Art museums are the new churches not because the role of the church has declined in recent centuries and something had to fill the gap. The new status of museum architecture is rather a reflection of how art has changed over the years. Before the 18th Century, non-religious art could only be found in palaces and lacked any public function. By the 19th Century, museums were meant to serve as places for ethical and social improvement. But, in the 20th Century, aesthetic contemplation became a virtue in itself, and museum architecture changed accordingly. That is why modern museums are marked by pure, white walls and by giant spaces that, like the nave of a basilica, make visitors seem small in comparison.
Art has imitated religion in other ways too. These days, we frequently use religious language when talking about art. We make “pilgrimages” to museums in far-off places. We experience “transcendence” before major paintings. And, of course, Sunday is the busiest day of the week for most art museums.