Origins of American Art Museums

In our last post, we saw the role royalty played in starting several of the world’s great museums. But, the United States was created to break the royal hold on the colonies. So, without royalty in America (sorry, Kardashians), how did some of its great museums get started? Here are the origins of several of our country’s well-known museums.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Others in New York City

The idea for “The Met” started in Paris in 1866 when lawyer John Jay gathered a group of Americans to plan a museum to educate Americans about art. When Jay returned to New York, he mobilized The Union League Club, a private social club that he led, to gain support from civic leaders, the business community, art patrons, and artists. In April 1870, the Met was incorporated with goals of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of the arts to manufacture and practical life, of advancing general knowledge of kindred subjects, and, to that end, furnishing popular instruction and recreation.”  The museum opened in a rented space on Fifth Avenue with no employees and no artworks of its own. Work began on fundraising and planning exhibitions. In November, the Met acquired its first object, a Roman sarcophagus. Over time, the Met commissioned its own building, bought and was gifted artworks, and expanded, addition by addition, into the two-million-square-foot building we know today.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo: Hugo Schneider, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had a similar beginning. Led by three patrons, a Bliss, a Sullivan, and a Rockefeller, the museum was organized in 1929 with the intention of creating the greatest modern art museum in the world. Its collection started with a gift of eight prints and one drawing. After 4 temporary locations, in 1939 MoMA landed on West 53rd Street where we find it today.

Not everyone appreciated modern art. Sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney recognized the difficulty avant-garde American artists had showing their work. In 1914 she opened the Whitney Studio to show modern American art.  She amassed a collection of more than five hundred works. She offered her collection to the Met, but the Met turned her down, so she started the Whitney Museum of American Art, which thrives today as the premier showcase of American art and the home of the prestigious Whitney Biennial. For many years, the Whitney was located in its iconic Breuer building on Madison Avenue. In 2015, the museum moved to a new $422 million home in the Meatpacking District at the southern entrance to the new High Line.

Whitney Museum Breuer Building. Photo: Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The new Whitney Museum.  Photo: Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Jean Paul Getty was born in 1892 and followed his parents’ footsteps by making money in oil. He grew up in America, but spent much of his time in England. His business acumen is legendary, as is his frugality. Imagine the wealthiest person on earth installing a payphone in his mansion. In 1973, when Getty was worth about $2 billion, one of his grandsons was kidnapped in Rome for a ransom of $17 million. Getty initially refused to pay, although he did negotiate until the price dropped to $2.2 million, after the grandson’s ear had been mailed to a newspaper. Getty paid part of the ransom, and loaned his son the money, with interest, to pay the rest.

Getty owned a ranch house in Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway at the east end of Malibu. While he was in England, he built the Getty Villa on that property, a replica of the luxurious Villa dei Papiri covered in ash by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The Villa showed Getty’s art collection of Greek and Roman treasures and paintings from Rubens to Monet. Getty never saw the Villa, dying two years after it opened in 1974.
Getty Villa. Photo: Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The museum’s neighbors complained about visitors parking in front of their homes, so when I first visited the Villa, I needed a reservation for a parking space on the grounds. To discourage parking on the streets, visitors would be turned away at the gate if they arrived by foot, unless they produced a bus ticket. Outgrowing the space, and loaded with an inheritance from Getty valued at over $13 billion in June 2018, the Getty Trust opened a second, huge campus on a hilltop in Brentwood in 1979. Getty Center, satellite image

I call the Getty Center “Disneyland for Art Lovers” because guests take a monorail from the parking garage (reservation only) to the hilltop. We will learn more about the activities of the Getty Trust and visit the Getty Villa and Getty Center in future posts.

A more recent addition to America’s art museums opened in 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was founded by Alice Walton, daughter of the Walmart founder. Maybe the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was the only art museum to have greeters.

1 thought on “Origins of American Art Museums”

  1. I had an opportunity to visit MOMA and the Met in 2013 and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2017. They were fantastic. Cannot wait to visit other great museums in the future.

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