fine arts world.

Smithsonian Libraries system of libraries at the Smithsonian Institution, United States

Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), formerly known as Smithsonian Institution Libraries, is a library system comprising 20 branch libraries serving the various Smithsonian Institution museums and research centers, as well as central support services which include a Book Conservation Laboratory and an Imaging Center. The Libraries serve Smithsonian Institution staff as well as the scholarly community and general public with information and reference support. Its collections number over 1.5 million volumes including 40,000 rare books and 2,000 manuscripts. The Libraries also holds the United States' largest trade literature collection, which includes over 300,000 commercial catalogs dating from the early nineteenth century and representing more than 30,000 companies.

Dan Dailey (glass artist) American artist

Dan Dailey is an artist who, with the support of a team of artists and crafts people, creates sculptures and functional objects in glass and metal.

Therman Statom is an American Studio Glass artist whose primary medium is sheet glass. He cuts, paints, and assembles the glass - adding found glass objects along the way – to create three-dimensional sculptures. Many of these works are large in scale. Statom is known for his site-specific installations in which his glass structures dwarf the visitor. Sound and projected digital imagery are also features of the environmental works.

Exhibition Organized presentation and display of a selection of items or pictures

An exhibition, in the most general sense, is an organized presentation and display of a selection of items. In practice, exhibitions usually occur within a cultural or educational setting such as a museum, art gallery, park, library, exhibition hall, or World's fairs. Exhibitions can include many things such as art in both major museums and smaller galleries, interpretive exhibitions, natural history museums and history museums, and also varieties such as more commercially focused exhibitions and trade fairs.

Conservation and restoration at the Smithsonian Institution deals with the care of the 138 million artifacts located in the collections of Smithsonian Institution. Work is conducted by one research center, the Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and by conservators at the Smithsonian's museums, galleries, zoo. Smithsonian conservators provide myriad services to their units, including exhibit preparation of the museum collection and loan objects, advising on object care, training for future generations of conservationists, engaging in routine preventive care on a daily basis, conducting research projects related to the collections, and examining objects for evidence of manufacturing techniques and previous restorations All conservation labs collectively further the mission of the Smithsonian Institution, "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Founded in 1846 the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities.

Myra Mimlitsch-Gray is an American metalsmith, artist, critic, and educator living and working in Stone Ridge, New York. Mimlitsch-Gray's work has been shown nationally at such venues as the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Museum of the City of New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design. Her work has shown internationally at such venues as the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Stadtisches Museum Gottingen, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is held in public and private collections in the U.S, Europe, and Asia.

Jennifer Trask is an American artist. She received a BFA in Metalsmithing from the Massachusetts College of Art, and an MFA from the State University of New York at New Paltz.

David Courlander was a self-taught ("primitive") artist who painted scenes of everyday American life. He began painting when he was 85 years old. Many of his paintings now reside in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection and have been put on public display as part of various Smithsonian art exhibitions.


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Further reading