A contemporary art museum helps us decipher the most profound ideas and issues in the world through the lens of artists. Whether in an exhibition or a permanent collection, every piece displayed is a unique gateway to different identities, societies, and cultures.
So, what is the secret sauce behind a great museum?
Is it location? Is it the architecture? Is it an extensive permanent collection? Is it the curation of the artworks?
All of the above!
In this article, we highlight some of the best contemporary art museums in the world with the most exciting exhibitions for 2023. Our selection of the top 10 lesser-known museums around the world reflect the importance of location and community, contribution of architectural design, breadth and depth of permanent collection, and relevance of temporary exhibitions to the museum’s mission.
Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo – Tokyo, Japan
To the East of Tokyo, Japan, located in Kiba Park, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) stands tall with stunning triangular walkways of metal and glass. The first plans for MOT were imagined during the late 1980s. Designed by Takahiko Yanagisawa + TAK Architects, MOT opened in 1995, and has become a center of contemporary art ever since.
MOT inherited many pieces in their collection from the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Materials related to the exhibitions are put on display, available for the public to dive deeper into the collections of both international and Japanese works. In addition, to uphold their mission of education, the museum provides an Art Library with an extensive collection of over 270,000 books, catalogs, and magazines about contemporary art.
From July 15 to November 5, 2023, MOT is showcasing David Hockney. This is the first large scale solo show devoted to the British painter in Japan in 27 years. Featuring a selection of 120 works, the show introduces to the viewers a recent painting series called The Arrival of Spring, and a 90-meter-long iPad painting produced during COVID lockdowns.
Museum of Contemporary Art – Sydney, Australia
Located right by the Sydney Harbor, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) resides in the distinctive former Maritime Services Board building built in 1952. In 2012, Sydney architect Sam Marshall redesigned the building expanding the museum by almost 50% in size, including a new five-story wing. The wing brings a stark contrast to the overall structure of the museum, showing a more modern, clean-cut look.
The MCA opened its doors in 1991 with funding from Australian artist John Powe, who left his fortune to the University of Sydney with a mission to educate Australians about international contemporary visual arts. The museum currently houses over 4,000 works of contemporary Australian, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander artists in its permanent collection.
In addition to the permanent collection, two shows are currently on at the MCA.
On view through July 9, 2023, The National 4 showcases the way that artists are reacting to the most pressing and critical ideas of our times, envisioning novel methods of observing and participating in the world at a time of unprecedented change through new commissions and recent creations by a cross-generational and culturally diverse selection of artists and collectives.
MCA Collection: Eight Artists, on view through August 20, 2023, reveals pieces that have been acquired over a twenty-year span from individual donations and the MCA Foundation, created by eight important Australian artists, including Judith Wright.
Museum of Contemporary Art – Denver, Colorado
Pinpointed with a bright red heart sculpture pierced with a knife, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) resides, quite literally, at the heart of Colorado. Founded in 1996, MCA Denver was originally located in a renovated fish market in Sakura Square. After having inherited a land from members of the MCA Denver Board of Trustees, the museum found a permanent home in Denver’s Central Platte Valley in 2003.
Designed by acclaimed architect Sir David Adjaye OBE of Adjaye Associates (UK) and opened in October 2007, MCA Denver is a 27,000 sq ft environmentally sustainable building in Downtown Denver.
MCA Denver focuses on diversity and inclusion, making its collection accessible to all audiences while sparking curiosity and connection through art within its community. The museum hosts engaging activities and discussions led by artists from Denver and beyond.
On view through September 10, Indigenous Absurdities features the work of Anna Tsouhlarakis, an artist based in Boulder, Colorado. The exhibition focuses on indigenous knowledge systems and teaching methods as a foundation for Tsouhlarakis’ artistic exploration. Through various mediums such as video, performance, sculpture, photography, and installation, Tsouhlarakis challenges and expands the conventional boundaries of Native American art.
Across the Universe is a mid-career survey of Tomashi Jackson. On view through September 10, the exhibition spans nearly a decade of Jackson’s artistic practice and showcases her diverse use of materials across various disciplines. Influenced by California muralist traditions that emerged during the people’s movements of the 1950s to 1990s, her vibrant and research-driven works delve into the mechanics of societal power.
Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Like a flower rooted and blooming, the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum (The MAC Niteroi) overlooks the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Envisioned in 1991 by architect Oscar Niemeyer, this structure was inspired by its location.
Niemeyer felt the space required this rounded shape for completion. With careful calculation, the lightweight concrete structure was completed in 1996, fitting with a vibrant red walkway leading up to its entrance.
The museum is equipped with 3 floors and a lower underground space. The second and third floors are reserved for exhibitions. Under the ground, there is a restaurant, cafe, and auditorium. Windows wrap the 3rd-floor exhibition space, giving you an almost 360° view of Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro, and Sugarloaf Mountain.
Working behind the scenes to develop the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum was a team of passionate creatives and cultural leaders. Inspired by this architecture, the team focused on creating public art spaces.
The museum’s permanent collection includes 1,217 works from João Sattamini, a Brazillian art collector, as well as 369 works from donations by artists who held exhibitions in the museum.
Currently, Invasion: The Art of Democracy pays tribute to vandalized artworks and artists in Brasilia, particularly Athos Bulco and Franz Krajcberg, whose works were damaged during an attack on the city’s government buildings. Their works are displayed alongside other artifacts from the Joo Sattamini Collection, underlining the necessity of preserving and honoring national art. It serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and documenting Brazilian cultural heritage.
Museum Brandhorst – München, Germany
Structured with a colorful array of over 36,000 ceramic rods, the looks of Museum Brandhorst could be compared to an abstract painting. Designed by the Sauerbruch Hutton Architects in Berlin, the museum’s vibrant facade reflects the colorful art collection inside.
Opening in 2009, the museum stems from the private collection of Anette & Udo Brandhorst, who transferred these pieces to a foundation before the museum’s conception. Since its opening, the Museum Brandhorst has grown almost double in size from 700 to 1200 pieces today and is known for housing the largest Andy Warhol collection in Europe as well as world’s most extensive collection of Cy Twombly.
With a diverse collection of pop art, neo-avant-garde, postmodernism, minimal art and arte povera, the focus of Museum Brandhorst is to create a space for free-thinking and curiosity.
Running through July 14th, 2024, From Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Scenes from the Collection juxtaposes modern paintings from the museum collection with contemporary additions. The debate between renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as current artists such as Jana Euler, Keith Haring, Louise Lawler, Pope.L, and Kara Walker, exemplifies art’s transformational power.
Running through September 10th, 2023, Nicole Eisenman. What Happened explores the three-decade-long career of Nicole Eisenman, a major artist on the New York art scene. Her art, which encompasses paintings, sculptures, and large-scale murals, juxtaposes various materials, formats, and techniques. Eisenman’s inventive and comedic compositions, which draw influence from a variety of sources, reference the realities of New York’s lesbian communities while presenting a mix of homage and satire.
The museum takes part in Munich’s Flower Power Festival with the exhibition La vie en rose from through October 22nd, 2023. This show, inspired by Cy Twombly’s rose paintings, investigates the ambiguity of colors and sentiments in painting, with a concentration on the favorite topic of flowers and blossoms. These artistic creations, which represent the overpowering beauty of nature and are imbued with poetry and significance, allow emotions and fantasies to be articulated without the use of words.
The museum will host This is Me, This Is You from October 19, 2023 through April 7, 2024. The exhibition showcases a selection of works from the 1054 photographs by 134 international artists, all generously donated by Eva Felten, a collector who has primarily focused on the depictions of people.
Kunsthaus Graz – Graz, Austria
Described as the “friendly extraterrestrial” or “sea snail”, The Kunsthaus Graz is an awestriking structure in the urban city of Graz, Austria. This alien-like building was actually built as part of the European Capital of Culture celebration in 2003.
The less institutional approach was achieved by architects Colin Fournier and Sir Peter Cook. The building becomes a huge luminous bubble at night. 930 circular fluorescent 40 W lamps surround the external skin of the building. Each lamp is computer controlled, and can transform the bubble into a mega screen.
The main focus of Kunsthaus Graz is to pioneer unique forms of exhibition through inclusion, diversity, and experiments in digital spaces. They hold a multimedia collection showcasing architecture, design, film, and photography from the 1960s to present.
Body and Territory: Cross-border Dialogues is a collaboration with MSU Zagreb that will run through August 27, 2023. The exhibition, which is based on a curatorial exchange program, brings together more than 30 artists and around 100 objects. Curators Jasna Jaki and Radmila Iva Jankovi present two dominant tendencies shaping Austrian contemporary art today: radical performance and feminist legacy. The show raises the voices of oppressed groups such as women, gay people, migrants, and refugees through their thought-provoking works.
Through August 27, 2023, the museum hosts Plamen Dejanoff: Heritage Project. This solo show investigates cultural heritage and its impact on national and personal identities. Dejanoff’s precisely produced sculptures dive into a shared European cultural history, provoking reflection on artistic ownership and transmission. The exhibition tells the stories of the craft’s origins, aesthetics, and legacy.
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian’s contemporary art artery is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which is located at the heart of the National Mall. Celebrating its fifth decade, the Hirshhorn is a leading voice for contemporary art, and continues to be free to all.
The Hirshhorn’s museum is home to some of the most extensive collections of postwar art in the world, and holds striking exhibitions encompassing works by today’s artists working in performance art, digital media, video, and more.
In March 2023, a new reality art show, The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist, has begun airing on MTV. Seven artists from around the US compete for $100,000 and a “career-defining exhibit” at the Hirshhorn Museum. The chief juror of the competition is Melissa Chiu, the museum director of Hirshhorn Museum.
Through July 16, 2023, One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama is on display. Kusama’s transforming Infinity Mirror Rooms, sculptures, an early painting, and photographs are on display in this exhibition. It honors her innovative talent and investigates her growth across many media, reflecting the museum’s dedication to exhibiting fascinating contemporary art and ideas.
Through July 16, 2023, Baseera Khan: The Liberator is on view. “The Liberator”, Khan’s sculpture, represents global fights for justice as well as the complex relationship between Western museums, capital, and cultural identity. The artwork won the final commission in The Exhibit.
Through September 17, 2023, Put It This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection brings together nearly a century of work from the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection by 49 women and nonbinary artists. It demonstrates the museum’s commitment to acquiring and amplifying global voices by showcasing recent purchases and never-before-exhibited artworks.
Through January 7, 2024, A Window Suddenly Opens: Contemporary Photography in China is on display. Photographs by prominent Chinese artists from the 1990s and 2000s are featured in this survey exhibition. It contains 186 works, 141 of which are a historic promised gift to the Hirshhorn from collector Larry Warsh. The exhibition investigates the transition from realism to conceptual art practice, drawing inspiration from the book by Rong Rong and Liu Zheng.
Through January 7, 2024, John Akomfrah: Purple, an immersive video project, covers climate change issues for the first time in Washington, D.C. Akomfrah explores the interwoven relationship between human progress and the natural world, inspiring contemplation on the Earth’s vulnerability through a fascinating blend of original and archival film.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León – León, Spain
The facade of Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC) is made up of multicolor mirrored glass panels playfully reflecting the sunshine in the morning.
The architectural studio of Mansilla+Tuñón Arquitectos was inspired by stained-glass cathedral windows, specifically the main rose window of the 13th-century Gothic Cathedral Santa Maria De Leon, also known as The Falconer.
The MUSAC aims to be the “museum of the present” and currently houses a collection of the youngest generation of artists from 1992 to 2012. Since opening in 2005, the museum has been a cultural inspiration to the city of Leon, and a star of 21st century Spanish architecture. The MUSAC contains 5 exhibition halls, a library, and spaces for projects and workshops.
Concretos will run through January 7, 2024. This exhibition investigates the transforming potential of cement and its impact on the environment. Cement has altered our planet and has come to symbolize relentless globalization. It has been used by a variety of political regimes, from democracies to dictatorships, to represent the ambition to build new orders. However, its early malleability and eventual solidity represent how capital flows can render promises outmoded, leading to socio-political upheaval and obsolescence scenarios.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MOCA Busan) – Busan, South Korea
On Eulsukdo Island in Busan, South Korea, is the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MOCA Busan). Inaugurated in 2018, the museum covers an area of 15,312 m2 and aims to introduce new trends in contemporary art, with a particular focus on new media art. It is dedicated to exploring the issues of nature, ecosystems, and their relationship to humanity and the future.
MOCA Busan places great importance on art education and its role in daily life, aiming to create a venue that experiments with contemporary art, hosts insightful exhibitions, provides art education programs, facilitates international collaborations, and conducts academic conferences.
Museum Identity and Design, which runs through July 9, 2023, examines the role of museum identity and design in shaping the visitor experience and enhancing the appreciation of contemporary art.
Through August 6, 2023, BusanMoCA Cinemedia Climate of Cinema: Isle, The Planet, and Postcontact Zone is showing. It investigates the relationships between anthropology, political economy, ecology, and film history. This exhibition emphasizes the significance of planetary thinking and showcases works by prominent filmmakers known for their use of slow cinema techniques.
Onna Onna, Moda Moda features Choi Jeonghwa, a renowned artist, who collaborates with local artists and citizens of Busan to create a monumental artwork consisting of 48 towering structures. This collaborative piece explores the personal histories and meanings embedded in everyday objects, promoting values of coexistence and symbiosis. The installation reflects the museum’s ecological focus and commitment to sustainability by transforming waste items into art.
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts – Cape Town, South Africa
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) is home to the most significant collection of art from Africa and its diaspora. The Museum opened in 2017 with the generous contribution of Jochen Zeitz.
Heatherwick Studio repurposed the historic landmark Grain Silo complex into a modern structure by paying homage to its industrial use and history. They transformed the outside of the structure by adding 100 convex glass windows. Meanwhile, the interior, which previously consisted of 42 vertical concrete tubes, was carved to create an otherworldly bubbly open space.
Through July 25, 2023, Joel Andrianomearisoa – The Five Continents of All Our Desires displays monumental sculptures made of black silk paper. Andrianomearisoa’s suspended archipelago reflects relationships and ambitions that transcend geographical limits. The artwork represents migration, language, and the search for human involvement, inviting viewers to consider new avenues of connection and interaction. The sculptures’ fragile materiality responds to small ambient changes, emphasizing their fragility and susceptibility to interpretation.
Through September 3, 2023, When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting will be on display. This exhibition explores self-representation, African and African-descent experiences, and Black awareness through the work of Black artists from Africa and its diaspora. The artists imagine, memorialize, and proclaim their subjectivities via painting, contributing to the critical conversation on African and Black emancipation. The show, which draws inspiration from Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” offers a distinctive perspective on self-writing while highlighting a variety of Black voices and perspectives.
GILT by Mary Evans will be on display through October 29, 2023. The themes of guilt and the historical traumas of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and capitalism are explored in this solo exhibition. In her “history paintings”, Evans uses life-sized silhouettes as narrative shapes, producing a visual language that opposes harsh Black histories. She invites a humanistic understanding of the Black figure as a universal presence by juxtaposing light-brown shadows against monochromatic settings. The exhibition digs into the history of the abuse of the Black body and its resilience, using materials such as paper to represent disposability and resilience.