by Matt Alderton | August 17, 2017

If you were asked to name the world's greatest art museums, a few obvious candidates would probably trip off your tongue. The Louvre in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The British Museum in London. What probably wouldn't come to mind is a convention center. 

Yet many convention centers are in fact home to world-class art collections, with works that can infuse the same sense of beauty, inspiration, and culture of a traditional museum into your meetings. Here are five such venues.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center (Washington, DC)


The Walter E. Washington Convention Center claims to have the world's largest convention-center art collection, and the largest public-art collection in Washington, DC, outside of a museum. All told, the $4 million collection comprises 130 works.

"The art collection housed inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is...the best kept secret of the District," says Ashley Forrester, corporate director of communications and marketing at Events DC. "Our art program gives a sense of who we are and where we live in Washington, DC, and is one show that never ends inside the convention center."

According to Forrester, more than half of the artists whose work is displayed at the convention center are local. However, the collection includes work by artists from all over the world in order to reflect the fact that Washington, DC, is a global city. One highlight, for instance, is "Lingua" by Jim Sanborn.

"Walk through the Grand Lobby of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and two 16-foot columns will flank you. These columns are etched through with foreign language text recalling historic gatherings -- or conventions -- of people from 1400 BC until the 19th century.  When illuminated at night, this piece will take your breath away," Forrester says of "Lingua," which means "spoken word."

Another highlight is "Shaw Wall" by Arnetta Lee and Frank Smith, Billy Colbert, Rik Freeman, and Deirdre Saunder, which pays homage to the Shaw neighborhood in which the convention center is located. "With the Walter E. Washington Convention Center residing in Shaw, this piece holds a special value to us," Forrester continues. "The 72-foot-long wall comprises four different pieces and features five artists from the community. The wall regales colorful stories about the Shaw community."

Locals and visitors alike can learn about these and other works in the collection by taking a free public art tour, offered once quarterly by the convention center's curator-consultant.

"While the new Walter E. Washington Convention Center was designed with plenty of meeting rooms, inviting architecture, and technology advancements, we wanted to be able to offer our guests and clients more -- something that was uniquely personal -- and we found our solution in art," says Forrester.

The Puerto Rico Convention Center (San Juan, Puerto Rico)


The Puerto Rico Convention Center has a small but significant collection of Puerto Rican art that celebrates local artists. The collection includes 14 pieces that span several different styles, subjects, artists, and media.

"It helps us share our culture with our visitors and allows us to physically show them who Puerto Ricans are," Puerto Rico Convention Center Director of Sales and Marketing Margaret Colon says of the convention center's art. "We are proud of our local talent and are always excited to share it with all of our visitors and the world."

One of Colon's favorite artists, Quetzalcoatl, has four different pieces at the convention center. 

"Visitors cannot stop talking or taking pictures with his work," Colon says. "He literally chose the area and walls for two of his paintings, and he was inspired by and created the artwork for the convention center. These are two diptychs each. One is called 'Loves Me at Night' and the other 'Loves Me at Day.' They depict an explosion of love. They are on display on the second level, coming up the staircase on the left side of the building."

Something particularly special about the art at the Puerto Rico Convention Center is the fact that it's for sale: The convention center has partnered with an art gallery that will broker sales to interested patrons and also give tours of the art to groups whose attendees are interested in learning more about it.

The Greater Columbus Convention Center (Columbus, OH)

When they undergo a renovation, most convention centers seek more space and better amenities. The Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) is no exception. When it commenced a $140 million renovation in 2015, its plans included 37,000 square feet of new exhibit space, 10,000 square feet of new two-level meeting space, upgraded interiors, and new food and beverage options. However, they also included an expansive art collection.

"As part of the recently completed renovation and expansion of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, more than 150 pieces of local art are now on display in the interior and exterior of the building, as well as the attached parking garages," explains Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, who says the convention center's art is part of a larger collection that began at the adjacent Hilton Columbus Downtown when it opened in 2012. "All together it is the largest contemporary collection of local art in Franklin County."

Comprising a variety of media, the collection features art exclusively from artists who live in central Ohio.

"Some of the art was created by professional artists while other works are from emerging artists, and even some from students in grades K-12," continues Brown, who says the convention center uses art to stay connected with the city. "The GCCC sits on the edge of the city's Short North Arts District, a place that truly served as the pioneer of urban revitalization in the community, starting with artists moving into the district and opening galleries. The first step in connecting the GCCC with the culturally rich neighborhood right outside its doors was to create a two-level, open glass atrium at its north end, allowing for a full view of the area's visually appealing streetscape, including the well-known lighted arches over High Street.

"Beyond that, however, we know that meeting and convention schedules are incredibly busy, and many attendees never see the outside of the convention center during their visit. For those that are unable to explore beyond the glass atrium, we want to ensure that all of our visitors are able to see and understand what art means to Columbus. The artists who have pieces on display in our facilities represent the diversity of our community, cutting across age, gender, and race. Local art is an entryway to our community for those who are just learning what make Columbus such a great place."

Meeting attendees who want to explore the collection eventually will be able to take a docent-led tour. For now, however, they can use their smartphones to scan a QR code that accompanies each piece of art; the codes take visitors to a webpage where they can learn about each work of art and the artist who created it.

"The most important thing that the art in the GCCC offers is a true sense-of-place for those attending meetings and conventions," Brown concludes. "We don't want people to just come to Columbus, do their business, and then leave without ever giving the city a second thought. We want delegates to get a feel for our city while they are in the convention center."

The Miami Beach Convention Center (Miami Beach, FL)

The Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) is another convention center that is using renovation as a platform for art patronage. Scheduled for completion in 2018, its $615 million makeover and expansion will include nearly 500,000 square feet of renovated exhibit space, a 60,000-square-foot grand ballroom, additional meeting rooms, a 20,000-square-foot glass rooftop junior ballroom, and approximately $7 million in public art.

The centerpieces of the collection will be six large-scale installations located throughout the new convention center -- all of them inspired by and relating back to Miami Beach. Joseph Kosuth, for example, is creating "Located World, Miami Beach," a neon and text installation for the main lobby that shows Miami Beach as the center of the world. The grand ballroom, meanwhile, will feature Ellen Harvey's "Waterways," a series of glass panels that reference Miami Beach's unique connection to Florida's many bodies of water. And Sarah Morris will design the exterior walls of the northeast entranceway with "Morris Lapidus," a large-scale tile installation that references Morris Lapidus' first Miami Beach architectural work in 1949.

"The convention center's public art collection...will provide much more than an enhanced facility for meetings and groups. It will be a great destination for the arts to be enjoyed by the public," says Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) President and CEO William D. Talbert III.

Once the public art works are complete in late 2018, each will have descriptive signage permanently placed by the work. The convention center also will offer a self-guided tour in both print and electronic media.

Continues Talbert, "The Miami Beach Convention Center public art collection represents our commitment to making Miami an international destination for the arts."

Oregon Convention Center (Portland, OR)
 (pictured above)

Thanks to its twin glass spires that light up the city skyline at night, Portland's Oregon Convention Center is a work of art in and of itself. That hasn't stopped it from amassing one of the country's largest and most unique convention-center art collections, however.

Acquired over the course of two installments -- one in 1990, when the convention center opened, the other in 2003, when it was expanded -- the $2 million collection includes more than two dozen works of art, most of which were created by Pacific Northwest artists. Highlights, for instance, include "Principia" by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, "Ode to a Men's Restroom" by Dana Lynn Louis, and "Ode to a Women's Restroom," also by Louis. The former features the world's largest Foucault pendulum swinging over a fantasy solar system painted on the floor while the latter two celebrate nature in the place where "nature calls."

"Visitors discover art literally everywhere they go in the center. Several of our restrooms are in fact complete art installations, which never fails to surprise and delight people," says Matt Pizzuti, deputy director of the Oregon Convention Center. "We're in the business of providing our guests with a memorable experience, and the sheer size and variety of our art collection adds something truly special to every event we host."

Visitors can engage with the art by taking a self-guided walking tour -- the convention center's Visitor Information Center offers maps -- or joining one of the guided tours that are offered every year to the public and interested groups.

Concludes Pizzuti, "So much of the artwork here has an important story to tell about the cultural heritage of the region and its people, and we want to share these stories with all our visitors."