10 Small Art Museums with Giant Collections

Since my bestselling novel, Oil and Marble, is art historical fiction, a lot of fans ask about my favorite museums…

I love giant art museums — the Louvre, Met, Getty, Vatican, British Museum; you can wander through their halls for days and still not see everything on display.

But even more than a giant museum, I love walking into a TINY museum that has a collection that rivals the big kids. Sure it’s fun to walk through miles and miles of art, but if you’re looking for a more intimate experience, here are my favorite tiny art museums with giant collections.

1: Norton Simon in Pasadena, CA

I have to start with one of my favorite museums in the world: the Norton Simon. In Los Angeles, the Getty and LACMA (and lately the Broad) always seem to steal the show, but the Norton Simon is the real star. At this tiny museum, every piece is a masterpiece. Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Raphael — they are all here, hanging side by side in this jewel-box of a space. And it’s FREE every first Friday of the month, so you have no excuse NOT to go.

2: Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, England
This is one of the greatest finds in all of London. Part historic house, part library, part art collection, this is one of the most surprising museums I have ever had visited. It’s small, but every inch is crammed with unique pieces from ancient marble sculptures to paintings by Hogarth and Turner. Plus, it’s all located in a house designed by Sir John Soane, one of England’s most famous and unique 19th century architects. Oh, and it’s ALWAYS free to visitors. The next time you are in London, do NOT miss this spot.

3: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts

Empty_Frames_at_Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_MuseumOne of my favorite things about this museum is its venue: a 15th-century Venetian-style palace located in the heart of Boston. Inside, there’s a peaceful courtyard surrounded by three stories of galleries. Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Matisse are all represented on these walls. This museum was also home to the biggest art heist in history; the thieves made off with works by Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Empty frames still mark the places where the paintings once hung. But even without the stolen masterpieces, this is still home to one of the best art collections in the world.

4: Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris, France
Marmottan-Salle-Monet-2Paris is dominated by GIANT museums — what can compete with the Louvre or the Musee D’Orsay, two of the most famous museums in the world? Head out to the Musee Marmottan and you might just find out. This tiny museum packs a giant punch — with some of the most famous impressionist works in the world including paintings by Renoir, Degas, Berthe Morisot and Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, the painting that gave the Impressionists their name.

5: Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
aboutSometimes overshadowed by the behemoth Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation — with works by Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh — has not only one of the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the city, but in the world.  In 2012, the Barnes moved from its old location in Merion to a new (and sometimes controversial) location in Philadelphia, but regardless of what you think of the new digs, the collection itself is always worth a visit.

6: The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands
Kröller-Müller Museum, schilderijen Vincent van Gogh
Every continent (except Antarctica) has a museum with Van Gogh paintings on display. The largest of these museums is the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but one of the best — and often overlooked — is the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands (about an hour outside of Amsterdam). This museum holds over 100 Van Gogh paintings  along with Seurats, Mondrians and Picassos. Plus, it boasts one of the largest sculpture gardens in all of Europe.

7: The Frick in New York City, New York
03This museum is located in the opulent residence of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919); according to the website it’s “one of New York City’s few remaining Gilded Age mansions,” so if you’re as interested in old houses as art, this is a must-see spot for you. It also happens to be home to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Whistler, Ingres and Bellini. Amid the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, this is a tranquil spot to travel back in time and soak in some art.

8: Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX
The Kimbell is home to the only Michelangelo painting held in an American Collection, so of course I rank it high on my list. (It’s a small copy Michelangelo made when he was only 12 or 13. Not representative of his style or interests, but an impressive example of his prodigious talents). Their permanent collection is also home to works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Titian… I love the Kimbell for focusing on quality over quantity — it’s small, but for quality of works, it can’t be beat.

9: The Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts
I love this little art museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It boasts an impressive collection of Impressionism and American Art — and also a good representation of the Renaissance, photography, and the decorative arts. This museum holds a special place in my heart because of its mission to be both art museum AND a center of learning to expand the public understanding and appreciation of art. If you’re looking for a museum that TRULY wants to engage with YOU, a visit to The Clark should be top on your list.

10: Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice
pgc-2013When you think of the Guggenheim, you may think of the New York icon or Gehry’s architectural masterpiece in Bilbao, but I think of this stellar gallery on the canals of Venice — which shows off the personal collection of Peggy Guggenheim. Pollocks and Picassos, Duchamps and Dalis, Mondrians, Miros and Magrittes — in a city teaming with Italo-Byzantine architecture and Renaissance art, this jewel on the canal is an escape into some of the best modern art in the world.


These are just some of my favorite small art museums. Where are yours?






49 thoughts on “10 Small Art Museums with Giant Collections

  1. I’ve been to Soanes, Gardner, Marmottan, Frick and Thyssen-Bornemisza. Since this list includes several museums with focused collections, I’ll nominate the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago as worthy for inclusion on this list. The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester NH has a nice general collection. The Walters in Baltimore and Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond are also very worthy regional museums.


  2. You should say in the title in “The Nort Hemisphere” There is a lot o tiny beautiful and amazing museums in South America with incredible collections of art!!!


    1. Very good point! Usually I mix it up more, but I was very US/European-centric in this post. I’d love to hear your suggestions in South America!


  3. I love this! I, too, am a small museum aficionado. I grew up near The Clark, and it is very, very dear to my heart. This one may be too large, but I think it is perhaps comparable in size to the Venice Guggenheim, if my memory serves me right – the Hugh Lane in Dublin. This is based around the collection of, you guessed it, Lady Gregory’s nephew, and has quality 20th Century European works (among others). The Smith College Museum of Art and the New Mexico Museum of Art are small gems as well. The Smith museum is astounding, really – such a fantastically selected collection. I am a big fan of their Ashcan School work in particular! The Amon Carter is great as well, especially for documenting Western American art. There are so many! Thank you for this post – I am going to Boston for a conference in a couple weeks and, despite having been there dozens of times, have yet to visit the ISG – first on my list now when I skip some panels 🙂


  4. Well, I think the Thyssen is not really a small museum. As for the Norton Simon, I was not so fond of it, partly because the staff was rude and ignorant. Huntington is much better. John Soane’s is indeed No. 1, but the Wallace must also be in the Top Ten. And where are the gems of Italy? The Poldi Pezzoli, the Duomo Museum in Florence, etc, etc?


  5. The fabulous and perfectly formed Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the campus of the University of Birmingham, UK. (completely free!)

    And YES for theThe Kröller-Müller!


  6. There’s a lot of joy to be found in even smaller museums associated with universities–the RISD museum in Providence, for example, or the Bowdoin College art museum in Brunswick Maine. Here in England, let me suggest the Towner Museum in Eastbourne, the City of Birmingham museums, the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. And the New Britain Museum of American Art, in New Britain Connecticut, just blew us away–an amazing and unexpected collection.


  7. Al comienzo de tu artículo, creo has obviado el mencionar al “Museo del Prado”, (Madrid), que es reconocido como uno de los diez museos más importantes del mundo….En cuanto al resto del articulo, me parece fantástico, con los “Museos 10 Arte Pequeño con gigantes Colecciones”, estoy totalmente de acuerdo con tu exposición.


  8. If you’re ever in Dallas you need to visit the Meadows Museum on the campus of SMU. A jewel of a museum dedicated to Spanish art! Just enjoyed seeing Velazquez Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress there during a recent visiting exhibition. Fantastic!


  9. I’m looking for recommendations in Miami. The small yet comprehensive museum in Madrid on this list sounds perfect. I’ll be traveling with aging parents and teenage son, so would like a small museum with big effects.


  10. Any recommendation for “sandwich generation” traveling to Miami with teen age son and aging parents? They have different reasons, but the same end result–neither will last long in an art museum.


  11. I would also recommend the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine – it’s a real gem in an unexpected location, a surprising find for me when I chanced upon it some years ago. The Farnsworth is focused on American art – mostly with a Maine theme. Also Eiteljorg Musuem of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana was another hugely unexpected find that I visited again and again when I was in the area because the collection is quite vast and the museum space is lovely.


  12. My list includes Salem Mass’s, Peabody Essex Museum (other than charging a separate admission for their Chinese courtyard house Yin Yu Tang) it has one of the worlds recognized Asian and early New England Maritime collections.


  13. In Paris, besides the Marmottan (which is wonderful), I would add the Petit Palace (free, nice selection of well-know artists, beautiful courtyard, comfortable, modern cafe). Also, the Orangerie (my favorite), Rodin and Picasso museums.


  14. Dear Madam
    Even if my post is not directly related with the question, I am very surprised with your post when you are not including as a big museum The Prado Museum in Madrid which could be one of the first museums in the world for its excellency and number.



  15. The Wallace Collection is wonderful as is Lisbon’s Gulbenkian where the quality of the exhibits is just staggering. And for a small, out of the way, gallery devoted to an area of painting about which I for one knew little, (20th century Italian painting) I’d recommend the Estorick Collection in Islington, London.


  16. I would add the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has as comprehensive a collection as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or any number of other large museums, but is small enough to see everything in a single day. It is also free.

    And, like others, I love the Wallace Collection in London, which has a less eccentric collection of architectural bric-a-brac than Sir John Soane’s. It has some lovely little treasures.


  17. The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), Baltimore is phenomenal, in terms of its unique collection of works by self taught artists as well as its fabulous architecture and mosaic sheathed exterior. I’m also a huge fan of the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine!


  18. I live in Toronto and I love Art Gallery of Ontario (not a small one :)), but some of my European favorites are:
    1. Constantin Brancusi – Paris
    2. Salvador Dali – Paris
    3. Theodor Aman – Bucharest


  19. How about the Mauritshuis, the home of the Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer and The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt or the Gemeentemuseum with houses the largest collection of Mondrian paintings? Both in The Hague, The Netherlands, just like the Mesdag Collection and the famous Panorama Mesdag that was already mentioned by Erik here. So next time, don’t skip The Hague and visit our beautiful city!


  20. Greetings from a small museum in Thessaloniki, Greece! Thanks for the information, and we are very welcome to show you the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art located in Thessaloniki, Greece. At present the MMCA’s permanent collection is made up of 1,800 works by Greek and foreign artists. Apart from the permanent display, the MMCA has mounted over 200 exhibitions of works by Greek and foreign artists such as Fluxus artists, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Matta, Viallat, Beuys, Uecker, Greenaway, Hockney, Ernst, Barlach, Beckmann, Warhol and many others. The museum’s library is made up of two-and-a-half thousand books and reviews on art. All catalogues published by the MMCA, audio-visual material and the museum’s archive of artists are available to the public.


  21. I would like to nominate the Sollora Museum in Madrid Spain. His works are displayed in his own home studio and garden which he built. On display are his collection of pottery and handmade furniture also. A wonderful immersion into the the light filled world of Sollora.


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