A tight budget doesn’t have to mean a life without art. There are some places that you can enjoy works of art in person for free or at least at a discount.
Free and Low-Cost Museum Admission
- Some museums are always free. I’ve been keeping a list of free art museums in the United States. In particular, college and university art museums are often free. (But some are not, so verify before you go.)
- Other museums offer pay what you wish admission, which means that you pay whatever amount works for you (even if it’s only a few cents). There may be a “suggested donation” price listed, but you are under no obligation to actually give that amount. Don’t let a disapproving look from a desk attendant guilt you into donating more than feels right for you, but please don’t be unnecessarily stingy, either.
- Museum that usually charge admission sometimes set aside a certain time of the week or one day each month for free, discounted, or pay-what-you-wish admission. These events are generally popular, so prepare for crowds and leave lots of time to find parking.
- Museums tend to offer discounts or even free admission based on all sorts of different criteria. Beyond the usual students and seniors, you may get a discount if you are a local resident, employee of a corporate partner, member of an allied organization, or holder of some kind of tourist pass. Reciprocal admission programs mean that you may also get free admission if you belong to a different cultural institution (like a theatre or library) that has an agreement with the museum you want to visit. The list varies from museum to museum, so check online for details, because the most surprising things can potentially qualify you.
- Museum members – people who have joined the museum for the year through a set donation – always get free admission. Membership is not usually cheap, but if there is a particular museum you like to return to regularly, getting membership may actually save you money. It also gets you discounts on parking, gift shop purchases, tickets to special events, and food from the in-site cafe. As mentioned above, membership may also give you free admission to some other museums through reciprocal agreements.
- Museum admission is sometimes included in multi-venue tourist passes within cities. Naturally, whether these passes are worth the cost depends on how long you’ll be in town and what you want to see there.
In all cases, keep in mind that there may be other costs, especially parking, associated with a museum visit besides just admission. Plus, some museums charge extra to see special exhibitions, though that is not common in the United States in my experience.
Other Places to See Art for Free
- Commercial art galleries are always free to enter, since they’re essentially stores. Learn more about visiting art galleries here.
- Most auction houses offer previews for a few days before each auction. At this time, it’s usually free to walk around the auction gallery and have a look at the pieces about to go up for sale. The auctions themselves are also free to observe, though some kind of registration may be required.
- Local arts events are great ways of seeing artists from your area, and they’re almost always free. These include small, outdoor art fairs in public parks and squares, open studio events (where you can visit artists in their studios), and exhibitions in shops and public buildings. I’ve attended local art shows in libraries, community buildings, cultural centers, coffee shops, bookstores, civic buildings like the courthouse, performing arts centers, art schools, colleges, historic houses, and more.
Cover image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany.
Art galleries provide often-overlooked free opportunities to see art in person. Their perceived snobbishness and exclusivity often stop people from taking advantage of them, but that attitude is not always accurate in my experience. Art galleries are basically stores that sell art, and they are generally a lot less intimidating than you might think.
You all probably know that I love art museums and galleries, but I’m also a really big fan of local arts events run in public gathering places. In this post, I’ll tell you why I think they’re worth attending.