The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the best museums in Cleveland, Ohio – maybe even THE best museum. While the museum isn’t as large or grand as some other famous art museums around the world, it’s nevertheless consistently ranked as one of the top art museums in the United States.
The CMA was founded in 1913 as a trust, with help from Cleveland industrialists Hinman B. Hurlbut, John Huntington, and Horace Kelley (who provided the money), and Jeptha H. Wade (who donated property for the museum site).
When the museum opened to the public in 1916, Wade’s grandson, Jeptha H. Wade II, proclaimed it “for the benefit of all people, forever.” The large endowment for the CMA was supposed to ensure that the museum would always be free for people to visit – and it’s indeed remained free to this day.
The Cleveland Museum of Art houses an extremely diverse collection of more than 45,000 works from all around the world. It’s known for its collections of Asian and African art, as well as notable works by the likes of Picasso, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubens, Dalí, Matisse, Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, and more.
To help you plan your own visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, here are 9 things you definitely don’t want to miss. This list is influenced by the museum’s own “Must CMA” list, along with some of my personal favorites.
9 Must-Sees at the Cleveland Museum of Art
1. The Atrium
This is one you kind of can’t miss, as you’re required to walk through it to get to most of the CMA’s galleries.
This soaring, glass-roofed space was added to the museum during a massive construction project between 2001 and 2012, in which old museum additions were demolished and new wings were built to connect the original 1916 building and the North Wing (opened in 1971). The atrium, designed by Rafael Viñoly, connects all corners of the museum in a striking way.
2. Armor Court
Gallery 210, Level Two, 1916 Building
Located on the second floor of the 1916 building, the Armor Court will draw your eye immediately. Anchored around a suit of armor sitting on an armored horse, the court consists of suits of armor, helmets, swords, and other weapons from the time of knights and sword battles.
3. Monet’s “Water Lilies”
Gallery 222, Level Two, East Wing
French Impressionist painter Claude Monet is famous for his water lilies. But the artist didn’t paint just one masterpiece dedicated to lilies – he spent the last 30 years of his life painting the lily pond at his home in Giverny, France, and created more than 250 different paintings of water lilies.
The piece on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art is part of Monet’s “Water Lilies (Agapanthus),” which is actually a triptych. The other two panels from this set are in the St. Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
4. African art gallery
Gallery 108, Level One, 1916 Building
The CMA has a significant collection of African art – more than 480 works, in fact, focusing heavily on masks and wooden figures from West and Central Africa.
The collection was largely built around donations of 100+ items by Cleveland resident Katherine C. White in the 1960s and ’70s. White’s collection of African art was one of the first of its kind in the United States.
The Cleveland Museum of Art continues to grow this collection, recently adding more contemporary works by African artists. Totem 01/01/18 by artist Hervé Youmbi from Cameroon is one of these works. It’s a large wooden sculpture covered with thousands of beads that brings together symbols from five different African countries.
5. Egyptian art gallery
Gallery 107, Level One, 1916 Building
I can’t visit the Cleveland Museum of Art and not pop in to its collection of Ancient Egyptian art. Items in this collection were the first works of art acquired by the CMA – back in 1913, before there was even an art museum to put them in.
The Egyptian collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art is widely regarded as one of the best of its kind. It’s not a huge collection, but the works on display are detailed and cover all periods of ancient Egyptian art. The collection centers around the colorful coffins of Bakenmut and Nesykhonsu, but you can also find reliefs from the reign of Amenhotep III, detailed statues and busts, tiny carvings of baboons, cat coffins, and more.
6. Tiffany display
Gallery 209, Level Two, 1916 Building
The display of Tiffany glass at the CMA is quite small and cozy, located in an alcove to the left of the museum’s seasonal South Entrance. But the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany included here are exquisite.
Tiffany was known for his Art Nouveau creations, especially his stained glass windows and lamps. The CMA’s Tiffany gallery was redesigned in 2018 to let more light flow into the space and really highlight the stained glass pieces.
Across from the Tiffany gallery is a similar gallery of the work of Tiffany’s Russian counterpart, Peter Carl Fabergé.
7. Marilyn x 100
Gallery 229A, Level Two, East Wing
While Cleveland does have a dedicated Museum of Contemporary Art, the CMA also houses collections of modern and contemporary art. The most famous piece in this section is probably “Marilyn x 100,” a work by American pop artist Andy Warhol.
You’ve likely seen photos of this piece before, but you may not have known that it can be found right here in Cleveland!
Gallery 244, Level Two, West Wing
The West Wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the smallest collections of galleries in the museum, but don’t allow this fact to convince you that you can skip it! The CMA’s collections of Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian art is found in the West Wing, and is filled with some really cool pieces.
My favorite is also one of the CMA’s favorites: a bronze figure of Shiva.
“Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance” is found in the West Wing’s “Glass Box” room, which is striking in and of itself. The piece represents that time is cyclical, and that Shiva, the all-powerful Hindu divinity, is responsible for both creation and destruction. Shiva is dancing in this piece, and with every step he’s landing on a small figure that’s supposed to represent ignorance.
9. The Thinker
A super interesting piece can be found outside the museum, at what used to be the museum’s main entrance near Wade Lagoon. Here, an original casting of Rodin’s The Thinker sits at the top of the museum’s main staircase.
If you get up close to The Thinker, you’ll notice that it looks quite different from most other castings of this famous sculpture – this one is missing the bottom part of both legs.
CMA’s The Thinker was damaged in a bombing in 1970. The museum decided not to restore or replace the sculpture since it was one of only 10 original large castings of the work supervised by Rodin himself (the museum purchased this one directly from the artist in 1916). This makes Cleveland’s version especially unique.
Beyond The Thinker you’ll find the Wade Park Fine Arts Garden and Wade Lagoon. Walk around the lagoon for fantastic views back towards the original neoclassical museum building made of white Georgian marble.
This of course isn’t an exhaustive list – there are SO many incredible pieces of art to see at the Cleveland Museum of Art!
Other things I recommend you see include the glazed Chinese Tomb Guardians in Gallery 239; the Picasso and van Gogh pieces in Gallery 222; and the Statuette of a Woman: “The Stargazer” (102A), which is one of the oldest sculptures of the human figure in the museum.
I also enjoy the Ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman galleries (102-103), the Italian Renaissance galleries (117-118), and looking at some of the French Tapestries in Gallery 113 (see if you can find the semi-disturbing one where it looks like people are about to eat Jesus off the cross).
If you’re visiting with kids, definitely make time to check out the ArtLens Gallery on Level One, too.
Tips for visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art
If you’re planning a visit to the CMA soon, here are some things to know before you go!
1.The museum is free – but parking isn’t
There’s not cost to enter the museum (unless you want to see a special exhibit, in which case there may be a special entrance charge). But if you want to park in the parking garage connected to the museum, it will cost you around $10 (exact fees are posted at the garage, and are based on how long you park there).
If you want to avoid this parking fee, your best bet is to try to find metered street parking in University Circle – just be sure to bring some change.
2. Pick up a museum map
Grab a museum map when you enter. The museum is very well-organized, but a map will help if you’re short on time and only want to see a few specific galleries. If you have questions about where certain works are located, ask at the information desk – they are very friendly and helpful.
3. Have fun with the ArtLens app
The Cleveland Museum of Art has its own dedicated smartphone app called ArtLens. Download the app before you go, and use it to help you navigate the museum and to learn fun facts about some of the museum’s holdings.
Look for the ArtLens logo next to selected works of art, and then use the “scan” function in the app for interactive fun facts, videos, and more (just make sure you step back from the work to scan it, otherwise it doesn’t always work).
I had fun with this app on my last visit; the info included in it often goes beyond the description you can find on the wall next to paintings and sculptures.
4. The cafe and restaurant are quite good!
Make a whole day of your museum visit by grabbing lunch (or even dinner!) at the CMA’s Provenance Café or restaurant, located in the museum’s Atrium.
The cafe is cafeteria-style, serving up a variety of food that’s freshly-made, from salads to flatbreads to international dishes. Next door, the Provenance restaurant is a fine dining restaurant (complete with bar) that offers a prix-fixe menu that often goes along with current museum exhibitions.
The cafe is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. The restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., for dinner Wednesdays and Fridays from 5-8 p.m., and for brunch on Saturdays (11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.) and Sundays (11 a.m.-3 p.m.).
5. Plot your visit ahead of time
If you’re just visiting Cleveland, or if you don’t make regular museum visits, you’ll want to consider what you want to see at the Cleveland Museum of Art before you go.
The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and closed on Mondays.
- If you have 1 hour: Pick out some highlights, maybe from my list above.
- If you have 2 hours: Pick one floor or perhaps 2-3 wings to focus on.
- If you have 3+ hours: See it all! You can roam through most of the museum in 3-4 hours.
If you keep these tips in mind, you should be set for a fantastic visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art!
Have you been to the Cleveland Museum of Art? What are some of your favorite pieces in the museum?
Pin it for later: