The Best Free and Pay-What-You-Will Museums in NYC

Some of the city's top cultural institutions are more accessible than you think

March 12, 2024 6:35 am
"Byzantine Bembe: New York by Manny Vega" is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through December 2024.
"Byzantine Bembe: New York by Manny Vega" is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through December 2024.
Brad Farwell

While all New Yorkers face inflation with gritted teeth, saving our pennies wherever possible, one thing that doesn’t have to suffer is our connection to culture. There are actually a number of museums in NYC with free or pay-what-you-will entry so they’re accessible to a wide variety of audiences. From folk art to history to fashion, visiting these museums won’t just take you through vibrant exhibitions, they’ll save you a buck or two — and even take you on an adventure across boroughs. Here are 10 of our favorites, complete with insider visiting tips. Getting cultured was never this easy, or affordable. 

American Folk Art Museum

Originally opened in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum is the city’s only museum “dedicated to folk and self-taught artists.” Included in its collection of over 7,000 pieces are paintings, furniture, textile art, sculpture, works on paper, photographs and so much more. Plus, it spans over 400 years of history from artists around the world. The American Folk Art Museum is always free, and it’s just off of Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side. Pop over to the newly revamped Old John’s Luncheonette, a classic city diner that’s just a five-minute walk across the street, when you’re done, and visit the famous fountain at Lincoln Center.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Always free, the Bronx Museum specializes in contemporary art meant to amplify the borough’s diverse backdrop. It makes space for emerging and established artists, and its exhibitions have an eye toward community, culture and social justice. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and it’s part of the Bronx’s famed Grand Concourse, an area originally designed to resemble Paris’s Champs-Élysées that also now features the Bronx Walk of Fame. Afterward, enjoy some green space in Joyce Kilmer Park, a four-minute stroll away.

El Museo del Barrio

El Museo del Barrio, first opened in 1969, is dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and interpretation of “the art and artifacts of Caribbean and Latin American cultures for posterity.” Their collection spans 800 years of art and history, featuring over 8,500 artifacts. Located on Fifth Avenue and East 105th Street in East Harlem, it takes its name from El Barrio, another name for the neighborhood. Admission is pay-what-you-will, and the Museum of the City of New York (also on this list) is one block over. In the summer, the two museums collaborate for Uptown Bounce, a free block party.

A Leasho Johnson painting at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
A piece by artist Leasho Johnson
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art

Amongst Soho’s elegant cobblestones you’ll find the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, which is “the only dedicated LGBTQIA+ art museum in the world.” As such, the institution is focused on preserving and presenting LGBTQIA+ works, and part of that mission extends to the pay-what-you-will entry fee. Leslie-Lohman features queer art past and present, commissioned and historical. Its public programming, also free, allows this work to continue thriving in lectures, screenings, book launches, performances and more. Note: The museum has been closed since January 8, but reopens on March 15 with two new exhibitions, making this week a perfect time to visit.

The Museum at FIT

Housed at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Museum of FIT is a sartorial treasure trove with over 50,000 garments and accessories in its collection, dating back to the 18th century. The museum regularly offers new exhibitions fashion fiends will love, weaving in pieces that fall under the banner of historical, couture, ready-to-wear and more. From Dior, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen to Nike and Dapper Dan, you’re bound to see something fabulous to inspire your style. And not only is admission free, its regular lectures are, too. 

Entrance signs at the Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York is dedicated to all things artistic and historical in the city, looking at the last 400 years that have made New York what it is. Design, technology, photography, graffiti and even dollhouses — you name it, it’s here, in a love letter to the Big Apple. The building itself is gorgeous, too, built in a 1930s neo-Georgian style that later made it a historical landmark. MCNY, as it’s known, is on Manhattan’s Museum Mile, surrounded by other institutions of similarly high caliber. In the summer, they have vibrant programming on their terrace, including music, film, dance and more.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of New York’s most legendary and iconic museums, New York State residents will be pleased to learn that admission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is pay-what-you-will for locals (though it isn’t free — as the museum notes, “you must pay something,” even if it’s just one cent). It’s home to a renowned collection of 5,000 years of art history, and fashion too. On Friday and Saturday nights, they’re open late (until 9 p.m.), which is a plus because you can both beat bigger crowds and go on a fun night out at the same time. We love a two-for-one.

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian, connected to the Smithsonian, has one of the largest collections of Indigenous artifacts in the world, “covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.” Here you can learn about the original Native New Yorkers, view historical art and cultural objects, and see the work of contemporary Native artists. Be sure to visit the gift shop, too, which features the work of Native artisans. The museum is free and tickets are not required.

man in black clothes crouching next to art piece of clothes
Print Center
Jose Benitez

Print Center New York

While technically not a museum, Print Center New York is a free, nonprofit gallery space dedicated to showcasing contemporary print-based artwork. Here you’ll see the world of printmaking in a host of forms, from etching to screen printing to fabric-based work and more. Print Center is nestled right in the middle of Chelsea’s thriving gallery district, and it offers free tours and workshops. Plus, once you’re done, you can continue to explore the other great galleries in the area, which are also free to visit.

Queens Museum

The Queens Museum is pay-what-you-will and sits on the former site of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. Inside, there’s a permanent exhibition dedicated to the fair’s two NYC editions, in 1939 and 1964, but there are also rotating showcases of local history, contemporary art and the intersection between the two. (I remember once visiting for their Queens International artist showcase while also seeing an exhibition on the Ramones.) It’s a lively, forward-thinking space that doesn’t forget its past. Just across the plaza is the famous Unisphere monument and fountain, built in time for the 1964 fair, so make sure to pop over and snap a photo.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.