Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first public art museum in the United States. Founded as a collaboration between the city of New York and several of the city’s most prominent citizens, the museum was touted both as a sign of the city’s newfound wealth and prestige and as a means of educating and uplifting the city’s working classes.

Summary of Event

By the mid-nineteenth century, New York City was the largest and most prosperous city in the Western Hemisphere. The recently completed Erie Canal linked the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and positioned New York City as the gateway between the Midwest and the Atlantic Ocean. Rapidly developing industrialization, coupled with increasing trade with Europe, created a generation of newly wealthy New Yorkers who were eager to compete with “old money” New Yorkers for social status at home and with their European counterparts for cultural recognition abroad. Museums;art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City;Metropolitan Museum of Art
[kw]Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens (Feb. 20, 1872)
[kw]Museum of Art Opens, Metropolitan (Feb. 20, 1872)
[kw]Art Opens, Metropolitan Museum of (Feb. 20, 1872)
[kw]Opens, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Feb. 20, 1872)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City;Metropolitan Museum of Art
[g]United States;Feb. 20, 1872: Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens[4600]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 20, 1872: Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens[4600]
[c]Art;Feb. 20, 1872: Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens[4600]
Jay, John
Green, Andrew Haswell
Bryant, William Cullen
Kensett, John Frederick

Unlike Europe at the time, the United States had no important public cultural institutions such as the Louvre Museum Louvre Museum
Paris;Louvre Museum in Paris. Wealthy American art collectors displayed their treasures in their homes, so those treasures remained inaccessible to the public. The closest things the United States had to public museums were “curiosity cabinets”—small displays of oddities and natural-science specimens gathered by travelers and explorers—and art galleries. Both were open only to persons of high social rank. For the average New Yorker, art was both inaccessible and inexplicable.

The period during and following the U.S. Civil War brought a new sense of social consciousness to the United States. The wealthy classes saw the sacrifices and suffering of the common soldiers who had fought to keep the country together. Civic leaders began to organize benefits and to establish organizations to help these soldiers. In some instances, this new social consciousness extended beyond veterans to ordinary workers and their families. It was in this era of social awakening that the idea of public museums for the edification and education of the people emerged, giving rise to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Boston;Museum of Fine Arts , the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.;Corcoran Museum , and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had its origins in the 1864 Metropolitan Fair, which was organized to raise funds for the medical care of Union soldiers. Of particular success at the fair was the Picture Gallery, which was attended by thousands of New Yorkers, rich and poor alike. This public display of interest in the arts inspired members of New York’s prestigious Union League Club to begin discussions regarding the establishment of an art museum in New York. Not only would a museum in New York serve the important social function of enlightening and educating the populace, but it would also elevate New York’s international social standing to compete with those of London and Paris.

The proposal for the new museum was presented on July 4, 1866, at a dinner party in Paris, which was attended by many wealthy American businessmen and politicians. The speaker for the evening was John Jay Jay, John , a grandson of the first chief justice of the United States, who was also named John Jay. Jay took advantage of the festive occasion to promote and solidify his fellow New Yorkers’ ambitions to construct a cultural monument at home that would rival the famed Louvre Louvre Museum Museum in Paris.

Metropolitan Museum of Art during the early twentieth century.

(Library of Congress)

Once the wealthy Americans were back in the United States, the Union League Club assumed leadership in planning the new museum. The members of the club and their associates included famous artists, such as Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Frederick Edwin Church, and John Frederick Kensett Kensett, John Frederick ; well-known art collectors, such as William A. Aspinwall Aspinwall, William A. and William T. Blodgett Blodgett, William T. ; the famous poet William Cullen Bryant Bryant, William Cullen ; and numerous wealthy businessmen and civic leaders. In spite of their differing backgrounds, all the participants agreed that in addition to the important purpose of fostering an aesthetic appreciation for the arts, the new art museum would take on the social role of educating and refining the public through exposure to the arts. On January 31, 1870, the first officers of the proposed new museum were elected, and on April 13 of the same year, the state legislature of New York approved the incorporation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The plan to create a new museum from the ground up was financially ambitious to say the least, even for men of considerable wealth, so they looked to the government to provide assistance. As the first negotiations with the city commenced, donations of three private European collections, including 174 paintings, formed the nucleus of the new museum’s holdings and necessitated finding temporary quarters capable of housing the paintings. The museum first opened on February 20, 1872, at 681 Fifth Avenue. During the following year, it moved to the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street. Neither location had been built as a museum, and each was less than ideal for the display of art.

The museum needed a building of its own—a building that was designed specifically as a museum and that was centrally located for convenient public access. Andrew Haswell Green Green, Andrew Haswell , the comptroller of Central Park, was the first to propose that the new museum be constructed on the grounds of the city-owned park. After many complex negotiations, the city finally consented to provide the museum with land and a building, provided that the museum would permit the public free access to the collections on mutually agreed upon days and times. The land and the building would be owned by the city, while the collections and the museum would remain under the trusteeship and control of the museum’s board of trustees. The collaboration between the city of New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first such public-private arrangement for a museum in the United States.

In 1880, the Metropolitan Museum of Art moved to its new building in Central Park, situated along Fifth Avenue between 80th and 84th Streets, where it still resides today. The original Gothic-revival style building, designed by the American architects Architecture;Metropolitan Museum of Art Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, was expanded upon as early as 1888, as generous donors, eager to participate in the new cultural institution, bequeathed their collections to the nascent museum.

Over time, the city’s contribution to the museum increased to include providing funds for the running of the museum and its security and utilities. The city’s generosity was not without strings—the city demanded that the museum open its doors on Sundays, the one day that most New Yorkers had free to enjoy Central Park and its new museum. In return for the city’s added financial support, the museum trustees agreed, albeit reluctantly, to open its doors on Sunday, something that many of the museum’s Protestant founders had steadfastly refused to do. During the early twenty-first century, in an ongoing spirit of mutual cooperation, the city of New York continued to provide the land and the building, as well as paying for the museum’s heat, light, and electricity and for a portion of the costs for the security and maintenance of both the facility and the collections. In return, the museum was open to the public every day except Mondays and major holidays.


The decision to construct an art museum for the benefit of the public marked a point of maturation in American society, when more advantaged citizens turned their attention away from their own well-being toward the well-being of the public at large. The importance of civic engagement and an emphasis on the cultural and social value of the arts became inherent qualities of the American spirit. The museum that began during the mid-nineteenth century as a volunteer effort on the part of the prominent citizens of New York City grew into one of the largest and most prestigious cultural institutions in the United States. The continued relationship between New York City and the Metropolitan Museum of Art serves as a testimony to the dedication and determination of the civic and cultural leaders of New York City.

Since its founding in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections have increased in quality and number to include more than two million works of art representing all periods of history and many cultures from around the world. The museum that started in a small structure built in a city park expanded dramatically through the years to encompass approximately two million square feet of museum space. During the early twenty-first century, more than five million persons per year visited “the Met,” as it was affectionately called. The Metropolitan Museum of Art ranked among the world’s greatest museums.

Further Reading

  • Howe, Winifred E., and Henry Watson Kent. A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2 vols. New York: Gillis Press, 1946. The best and most comprehensive study of the history of the museum, from its founding to 1912; illustrated.
  • Lerman, Leo. The Museum: One Hundred Years and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Viking Press, 1969. A comprehensive history of the museum, divided into time periods, accompanied by photographs of works in the collections.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Introduction by A. Hyatt Mayor. New York: Newsweek & Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1979. Overview of the museum’s collections with a brief introduction explaining the history of the museum.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Official Web site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; includes extensive artistic resources, in addition to details of the institution and its current exhibitions.
  • Tomkins, Calvin. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Henry Holt, 1980. A history of the museum’s founders, contributors, and collections.

Paris Salon of 1824

Smithsonian Institution Is Founded

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Paris’s Salon des Refusés Opens

First Impressionist Exhibition

New Library of Congress Building Opens

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

William Cullen Bryant. Museums;art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City;Metropolitan Museum of Art