Don’t Miss The Free NC Museum of Art (Raleigh’s Best Foot Forward)

As a lifelong global traveler and professional travel blogger, I’ve heard the word “world-class” get thrown around like wine in a sommelier’s glass. Rarely does the experience live up to the superlative label.

nc art museum raleigh 29
The NC Museum of Art

We’ve been to enough art museums around the USA and overseas that we sit in the realm of “just another art museum” nonchalance. 

Therefore, I was dubious about what to expect from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), located on Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh, which may account for why it’s taken me years to visit.

Mom and two daughters walking towards a building
Entering the East Building

But as soon as I walked towards the striking glass-walled West Gallery, I was swept away from that eye-rolling attitude and into the true meaning of “world-class.”

Man sitting at a high-top table reading a book and eating looking out a window
Loved the natural light in the West Building

Visiting the NC Museum of Art was a pleasant surprise, and I found there was so much more to see and do there than just looking at a few paintings. And it’s FREE, which is always an extra bonus!

In this guide, I’ll be sharing with you all the best things to see and do at this iconic art museum in Raleigh. But first…

Is The North Carolina Museum of Art Worth Visiting?

Lady looking at artwork on a wall
Art on display in the West Building

To be fair, I’d always had an inkling this art museum in Raleigh may be a little special given its beautiful 164-acre park and sculpture garden, which we have experienced several times.

When the temperatures lowered, and the new cafe finally opened up in January 2023, we decided it was time to venture inside. 

Craig and I walked away saying, “Now this is Raleigh’s best foot forward“. Along with the fantastic trails in Raleigh, this is what you lead with when highlighting Raleigh as a destination worthy of a visit!

Lady looking at artwork inside an art museum.
Exploring the West Building

This free museum of art is something I believe art and culture lovers would come to Raleigh just to visit, and why it’s listed as one of the top Raleigh attractions.

The amazing art pieces, the careful curation of installations, the innovative architecture, and the delicious cafe food are all reasons why this art museum in North Carolina should be visited.

Chair made out of shoes for an art sculpture
Loves this chair made from shoes (East Building)

It will now be top of our list when family and friends come to Raleigh, particularly since they have so many great community events to make use of their beautiful outdoor spaces that showcase Raleigh’s cultural lifestyle. 

The History of the NC Museum of Art

Two large rings of steel art installations protruding art of the ground
The famous Gyre rings

It was founded in 1947 when the North Carolina State Art Society was formed to spark an interest in starting an art museum for the state. 

That dream was realized with state legislature allowing for funding of $1 million to purchase 139 European and American paintings and sculptures. It was the first art museum in the country established with public funds, and so was dubbed, “Miracle on Morgan Street,” with the opening of its first location in a renovated office building on Morgan Street in 1956.

People exploring an art museum
West Building

This miracle grew to a new (and current) 181,000-square-foot location in the East Building in 1983, which was designed by Edward Durell Stone.

The North Carolina Museum of Art boasts a permanent collection that covers over 5,000 years of art history, ranging from ancient Egypt to contemporary American art. This makes the museum a leading institution for art in the southeastern United States

Man looking up at an art display on a wall
West Building

In 2010, the West Building opened to accommodate the Art Museum’s growing permanent collection. The expansion continued with the 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park, said to be the largest museum art park in the country, drawing in 150,000 annual visits from art, nature, and recreation lovers. 

What To See At The North Carolina Art Museum

Young girl looking up at an art dispaly on a wall
West Building

If you thought you were going to any other art museum to look at some paintings, then think again. There is so much to see inside (and outside) of the NC Museum of Art, and it’s not just the pieces inside.

Here are some unmissable attractions at this Raleigh art museum, one of the top museums in Raleigh.

The West Building

I think one of the reasons I can be uninspired by art museums is the stuffy, dimly lit rooms the pieces can be on display in. It just doesn’t enliven my spirit. 

People inside an art museum looking at displays
West building

The exterior of the West Building is 50% glass, which allows for natural light to brighten up the 127,000-square-foot gallery space and the pieces on display. 

It’s not just attention to detail that makes the building stand out, but its sustainable design by New York architects Thomas Phifer and Partners. It has controlled stormwater runoff, enhanced energy efficiency, climate-control systems, and responsible landscaping practices.

People looking at Artwork in a gallery
West Building

Surrounding the art gallery are landscaped sculpture gardens and reflecting pools designed to complement the Museum sculpture park and show the important connection between art and nature. 

Reflection pond with art sculpture at the end
Sculpture overlooking a pond
Outside the West Building

It was the West Building that made me a raving fan and I wanted to know who was responsible for curating and displaying the art in the way that it was. 

Art on display inside a museum
West Building

We just returned from a weekend in New York City where we visited MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and while those two museums are outstanding, and while New York is an apple to oranges comparison with Raleigh, I still think NCMA holds its own pretty well in comparison. I enjoyed it just as much as the New York art museums.

The People’s Collection

Young girl looking at an art display inside a museum

The West Gallery was built to specifically house the people’s art collection. The state’s art collection includes more than 4,200 objects and spans more than 5,000 years.

For many, one of the highlights of the museum is its collection of European art, which includes works by some of the most renowned artists of the past several centuries – master painters such as Monet, and Picasso, as well as sculptures by Rodin and other great sculptors. 

Man looking at a piece of artwork in a museum

In addition to European art, the museum has a strong collection of American art, including works by artists such as Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Artwork hanging on a wall in a museum

There are galleries also devoted to African, ancient American, Egyptian and Jewish ceremonial art – one of only two permanent displays of Jewish art in an American art museum. 

In addition to the permanent collection, the museum also hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions throughout the year, showcasing art from around the world.

The gallery is divided into rooms that tell the different stories of each era or theme. The pieces are beautifully displayed with thought to color, space, and light. 

I even enjoyed looking at the older gold-framed pieces of European art that normally make me sprint on by. The fun textured wallpaper displays and interactive stations invited me to pause and appreciate.

People looking at artwork hanging on a wall in a gallery
People looking at artwork hanging on a wall in a gallery
European art

Within the galleries are a wonderful mix of modern and old art, paintings, sculptures, marble statues, and even Egyptian sarcophagi. 

The kids and I were engaged and curious about the pieces. Stopping to watch the short film on how one of the art pieces created music. I thought it was a great addition to help understand the piece since you couldn’t touch the original piece to make music yourself.

People looking at artwork hanging on a wall in a gallery

There were many pieces that sparked conversation, but one I kept returning to – which made the girls giggle – “Why are all the marble statues of men castrated? Did someone steal them, or were they banned by society like so many books in schools seem to be these days?”

Statue of a Greek on display in an art museum

This was a conversation we continued at the MET in New York City looking at many more similar statues.

Statue on display in an art museum

Pay attention as you walk around as there are many interactive stations that include games, audio-visual representations, and map projections all of which help you further understand and experience the artwork. It’s especially engaging for kids.

East Building

Young girl standing next to an art installation of a tree

While the West Building is All the Glamor, don’t ignore the East Museum for its outstanding exhibitions. Since the West holds the permanent People’s Collection, the East Building has a lot of temporary exhibitions.

Galleries line the walls of space, and again you’ll find a fascinating mix of art, focusing more on contemporary and mixed media on this side. 

Chairs and trees lined up in a room as artwork

It was here I found my favorite piece in the whole museum, the Light of Life by Yayoi Kusama. 

You step up to the viewing hole in the non-descript hexagon-shaped box to look upon a kaleidoscopic world of infinite space created by the shifting colors of light and patterns created by the mirrors and LED lights. 

3D light installation in an art museum
Light of Life by Yayoi Kusama

In June 2017 the Museum opened an expanded African Gallery in East Building where visitors can explore African creativity spanning 16 centuries.

African art sculpture

WATCH our NC Art Museum video:

North Carolina Museum of Art Park (ann & Jim Goodnight Park)

Large art sculpture made of bricks

The Ann and Jim Goodnight Park is a favorite place for us to visit to take a walk while enjoying more than a dozen stunning commissioned sculptures along the trail. 

The trails take you past the sculptures, a terraced pond (a key element of the storm-management system), the galleries, and the ellipse, which is the lawn overlooking the rolling meadow – perfect for picnics.

A pond surrounded by green trees and grass
Picturesque pond

Don’t miss the Mirror Labyrinth by Danish artist Jeppe Hein on the path down to the galleries. 

It’s a fun place to weave around mirrored pillars – especially for kids. It’s formed with varying heights of mirrored posts which seem to blend in with the surrounding landscape of trees and grass, which you get to immerse in while walking around it. 

People looking at a glass art sculpture outside a museum.
Young girl standing between two vertical mirror sculptures
Mirror Labyrinth

The rings of the NCMA’s Gyre by Thomas Sayre are one of the most iconic sculptures in the park. These three ellipses are 3D pieces sculptured directly in the earth. 

Young girl looking at large steel ring art sculpture
You can’t miss the The Gyre rings

I also love the colorful and patterned Wind Sculpture II by Yinka Shonibare, CBE (born in London to Nigerian parents).

Altogether there are 4.7 miles of trails for cycling, walking, and running that connect to Raleigh’s 100+ miles of the Capital Area Greenway system.

An art sculpture of a metal tree
Cool tree sculpture

You can see our video of the NC Museum Sculpture Park:

We love biking the Art to Heart Trail, which is a point-to-point trail that connects the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) to the heart of Downtown Raleigh.

BIKING THE ART TO HEART TRAIL (NC MUSEUM OF ART – DOWNTOWN RALEIGH)
Art to Heart trail

During the summer, the sunflower field at the Art Museum Park is just like the museum, colorful, bright, and joyful.

And during the warmer months, the outdoor 500-seat Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater holds regular events like movie nights and live music. We are yet to experience the theater, but it’s on our bucket list for 2023.

Sunflowers in a sunflower field
Sunflowers in a sunflower field
Sunflower field

As you can see, the NC Art Museum is more than just a place to display beautiful art. It’s a place for the community to gather and enjoy the vibrant culture and lifestyle of Raleigh.

Watch our Art to Heart Trail Video

Special Exhibitions & Programs

Art sculpture of the trunk of a tree

It’s only now while writing this guide, I understand why so many people were entering the special ticketed temporary exhibition, A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from The Phillips Collection.

I’m interested more in contemporary art, so I didn’t pay any attention to what it was, nor was I interested in paying money for it. 

I now know this collection features more than 50 paintings by iconic artists including Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne. OOPS! Sadly, that exhibit is now closed so I can’t go back!

But, not to worry, this North Carolina art museum has rotating exhibits alongside its permanent collection. Check this page to see what is on now, and what is coming! 

Flowers in a vase
Art in Bloom

The most popular event held annually in March is the Art in Bloom festival. Floral designs interpret works of art in the Museum collection through floral displays. In 2023 it will be March 15–19. (see our post on other unmissable Raleigh events and festivals)

The museum also offers a variety of educational programs and events for visitors of all ages, including lectures, tours, and workshops. 

Dine at the NCMA Café

People dining at a restaurant
Awesome artwork on the cafe wall

We had lunch at the newly remodeled NCMA Café in the West Gallery on its second day of opening. In keeping with the ambiance of the gallery, the ambiance was light, refreshing, and adorned with a gigantic artwork woven on the wall with branches.

Menus emphasize locally sourced ingredients and include unique dishes that are inspired by the latest exhibition and the People’s Collection.

Chicken breast on a plate of greens
Chicken leg quarter

Craig had the Chicken leg quarter roasted with apple cider glaze, garnished with cranberry apple chutney, and served with sautéed collard greens.

While a tad dry, I thought my coffee braised short ribs served over creamy yellow grits with sriracha-spiced caramel corn garnish was innovative and tasty. 

Beef brisket on a plate of potatoes
Braised short ribs

Lattes weirdly came in a 16-ounce glass which made it stronger on milk than coffee. A traditional 12-ounce would have been better.

Savannah’s kids’ chicken tenders were huge, and almost every menu item was (or could be adapted) gluten-free. Thank you for that!

The East Building also has the East Cafe and features artful bites, salads, sandwiches and entrées, crafted coffees, signature drinks, and more. 

How to get to the NC Museum of Art

Egyptian art sculpture

The Museum is located at 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh near the intersection of Wade Avenue and Interstate 40. 

It is a 15-minute drive from downtown Raleigh, 16-minutes from RDU airport, and a 20 to 30-minute drive from the nearby university towns of Durham and Chapel Hill. Click here for car rentals.

What are the museum’s hours?

  • Tuesday-Sunday, 10am–5pm. East
  • Building is open until 9 pm on Fridays during ticketed special exhibitions.
  • The Museum is closed on Mondays.
  • The Museum Park is open daily, including holidays, from dawn to dusk.

Where to stay near the NC Museum of Art

large body of water surrounded by trees
The Stateview Hotel

If you’re visiting from outside of Raleigh, there are plenty of places to stay near the museum. For a hotel stay that feels more natural like the NCMA experience, consider:

Here are some more options:

For downtown Raleigh hotels check out this list. And for hotels near Raleigh Airport check these. You can also use the map below to help you search.

FAQs about the North Carolina Museum of Art

People exploring an art museum

Here’s what people usually ask us about visiting the NC Art Museum

Is there parking at The North Carolina Museum of Art?

Yes, there is plenty of free parking available out the front of the museums and park.  

Is the NC Art Museum Free?

Admission to the Museum and Museum Park is free; however, fees are charged for some special exhibitions and programs.

Can you take pictures in the NC Museum of art?

Yes, as long as the photos are used for personal and non-commercial use. You cannot take any tripods, videocameras or selfie sticks into the museum.

In summary

Artwork hanging on a white wall

I will admit that we’ve been warmed up to the world of art galleries and museums a little more since starting this blog during the pandemic. Craig and I found ourselves enjoying perusing the art in downtown Raleigh on First Fridays and it soon became a date idea we started to love.

Whether you’re an art enthusiast or just looking for a fun day out or a date idea, the North Carolina Museum of Art is definitely worth a visit. You can see more art museums and galleries in Raleigh.

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