My experience on Monday was leisurely, and almost sedate — just what I needed after several months without visiting any of the city’s biggest cultural attractions. Here’s what you need to know if you’re heading to the National Gallery soon.
The early bird gets the best admission times.
The National Gallery is open every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with entry windows every 30 minutes. (A ticket might say “2 to 2:30 p.m.,” but it means you can enter at any point in that half-hour.) Every Monday at 10 a.m., the museum releases tickets at nga.gov/tickets for dates beginning the following week. On July 20, for example, passes became available for July 27 to Aug. 2. By 5 p.m. that day, all passes for Monday and Saturday were gone, and many other time slots, including the first of each day, also were full. By Tuesday afternoon, tickets for the entire week were gone.
Demand is obviously going to be high: A total of 500 people are admitted throughout the day, which is a fraction of the museum’s regular attendance. (The National Gallery was the 16th-most-visited museum in the world in 2019, with 4,074,000 visitors, according to data from the Themed Entertainment Association.)
Incidentally, “sold out” on the website doesn’t necessarily mean the museum will be full: The National Gallery offers a limited number of timed-entry passes throughout the day, and those who don’t have passes can ask about admission with the next scheduled group.
Getting in is easy.
My tickets were for noon, so I arrived a little after 11:30 a.m. — visitors had been asked to show up 30 minutes early — but there was no line outside the Sixth Street NW entrance. I went next door to kill some time in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, hoping that the mist blowing off the fountains would help with the unrelenting heat. Negative.
I returned to the West Building shortly before noon, and there was still no line. I went inside, where staff members were sitting behind clear plastic shields, gave my last name, and was cleared to enter. It took less than a minute, if you don’t count time loading the Eventbrite app.
Social distancing is not a problem.
Everyone I’ve told about going to the National Gallery has had the same two questions: Was it crowded? (No.) Are people wearing masks? (Definitely.) But these days, we all have different definitions of “crowded,” ranging from “there were other people who might potentially come near me” to “there was no way to stay six feet apart.” The National Gallery was on the far end of the “safe” spectrum.
All the tickets were taken, yet the museum felt satisfyingly, selfishly empty — as close as you can get to an experience out of “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” In the galleries of furniture between the entrance and the temporary exhibits, it was just me and a security guard appreciating the portraits and the Chippendale-style chairs. Perusing “True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780-1870,” there was often one other visitor in the same gallery — two at most — and because of the extra space, we cautiously, consciously took turns examining paintings on opposite sides of the room.
Even in “Degas at the Opéra,” which has been extended through Oct. 12, there were rarely more than four or five other people in a room. It was an unhurried experience that’s incredibly rare at major museums — I could gaze at the brushstrokes or the details, and then take a few steps back if another visitor wanted a closer look. I didn’t even mind if someone blocked a painting, or “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” featured in the last room of the exhibition, because there was something else that I could look at without anyone being in the way. Maybe it was happiness to be back out in public, or fear of the coronavirus, but everyone was happy to offer courtesy and give others space.
You might not be able to see your favorite pieces.
Tourists heading to the National Gallery usually have a list of works they’re eager to see, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” or Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s “Shaw Memorial,” and many Washingtonians who frequent the museum have favorite works they visit like old friends. But with only a fraction of the exhibition spaces open, many of the biggest draws remain out of view.
Instead, there are three rooms of intricately carved American 18th and 19th century furniture, interspersed with appropriate oil paintings, such as Gilbert Stuart portraits of John and Abigail Adams; eight galleries of 19th and 20th century sculpture, including multiple studies of Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”; and the five galleries of medieval, renaissance and baroque sculpture and decorative art. Perhaps the boldest names are in Gallery 39, which includes still-lifes and dog portraits by Manet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir.
I point this out not to dissuade anyone from visiting, but to keep expectations in check: You won’t see the Dutch masters the museum is known for, or the modern artists featured in the East Building, which is closed. But you might be spurred to examine the Titian on the ceiling in Gallery 14, or study the Rodin bronzes in Gallery 3.
You can have coffee now. Masks are coming soon.
While the open galleries and exhibitions are on the ground floor, the cafe and small shop are on the lower concourse level. (The Garden Cafe is being renovated, and the main gift shop is closed — you have to walk past them to reach the escalator and stairs.) The coffee bar sells espresso drinks and snacks such as pain au chocolat or oatmeal raisin cookies.
I stopped by the shop hoping they’d have some arty face coverings but was told they hadn’t yet arrived. A few, including a pair with Van Gogh and Monet prints, are available on shop.nga.gov.
If you go
National Gallery of Art West Building
Entrance at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. nga.gov.
When: Daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: Free; timed-entry passes must be reserved in advance.