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

Every museum hopes to attract the general public — most offer family events, classes, or even a free party on Friday nights. But some museums go above and beyond helping non-PhDs connect to art… These museums make art exciting, even if you don’t know a thing about it.

So if a trip to a museum sounds intimidating to you (or to someone you know), visit one of these; perhaps it will be your (or your mom’s, son’s, grandmother’s, uncle’s, friend’s) gateway to a lifelong love of art.

1: Detroit Institute of Art in Detroit, Michigan
American gallery - Court of Death and stained glass - ok

Creating experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art

I had to start with the DIA; everything in this museum oozes with the idea of making art relatable to the everyman. From their annual Inside/Out exhibition and live music to author events and classes, this museum reaches outside its walls to embrace the people of Detroit. But beyond those special events, the DIA tells fun, relatable stories about every piece of art in their collection. In this museum, you are sure to discover that art isn’t only about the artist — it’s about YOU.

2: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR

View from east into reflection area; photography by Dero Sanford. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

To celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature

Crystal Bridges comes in at #2 on this list not only for bringing a world-class art collection to the people of Arkansas, but also for surrounding that collection with miles of walking paths to attract nature-lovers from all over the area. With large windows, panoramic views, and a collection that highlights nature, this museum uniquely blends art with the outdoors — and makes art exciting even to those who would rather be on a hike.

3: New Orleans Museum of Art in New Orleans, Louisiana

We inspire and celebrate the love of art

10 years after Hurricane Katrina, NOMA is doing an amazing job of inspiring New Orleanians to rise back to greatness after a decade of renewal. This city deserves a great art museum that reaches out to the community, and NOMA is stepping up to that challenge. They host talks with local artists, family activities, Friday Nights at NOMA, and even a Holiday Camp for kids. If you want to see a museum that has something at stake in this quest to connect to the people, you can’t beat a trip to the Big Easy.

4: Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

Turner and the Sea Mood o'Meter Rebecca, Hannah, Esme and Abigail Goodwin, model releases on file
Children in the exhibition Turner & the Sea. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Linking art to the wider world and back again — to you

Some of us get too distracted by the outside world to engage with art, but at PEM, you can step into another world of dragons and demons, ships and seas. Here you can walk amongst giant flowers, discover the streets of India, or investigate your own relationship to creativity. PEM says they strive to “enrich the spirit, engage the mind, and stimulate the senses…” So if you need to engage your mind, body and spirit in order to relate to art, you’ll love a visit to PEM.

5: The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Barnes Foundation
Photo by Ryan Donnell. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

Promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts

This list could not exist without the Barnes. It’s the most famous example of an art museum reaching beyond the so-called experts and teaching the general public how to appreciate and relate to art. Don’t know anything about artistic movements or historical context? Don’t worry. The Barnes isn’t arranged around such museum norms; the paintings are organized by space, light, color, line… You don’t have to know anything about art history to follow along at the Barnes — you just have to LOOK.

6: Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, TX

Dallas Museum of Art_European Gallery_photo creditCourtesy of Dallas Museum of Art
Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art

A trusted advocate for the essential place of art in the lives of people

The Dallas Museum of Art is exciting and surprising… It’s cool. I love all the different rooms and spaces — turn a corner and there’s an intriguing spot you’ve never seen before. Yes, there are engaging exhibitions (currently the International Pop and Jackson Pollock exhibits are worth a trip), talks, classes, family nights… but more importantly, the DMA makes me feel at home, as though it’s MY museum, and I can make of it what I want. Oh, and it’s free general admission, which you know I love.

7: Brooklyn Museum of Art in Brooklyn, New York

April First Saturday (c) Elena Olivo
April First Saturday (c) Elena Olivo

A bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures and the unique experience of each visitor

The Brooklyn Museum is “dedicated to the primacy of the visitor experience” and that ethos permeates the space — it is a welcoming, energetic center of art in the middle of Brooklyn. From exhibits about the history of local Coney Island or the human body, this museum has a definite “you”-centric vibe. With a diverse calendar of public programs for adults, teens and kids, this museum caters to YOU — no matter who you are.

8: Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts

A resource for both those who are already familiar with art and those for whom art is a new experience

Don’t let the imposing exterior fool you. Boston’s MFA works hard at making art relatable to everyone. At the MFA, I’ve listened to academics swap information over an obscure painting, overheard young men from Southie making crude jokes — and having a blast doing it — and watched kids copy their first masterpiece. One of my other favorite things? The MFA goes into the community through arts programs at local hospitals, after-school programs, and even kids’ birthday parties.

9: Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland

American Wing installation view. The Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Maximilian Franz

To inspire creativity, encourage learning, and foster human understanding

This museum makes this list in part because, in October of this year, they finished a huge renovation, including opening a new $4.5 million, 5,500-square-foot Patricia and Mark Joseph Education Center for art. This new center gives community members unique ways of interacting with art including innovative exhibitions, an art-making-studio and programs with local artists.

10: Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado

DAM-enjoying the contemporary art galleries
Courtesy Denver Art Museum

Sparking creative thinking and expression through transformative experiences with art

Whether you’re interacting with their artist in residence, watching artists work, or walking through their eclectic collection and exhibits, you are sure to find something in this museum that relates to you and your life. But beyond all of their special events and collection highlights, it’s the feeling of Denver Art Museum that makes this space special. It’s not just a feeling of comfort or engagement — it’s a spirit of FUN. The child in your heart will always thank you for a visit to the DAM.

11: J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California

© J. Paul Getty Trust

To inspire curiosity about, and enjoyment and understanding of, the visual arts

As a Los Angeleno for the last 15 years, I am madly in love with the Getty. I don’t care if you like or loathe art, you will adore this place. The architecture, the grounds, the view, the food… okay, sometimes you might not even realize you are soaking up art on a trip to the Getty, but you are… The Getty is much more than just an art museum — it’s an experience that you can only get in LA and one that will inspire anyone — even your anti-art brother-in-law — to embrace the beauty of art.

12: Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina

To transform lives through art

This small museum in the Blue Ridge Mountains has one of my favorite vision statements ever: To transform lives through art. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Transforming lives. You’re not supposed to look at a piece of art on the wall and forget about it. When you look at a piece of art you are supposed to be moved, changed… transformed. With a full schedule of educational events, lunchtime art breaks and a collection of American art with a special focus on art made in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a visit to the Asheville Art Museum might just transform YOU.


These are the museums that make art relatable to ME. Which ones make art relatable to YOU?