I grew up outside Boston, which means I grew up enjoying access to a wealth of art. Now that I go to school in Boston, I have revisited the art museums my father introduced me to in childhood and discovered even more to love about them. Here’s my guide, and my loving homage, to the three major art museums of Boston.
THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
The MFA is the first art museum I ever went to, so I’m biased in its favor. Looking back, it’s the reason I like art, and the reason I’m writing these roundups. Buckle up for some gushing.
Like most Big Important Art Institutions, the MFA covers a lot of ground. There’s the requisite ancient Greek and Egyptian art, the European masters, American modernists, etc., etc. But unlike some of its counterparts, the MFA’s strength lies in its dedication to reinvention. Since 2010, the MFA has added the four-floor Art of the Americas wing; devoted its entire west wing to contemporary art; and expanded its collection of art from outside the US.
The MFA also hosts temporary exhibitions that are as well-curated and comprehensive as its permanent ones. In 2014, the MFA held an exhibition of the work of Francisco de Goya, borrowing from museums all over the world. Two years later in Madrid, as I strolled through the Prado’s Goya galleries, I kept looking at the paintings and thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” The MFA is serious about providing the best, freshest artistic experience possible, making a visit is worth anyone’s time.
- TICKET PRICE: $25 for adults, with discounts available.
- TIME SPENT: If you only have a few hours, pick one exhibition, or skim a few. I’ve been going for years and still haven’t seen everything.
- BONUS: The MFA was patron to turn-of-the-century portraitist John Singer Sargent, who designed and painted the beautiful murals in the museum’s front rotunda. Walking up the marble steps and standing underneath them makes me feel like I’m in a movie. I recommend the feeling.
THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM
In 1899, Boston arts patron and coolest woman ever Isabella Stewart Gardner constructed a mock villa in the Fenway to house her growing art collection. She collected mostly European and Asian art and included the work of her contemporaries. (There’s some prominent paintings by the MFA’s best bud, John Singer Sargent, including his beautiful portrait of Gardner herself.) She opened her villa to the public 4 years later, and when she died, her will forbade any future meddlers from changing a thing. Besides a 2012 addition, everything is the same as Isabella left it. All but 13 pieces remain in the same spots she chose for them.
The Gardner is half museum, half treasure hunt. Most museums hang helpful plaques with information about the artist and the work’s meaning, but the Gardner pointedly does not. If you want to know any background information, there are stands holding laminated maps of each room. You have to match the picture on the map to the piece you’re curious about and read about it there. This system thwarts visitors who head straight for the famous stuff and skip everything else. I like the concept, and it works, but it can be frustrating for the spatially challenged.
The Gardner is worth visiting for its unconventionality and for its deep and interesting history. If big, traditional museums like the MFA intimidate or bore you, check out the Gardner.
- TICKET PRICE: $15 for adults, with discounts available. Free for anyone under 18 and anyone named Isabella (this is true).
- TIME SPENT: 2 hours.
- BONUS: Those 13 pieces I mentioned weren’t shifted by some dissatisfied curator. In 1990, two thieves disguised as Boston police officers managed to get into the museum, tie up the security guards, and steal 13 works, several of which were masterpieces. Vermeer’s The Concert, according to the ISG’s online stolen art interactive, is not just the most valuable stolen painting in the world, but perhaps the most valuable stolen object. After 26 years, the culprits have never been caught. Most of the stolen paintings’ frames still hang empty on the walls.
THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Completing the Boston art museum trifecta is the ICA, which takes full advantage of its spot on the seaport. The upper section of the ICA juts out over the water, and visitors can admire the view through its wall of windows. Outside, there’s a waterfront deck that doubles as an amphitheater.
The ICA knows how to do a lot with a little. Only one of its floors is an exhibition space, and its permanent collection (focused entirely on contemporary art, as the name implies) is small. However, it hosts a wealth of interesting events to draw you back. This summer, the ICA welcomed pop-up yoga classes, film screenings, concerts, and exhibition walkthroughs hosted by the artists themselves.
Without a car, the ICA is difficult to get to. However, while tickets to the MFA and the Gardner can be prohibitively expensive, the ICA is free every Thursday night from 5-9 PM. Many of its events are also free, or are included in the price of admission. Last time I went, one of the gallery spaces was closed while an exhibit was being installed, so admission was free as a compensation. It’s easier to not pay than to pay, making the ICA the most financially accessible art museum in Boston.
- TICKET PRICE: $15 for adults, with discounts available.
- TIME SPENT: 2 hours.
- BONUS: I have a dorky love for art museum gift shops, and the ICA’s stands out. It offers prints, puzzles, art supplies, clothes, desk doodads, and more, all at a sophisticated level of design. It’s a lot of interesting and tempting stuff that I do not need but love to look at.
Keep in mind the ticket prices and other practical considerations covered in this guide can change at any time. Remember to check each institution’s website before your visit!
Want to read more on art? – Check out our roundup on Madrid’s Golden Triangle art museums
While you are in Boston and looking for more things to do and places to visit in the city – Don’t miss to check out our walking tour post on Boston in a day!