The San Jose Museum of Art is perhaps my favorite art museum anywhere. It’s just the right size and has an ever-changing variety of exhibits. Of all the art museums I’ve visited, this is my favorite for the peacefully excited creative vibe it gives me. I just like how I feel inside myself when I’m there and when I walk away.
In a Nutshell
The museum has two main gallery floors plus a mini gallery downstairs. There’s also the obligatory cafe and gift shop on the ground floor, of course.
True, it’s not the biggest, nor is it filled with classic paintings by the Old Masters. It does have a wide variety, though, and doesn’t have the stuffy, boring, or elitist vibe many art museums carry. To me, it’s the “Goldilocks size” for a museum — big enough to be interesting, but not so big as to be overwhelming. I walk out excited to sketch or paint something of my own.
The works tend to be contemporary-ish, in that they’re usually from the early 1900s until today. I’ve never seen a Renaissance or Van Gogh exhibit there, for example. That said, they’re not just what you’d think of as “modern art” (the highly abstract random-looking art that many people find unappealing). They tend to include a variety of photography, painting, sketching, sculpture, and installation art in many different styles. They often create a collection or exhibit on a particular topic, such as social justice or people’s varying concepts of “home” or American landscapes from the mid-20th century. They also include background information on many of the pieces to help guests understand the context of the work. I find it quite interesting and inspiring. It’s different every time I go.
The museum allows photography and very few of the works are under glass. As long as you don’t touch, you can get very close to the work to see the details and feel more connected to it. The galleries are wide open and airy with just the right balance of having enough to look while also having plenty of breathing room between each exhibit.
There are friendly volunteer docents available if you need them, but I never feel pressured or watched. It’s very much an enjoy-at-your-own-pace kind of place. It’s also laid out in a very nonlinear way (think more Macy’s, less IKEA) with no scripted path, so you’re free to flow with your interests.
The museum has clipboards with paper available if you’re feeling inspired to sketch while you’re there. They also have Art Pack tote bags with games and art supplies to borrow. These are designed to help children feel more connected to the art, but they’re freely available to anyone.
The museum is open to all ages, of course, but I’d say elementary school on up would be ideal. Most preschoolers and younger children will struggle with the look-don’t-touch aspect of the museum. If you do bring younger children, I’d suggest borrowing an Art Pack or bringing crayons and a drawing pad they can use in their lap in the stroller. This will give them something they can touch and do (in a room full of “no”) that connects to what they’re seeing.
The museum is in downtown San Jose at the corner of S. Market Street and E. San Fernando Street. (It’s at one end of Plaza de Cesar Chavez, where Christmas in the Park happens every year.) The address is 110 South Market Street.
It’s very close to The Tech Museum of Innovation, St. Joseph’s Cathedral Basilica, and loads of different restaurants. It’s a comfortable walking distance (under half a mile) from San Jose State University, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, and the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
I always recommend taking public transit downtown if you can, just to save on parking costs and traffic stress. At least fifteen different VTA transit routes (including the free DASH Shuttle) run close to the museum, or if you’re coming from farther away, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the CalTrain station to the museum.
If you do drive, their website has driving directions from all parts of the Bay Area. There are several nearby parking lots or, if you’re very lucky and good at parallel parking, some on-street parking. There is one accessible (blue curb) parking spot on Market Street if it’s available and if you have a placard or DP plates. Otherwise, ParkSJ.org lists the Second and San Carlos Garage or the Third and Santa Clara Garage as the best options.
This is an indoor museum, so you’ll enjoy it any time of year. Their strong air conditioning makes it an especially wonderful choice during a heat wave! (That air conditioning also means you should actually bring a light sweater even if it’s warm outside.)
When I visited (2018), the tickets were $10 for adults and less for children, students, and seniors. Children under 6 are free. See their website for current pricing. There are also annual membership options at multiple levels and prices.
If you’re a San Jose Public Library cardholder, you can use their Discover’n’Go pass program to get free one-day admission for a family of 4. There are many different special offers and discounts listed on the museum’s website, so it’s worth checking to see if any of those apply to you.
Length of Time
This museum usually takes us about two hours. If you’re the read-every-single-plaque type, it will be longer, but I find two hours is usually enough to meander through the galleries at a comfortably calm pace.
There are public tours available for free at 1:00 and 2:30 every day except Mondays. (The museum is closed on Mondays.)
I have to give this museum kudos for their fantastic accessibility on many fronts.
The whole front of the building appears to be stairs, but there is a sign directing you to the wheelchair ramp at one end. It leads directly to the front door.
The entire museum is wheelchair-friendly. You can roll right up to the artwork, it’s hung at a variety of heights, and there’s a lot of room to move around each exhibit. The floors are all hardwood (or something that looks like it) so it’s easy to maneuver. There’s an elevator connecting all three floors.
There are benches scattered throughout the museum. If you need to borrow a wheelchair, seat cane, or stroller, just ask at the information desk. They even have “gallery stools” to borrow, which are lightweight little seats that look like wooden step stools but have a small hole in the middle so they’re easy to carry around with you.
The restroom is a little small but does have an accessible stall.
Vision & Hearing
For guests with limited but functional vision, the museum has magnifying glasses (which they call “visual aid tools”) to borrow from the information desk. They also have a binder with all of the exhibits’ information plaques in large print if you have trouble reading the smaller print on the wall plaques.
Of course as an art museum, nearly everything is “look, don’t touch,” so someone who’s totally blind would miss out on most of it. There are a few galleries which include videos or mini documentaries related to the exhibit subject, so they could listen to these, but that would be about it.
Some of those videos are closed-captioned to be accessible to guests with hearing impairments. You can also request ahead of time to have a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for the public tour or a special lecture event at the museum. Outside of that, the experience is almost entirely visual, so a visitor who’s deaf would be able to fully enjoy the museum.
The sensory level is another way in which this museum hits the “Goldilocks” spot for me. It’s naturally quiet enough that I didn’t need my ear plugs (for once!) and wasn’t distracted by ambient noise, but it also doesn’t have that stuffy dead-quiet formal atmosphere of some art museums. People talk quietly to each other. The documentaries/videos are faintly audible in some areas, but the designers did a good job of containing them in a nearly closed-off area so the sound isn’t too distracting outside of the theater space. It’s comfortable.
The lighting is also comfortable. There’s a lot of natural light in the central area. The gallery lighting is high enough to be effective and cheerful but not glaringly bright, even with the white walls and wood floors. Again, my kudos to the people in charge. It’s well done.
My only sensory note is if you’re sensitive to smells, beware: The soap in the bathrooms is heavily fragranced. Next time, I’ll just wash with water and take my chances with the germs…
There’s no food or drink allowed in the galleries (as usual with museums) but there is a cafe on the main floor. It has indoor and outdoor seating available, so you could bring your own food if you prefer. The cafe is also open to the public without a museum ticket. Depending on where you park, a purchase at the cafe may get you up to 40 minutes of validated parking.
They have moderate to high-end food by museum cafe standards, on par with the restaurants nearby in downtown San Jose. They offer snacks or whole meals. I saw gourmet sandwiches, salads, soups, bakery treats, and breakfast foods. There were also grab-and-go bottled beverages, chips, and fresh fruit. There were lots of vegetarian choices but limited vegan options (mainly the chips and fruit). The menu didn’t talk about food allergies, so call ahead at 408.277.0557 to ask what’s available if you or someone in your party has a specific need.
Would we go back?
Absolutely! This is my second visit to the San Jose Museum of Art in two years and will certainly not be my last. There’s something new to see every time. I love the creative energy, calm open space, and friendly people I always find there. If you’re looking for creative inspiration or just a new destination for your weekend, this museum is sure to make you smile!