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What is contemporary art?

While we might imagine this only applies to art created today, it’s actually a broader term. Contemporary collections encompass pieces created in the late 20th and 21st century, produced by artists using a variety of mediums and styles.

Contemporary art dates back to 1910, when the respected critic Roger Fry formed the Contemporary Art Society. He and the other members of this private group were involved in buying pieces of art to exhibit in numerous public museums.

After this, similar arts groups began to appear bearing the term in their titles. One was the Contemporary Art Society of Australia (established in 1938), while a variety of venues around the world adopted the term too.

In terms of its thematic concerns, contemporary art eschews easy classification and categorisation. Instead, it embraces the diversity of more modern approaches, with variety in the backgrounds of its artists, materials, style, and subject matter. Unlike movements focused on achieving specific aims – Modernism or Realism, for example – contemporary art lacks an overriding definite goal.

Still, there are common themes that appear throughout the history of contemporary art (something of a juxtaposition!): globalization, technology, identity, politics, and immigration are all familiar elements.

Some of the most well-known contemporary artists from around the world include Tracey Emin, Gerhard Richter, Odd Nerdrum, Damien Hirst, Andy Goldsworthy, H. R. Giger (known for his nightmarish works that inspired the design of the titular creature in ‘Alien’), Yoko Ono, and Julian Schnabel.

All of these have created their own pieces that belong to the contemporary art scene, and have their own fan-bases. Contemporary art museums serve an essential purpose in exhibiting the diverse works of art produced in the late 20th and early 21st century, enabling people from all walks of life to connect with the most relevant pieces of recent times.

The 10 Best Contemporary Art Museums in the World

1 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

(Bilbao, Spain)
This beautiful venue was designed by the visionary architect Frank Gehry. Without a doubt, he created a stunning public structure that’s the perfect home for fine contemporary art.

The inauguration of the museum took place in October 1997, with Spain’s King Juan Carlos I in attendance. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is based in Spain’s Bilbao, Basque Country, beside the Nervion River (which passes through Bilbao itself and into the Cantabrian Sea).

If the name Guggenheim sounds familiar, that’s because the Bilbao is just one of a number of museums owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. This is one of Spain’s biggest museums, and its architecture has received a wealth of praise from the public and members of the art community alike.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened its doors with a number of introductory exhibitions in place, and has continued to showcase a shifting roster of contemporary art ever since.

One of its first was The Guggenheim Museums and the Art of This Century, displaying 300 different pieces of art from the 20th century. This included works from such artists as Francesco Clemente, Richard Serra, Willem de Kooning, and Clyfford Still.

Another notable piece in the Bilbao’s collection is Richard Serra’s mesmerising The Matter of Time. This consists of numerous weathering steel creations sculpted by Serra, all located in the museum’s Arcelor Gallery.

The contemporary art exhibited at the Bilbao tend to include abstracts and Avant-garde works, encompassing a broad variety from across the genre.

Learn more about Guggenheim Bilbao
2 Centre Pompidou

(Paris, France)
Formally known as the Centre Georges Pompidou, this museum of contemporary art’s name tends to be shortened to simply the Centre Pompidou.

This is based in Paris’s famous Beaubourg area, within the city’s 4th arrondissement (close to the Marais and Les Halles). It’s an eye-catching structure created by the joint efforts of architects Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Gianfranco Franchini.

The Centre Pompidou is more than just a museum of contemporary art: it’s home to the city’s public library and the centre for music and acoustic studies. This makes it an important cultural venue for resident Parisians and tourists alike.

The Centre Pompidou contemporary art museum first opened in 1977, and welcomed over 180 million visitors through its doors within its first 30 years alone. Works by such artists as Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dali, Roy Lichtenstein, Picasso, David Hockney, Jackson Pollack, and more have all been exhibited at the museum.

Over the decades since it opened, the Centre Pompidou has set up numerous branches and expansions to extend its reach. The Centre Pompidou-Metz is located in Metz (to Paris’s east), and aims to present people outside of the capital city with a broad range of contemporary art. This new structure was designed by Shigeru Ban and opened in 2010.

Furthermore, approximately 70 pieces of art from the Centre Pompidou were exhibited at a temporary Malaga venue called The Cube in 2015. It showcased contemporary art from the likes of Alexander Calder, Orlan, Sophie Calle, and Bruce Nauman.

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3 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

(Chicago, USA)
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is located in Chicago’s bustling downtown area. It was opened in 1967, and is regarded as one of the biggest museums of contemporary art in the world.

It was first established following a meeting of around 30 art experts (collectors, critics, and dealers). Everyone in attendance sought to introduce a contemporary art venue to the city – and the goal was certainly achieved with great success!

Visitors at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago will find a vast collection comprising permanent and loaned pieces. Exhibitions chang across each year.

Some iconic artists have been associated with the museum. Frida Kahlo, for example, held her first exhibition in the United States there, while Takashi Murakami’s 2017 exhibition attracted the venue’s then-highest number of attendees.

Other artists who have worked with the museum include Chuck Close, Robert Irwin, Lorna Simpson, Rudolf Stingel, and Vito Acconci.

The works included in the collection were created by leading names like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Cindy Sherman. Minimalism, surrealism, pop art, sculptures, videos, paintings, dance, music, and other arts are all covered by the museum.

Around 2,700 individual pieces feature in the entire collection, dating as far back as 1945. Such celebrated artworks as Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait, Jasper Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol’s Jackie Frieze, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #14, Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, and many others are all present in the collection.

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4 Kroller-Muller Museum

(Otterlo, The Netherlands)
Based in Otterlo’s Hoge Veluwe National Park, the Kroller-Muller Museum was first established in 1938.

It was the brainchild of a dedicated collector named Helene Kroller-Muller, known as one of the first people to spot the brilliance of Vincent van Gogh (who would go on to be recognised as one of the most important artists in history). She purchased a number of his paintings.

She decided to donate her entire collection of art to the Netherlands, and the resulting museum went on to open the public. Since its 1938 debut, the museum has expanded: a picturesque sculpture garden was introduced to the grounds in 1961, followed by an extra exhibition wing in 1977.

Due to Helene Kroller-Muller’s avid appreciation of van Gogh’s talents, this museum of contemporary art boasts the world’s second biggest assortment of his work (close to 90 paintings, more than 180 drawings).

These include Sorrorwing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), Cafe Terrace at Night, Still Life with Clogs, Woman with a Broom, Sower with Basket, and The Potato Eaters. It’s a beautiful selection that demonstrates his mastery of the craft.

As well as Vincent van Gogh, other artists featured are Georges Braque, Lucas Cranach, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Odilon Redon.

Further contemporary art can be found in the sculpture garden: Auguste Rodin, Fritz Wotruba, Henry Moore, and Mark di Suvero’s creations all feature. More than 160 sculptures are based in the garden.

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5 Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

(Denver, USA)
The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver was established in 1996. It was the city’s premier contemporary art venue, and was originally based in what used to be a fish market in the downtown area before it relocated.

The museum was first put together by Sue Cannon (a philanthropist) and volunteers decided to give Denver its first contemporary art exhibition space. After spending seven years on the site of the old fish market, the museum was transferred to a permanent property. The land for this new location was donated by members of the city’s Board of Trustees.

While the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver houses no permanent collection of its own, it nevertheless exhibits works for a few months throughout the year. Numerous well-known contemporary artists have presented their work at this venue, including Damien Hirst, David Altmejd, Lorraine O’Grady, Dana Schutz, Tatiana Blass, and more.

The museum hosts exhibitions and events of a diverse variety: Yoga in the Galleries, Fem Fest, and Hip Hop as Social Action all give some idea of the wide-reaching subjects covered.

It has run numerous programs aimed at cultivating creativity in younger generations over the years too, such as their Curating Digital Animation Workshop, scholarships, and their Failure Lab. This is obviously an important service, serving to ensure experimentation and ongoing interest in contemporary art in tomorrow’s adults.

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6 Whitney Museum of American Art

(New York, USA)
The Whitney Museum of American Art was opened in 1931. It was the creation of wealthy socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was also a committed art patron.

As well as this, Whitney was a respected sculptor and passionate collector, and had already established the ‘Whitney Studio Club’ more than a decade before the museum opened. This was a place for the exhibition of undiscovered artists’ creations.

She decided to start her own museum after the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art declined a generous donation of more than 500 pieces from her own stock.

Over 21,000 thousand pieces of contemporary art are present in the museum’s collection. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, videos, films, and more are all featured, curating the work of over 3,000 artists.

The museum was based on Madison Avenue between 1966 and 2014, until it was moved to Washington Street in Lower Manhattan in May 2015.

During its time, this museum has helped to bring the work of countless lesser-known creators to wider attention in its Whitney Biennial. This is held every two years and is a valuable opportunity for amateurs to reach a bigger audience.

More than 18,000 pieces of art are present in the Whitney’s collection, with such artists as Andy Warhol, Lucile Blanch, Josef Albers, Greg Colson, Knox Martin, and dozens of others all represented.

Though the museum focuses primarily on exhibiting the art of living people, it still houses many works from across the history of contemporary art.

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7 Tate Modern

(London, UK)
The Tate Modern is one of the world’s most well-known, biggest contemporary art museums.

The Tate family’s connection to art stretches back to 1889, when Henry Tate funded the first Tate Gallery and brought his collection of British art to the public. He had earned his wealth in sugar refinery, but went on to become known as a generous lover of art.

The Tate Modern is based in what was once the Bankside Power Station, and stands across the river from the stunning St Paul’s Cathedral, making the area a hotspot for visitors looking to explore London’s cultural landmarks.

The Tate Modern was officially opened in May 2000 by none other than the Queen, leading it into a successful first year. Over 5 million visitors explored the museum during those initial twelve months, and it has remained popular ever since. It’s a ‘must-see’ on the list of countless tourists from across the globe annually.

The Tate Modern exhibits work across multiple storeys, with plenty of space to showcase contemporary art. Its layout consists of the Boiler House, the Switch House (which boasts eleven floors featuring art from 1960 onwards), and the Turbine Hall.

Displays tend to be arranged by theme rather than chronology, with such areas as Artist and Society, Media Networks, In the Studio, and Living Cities. Organisation and themes have changed often during the Tate Modern’s history.

Many artists have displayed their work at the Tate Modern since it opened, such as Anish Kappor, Carsten Holler, and Bruce Nauman.

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8 Broad Contemporary Art Museum

(Los Angeles, USA)
The Broad contemporary art museum in Los Angeles was named after its founder, Eli Broad.

Broad was a philanthropist who funded the building in which the artworks are contained, which cost a staggering $140. The museum opened in September 2015, and provides general admission to guests entirely free of charge.

Eli Broad announced his intention to construct a museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles’ downtown area, ultimately paying close to $8 million in exchange for a lease lasting 99 years. The building’s design was opened up as a competition, in which six architects were invited to create their own ideas for the Broad museum.

New Yorkers Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design was finally chosen for the structure. It is based close to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and encompasses three storeys of substantial display space.

Close to 2,000 pieces of contemporary art are included in the Broad’s collection. Work by such celebrated artists as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman (the Broad actually has the largest selection of her art), and Roy Lichtenstein all feature.

Installations of note include Goshka Macuga’s Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite, which took the form of a photo-tapestry.

The Broad also houses a free-standing eatery (Otium), which includes a photographic mural created by famed contemporary artist Damien Hirst. It also hosts musical and dramatic performances from time to time, as well as exhibiting artwork.

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9 Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

(Madrid, Spain)
The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (otherwise known as MNCARS, for simplicity’s sake) is the Spanish national museum of contemporary art. Its site was originally home to Madrid’s first general hospital.

The venue was opened in September 1992, and takes its name from the country’s Queen Sofia. It tends to specialise in works by Spanish artists, particularly in its extensive collections of pieces from Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Guernica, one of the latter’s most celebrated works, is housed at the MNCARS along with countless other exceptional creations.

The entire collection features the art of such varied talents as Luis Gordillo, Antoni Tapies, Jorge Oteiza, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, and many more. However, its art extends beyond Spain’s borders to include more diverse artists like Max Ernst, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, Wolf Vostell, Henry Moore, Donald Judd, Lucio Fontana, and Alexander Calder.

The MNCARS museum also boasts a free library focused mainly on art, consisting of more than 100,000 books.

The museum underwent a massive expansion in 2005, at a price of beyond €92 million. This added more room for temporary exhibitions, a 500 seat auditorium, restaurants, and more. It has also appeared in a number of media productions, including The Limits of Control.

Learn more about Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
10 Castello di Rivoli

(Rivoli, Italy)
The Castello di Rivoli houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, giving visitors access to both an extensive collection of art and a stunning location.

It was once home to royalty, and dates back to possibly the 9th or 10th century. The Savoy family changed the property into a luxurious private home over a long period of time, and it eventually underwent huge changes (even turning into an army barracks at one point).

It become home to the Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in 1984, and has gone on to gain acclaim from all over the world. Its permanent collection includes a large amount of Arte Povera, Minimal, Transavantgarde, and other works from many movements. This ensures plenty of diversity for visitors to enjoy, with temporary exhibitions alternating throughout the year too.

The museum has a large video collection too. Artists like Bill Viola and Nam June Paik have work displayed in this selection.

There is also plenty of advertising artwork available too, consisting of posters and sketches from the 20th century.

Learn more about Castello di Rivoli

5 of the Most Important Contemporary Artists

Contemporary art museums across the globe have displayed thousands of pieces of work over the years, from both living and deceased masters of their craft.

The field incorporates all manner of artistic specialisms, such as sculptures, paintings, drawings, video, and more. Some artists dabble in multiple disciplines, while others have a single style and form they stick with during their careers.

Regardless of their interests or versatility, some men and women make a tremendous impact on the contemporary art scene, creating a ripple effect that lasts for a long, long time.

Below, we’ll explore the work of five of the most important contemporary artists from around the world.

Damien Hirst

Love him or loath him, Hirst has had an undeniably powerful effect on contemporary art over the years.

Without doubt, his creations have been met with serious controversy and disdain, though he remains virtually a household name. He was one of the 90s’ Young British artists, and has gained considerable wealth throughout his career, with an estimated worth of more than £210 million.

His most famous work is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: tiger shark measuring fourteen feet in length preserved in formaldehyde. This was viewed by some as a masterpiece, while others found it to be horrific and a sign that contemporary art was little more than a joke.

Despite his divisive body of work, Hirst has always maintained solid support from fans and won the Turner Prize.

Jeff Koons

American Koons is known for his work including pop-culture and everyday objects, such as balloon animals. His art has gone on to sell for vast amounts of money: his Balloon Dog (Orange) managed to bring in a payment of $58.4 million. This was then regarded as the most costly piece of work created by a living artists to ever be sold at auction.

In the 1970s, he started making sculptures based around inflatable toys, which went on to gain significant criticism and acclaim. One of his earliest works was Rabbit in 1986, which revolved around casting an inflatable rabbit in stainless steel. This can be found at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

Peter Doig

Doig originates from Scotland, but spent many of his early years in Canada and Trinidad. After studying art in England, Doig became a well-known contemporary artist, taking influence from various media. Films, newspaper reports, photos, album covers, and more have all inspired his own creations over the years. He lives in Trinidad once again.

Doig’s painting White Canoe sold for more than $11 million at iconic auction house Sotheby’s in 2007, which broke records at the time. His work has been praised for its traditionalism and simplicity, and his art has been exhibited at various venues around the world.

The Dallas Museum of Art, Tate Britain, the Scottish National Gallery, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts have all showcased his paintings, to name just a few.

Most of his paintings are landscapes with abstract elements, and his works include Boiler House, Canoe-Lake (inspired by classic horror movie Friday the 13th and The House That Jacques Built.

Christopher Wool

Wool hails from Boston, USA, and became recognised for his paintings of large black letters stencilled onto plain white canvases. These tended to be missing certain letters and arranged in different formations, causing the viewer to take a more active role in reading them.

One of his most famous exhibitions was created alongside artist Robert Gober. This included a text-based creation by Wool titled Apocalypse Now, based on the classic movie, with the painting featuring words taken from the film. This has not been without its controversy, given its stark simplicity and apparent ease of conception.

His works have sold for millions at auction. Apocalypse Now generated more than $26 million, while his work painting Riot sold for nearly $30 million.

Rudolf Stingel

Stingel’s work is a common sight at contemporary art museums. He first gained recognition in the 1980s due to his paintings leaning heavily on a monochromatic style. He later went on to produce a number of radiator sculptures, made in a vibrant style created with translucent resin and orange paint.

He has also painted portraits based on photographs and been exhibited at museums around the world. His works have earned millions at auctions, with Untitled selling for more than $4.7 million.

Like a number of the other contemporary artists mentioned above, Stingel has somewhat divided critics and art-lovers with his work.