Last month we kicked off our city guide series, where we ask an all-knowing native to give us the low down on their local art scene. We couldn’t think of a better follow up to our Los Angeles guide than by swapping coasts and highlighting the art and culture mecca that is New York City. Come along with writer and Brooklynite Michael Barron (and photographer Victoria Masters) as they take us through the must-see galleries and artistic neighborhoods in NYC. Rep your favorites in the comments below.
New York City is home to hundreds of art galleries – over 500 in Manhattan alone, according to Frommer’s. And this doesn’t even include the more than hundred museums festooned throughout the five boroughs (in typical NY fashion, someone wrote about visiting all of them, a feat that took over a year). While Manhattan has traditionally been the hub of the art world in America, (and at times, the world), in NYC itself more and more galleries are opening their doors in Brooklyn and elsewhere. For tax purposes, all art galleries are free (museums usually are not), so you could literally spend an entire day traversing the city and looking at art without spending a dollar (subway fare and a pizza slice notwithstanding).
Offered here is a freegan art tour of New York with a few must-see museums that have free-admission loopholes. A lot of galleries mentioned here are mere steps from ones that are not, so use these particular spots as rough map pins, allow yourself to wander. Wherever I could, I’ve included neighborhood art guides which offer complete listings for all galleries within a specific area. Oh, and a pro tip: download the See Saw app for a visual guide and directory to current shows happening around the city.
A young art scene is always a thriving art scene, so what better place to begin the tour than Brooklyn. A majority of Brooklyn’s artists live, work, and show in North Brooklyn, where spaces dedicate themselves to exhibiting debut artists, but more young artists are starting to show work in South Brooklyn, where a number of new galleries have popped up in the last few years. Here are some highlights.
Once the hub of Brooklyn hipster culture, Williamsburg has since settled into something between a zone for cool dads and the fashionably hip. While many of its storied music venues have since vanished, the area still commands a decent number of free galleries.
Journal Gallery: 101 N 1st St.
We started our tour on a Saturday at noon when all the galleries open up. I met Victoria at Journal Gallery, the only exhibition space of its size currently operating in Williamsburg. Where previous pop-up galleries have opened and closed their doors, Journal has upgraded from the once little shack-sized space it occupied to a full on warehouse with a cabin-like structure built inside. On the day we went, a show by artist minimal painter Peter Demos was on view. Journal also publishes its own quarterly magazine with an impressive list of contributors.
17 Frost Gallery: 17 Frost St.
This venue has the distinction of exclusively showcasing work by street artists, and it’s appropriately housed in an old garage. Though their parties tend to get a bit rowdy, the work on display often focuses on more developed art by artists known to wheat-paste their work on the fly.
Southfirst: 60 N 6th St.
One of Williamsburg’s more avant-garde spaces, Southfirst is hidden deep in the back of an old commercial store front. It’s easy to miss, but once inside, you can’t avoid it. The last time I was here, a sound installation had been installed. You could hear the deep yawning maw of the installation all the way to the inconspicuous entrance.
Front Room Gallery: 147 Roebling St
Located near the heart of Williamsburg and opened in 1999, Front Room Gallery is one of Brooklyn’s oldest contemporary art galleries. It’s dedicated to exhibiting artwork by emerging and mid-career artists with a concentration on photography, conceptual art, video, audio art, and installation. The Front Room shows works that are at times ephemeral, conceptual or noncommercial in nature and supports programs that include The Banner Project (public exhibition space) and Multiples and Editions (featuring works by national and international artists.)
Bushwick galleries tend to open when they please, so we weren’t surprised to find a few places shut during their stated open business hours. That being said, you could spend a couple hours here wandering the neighborhood from gallery to gallery. Work by younger artists tends to be on display here, making Bushwick a good place to start if you’re working the spectrum from the underground to the establishment.
The BogArt: 56 Bogart Street
The BogArt is among the largest art institutions in Brooklyn. An old manufacturing plant, it now houses almost twenty galleries all with different tastes. A few years ago, a Bulgarian artist friend of mine named Svetlana Mircheva made her NYC debut at the NurtureArt gallery which is on the lower level. Victoria and I wandered in and out of the galleries before making our way to Victori + Mo to see a show by the artist Nic Rad who paints internet-inspired art. Among them was a painting with the artist’s phone number. I called it and left a message telling Rad to keep up the good work.
The Parlour: 791 Bushwick Ave
One of Bushwick’s more ambiance-driven space, the parlour lives up to its namesake by resembling a fine parlour room with wood paneling and sofas to better appreciate the art. It’s stated mission focuses on local artists and is meant for them to exhibit and be a part of a community that is an alternative to the traditional gallery environment.
Silent Barn: 603 Bushwick Ave
The first Silent Barn was a legendary underground music venue that got destroyed in a police raid (it has since been rebuilt into the new venue Trans-Pecos). Silent Barn has now moved to a new townhouse location and, along with music, hosts a small gallery in its rear. It’s worth checking out if you’re there for a show.
Greenpoint has become a hot-bed of miniature galleries. Increasing rent prices, however, are causing many of its galleries to close up shop, so hitting them up feels like visiting an endangered species in a zoo. The neighborhood even keeps an updated tumblr of all galleries currently active in Greenpoint. Here are some highlights:
67 West: 67 West Street.
A large waterfront manufacturing space that hosts everything from weddings to vintage furniture store, 67 west is also the largest home to Greenpoint artists and galleries, including the Greenpoint Terminal Gallery. Unfortunately, due to rising rent prices, the space may soon find itself devoid of the artists that helped make 67 West such an institution. Go while you still can.
Triple Canopy: 155 Freeman St.
Not a true gallery, but an artist’s lecture space within a gallery. Triple Canopy hosts countless talks by artists, writers, and filmmakers. Triple Canopy also publishes an online cultural magazine and a series of books, including its recent Speculations anthology of artists speculating on the broad topic of the future. If you’re curious about the underground art theory community (that would sound pretentious anywhere other than New York), this is the space for you.
Though not as populated with galleries as its North Side, South Brooklyn has its fair share of noteworthy galleries that shouldn’t be written off. Here are three.
Pioneer Works: 159 Pioneer St, Brooklyn, NY 11231
Arguably the most beautiful art space in Brooklyn (full bias disclosure: I got married here), Pioneer Works resides in a large renovated old foundry with cathedral-like windows that pour in light. The space allows for expansive showcases including a long auditorium-sized viewing space and media rooms. In this spring, this venue hosts the annual African American Contemporary Art Fair, and every summer, throws full-fledged concerts.
Open Source: 306 17th St.
Located near the Greenwood Cemetery in South Slope, this is another large art space housed in a former horse stable. The wood doors are still there. The exhibitions tend to cater toward installations and performance art, and the parties tend to bring out the locals in droves.
There’s so much to see in Manhattan that you could wander around a single neighborhood for an entire day and not get bored. But there are two neighborhoods that are especially littered with art galleries that you should visit if you are looking to see some art: the Lower East Side and Chelsea.
Lower East Side
With over 70 galleries in the span of a one-mile radius, the LES is a must for any art enthusiast. The easiest place to begin is this website which offers a handy guide to every single one of them, map included. Where to go next is up to you, but here are a few suggestions.
Feuer / Mesler: 319 Grand Street
Housed on the second floor of a non-descript aging walk-up, the Feuer / Mesler gallery is like stepping in an early New York tenement home to see some art. Both Feuer and Mesler curate the gallery – with two distinct curators, the tastes of Feuer / Mesler can be wildly off-kilter with one another and it makes for some exciting exhibitions (ex. ghastly gingerbread haunted houses sharing space with post-internet digital prints).
Shin Gallery: 322 Grand St.
Literally right across the street from Feuer / Mesler, Shin runs both sides of a street corner on Orchard St and Grand, this is one of the best places to see more youthful installation artists at work. Having two galleries means it can put on two distinctly different shows at the same time without the two colliding aesthetically. On the day we went, the gallery had even transformed its space into a trashy CBGB-esque punk bathroom, complete with urinals.
The Lodge Gallery: 131 Chrystie Street
It wouldn’t be New York without a speakeasy, and the contemporary art gallery Envoy Enterprises provides. A large undistinguished gallery above the venue Home Sweet Home, the Lodge shows work that would fit right at home in a game room (at the time of this writing they’re showing a Kentucky Derby art show and will host a Derby party with a live stream of the races). But pay attention to the wall and you’ll see a door shaped crack on the backside. Open that up and suddenly you’re in Fig. 19, one of NYC’s great speakeasy cocktail joints. Come for the art, stay for a drink.
On Stellar Rays: 1 Rivington Street
A gallery set up in the the shell of a former railroad apartment, On Stellar Rays is dedicated to new, contemporary minimalistic work. Right around the corner from the New Museum, this is a good place to pre-game before diving into a full-on museum.
e-flux: 311 E Broadway
E-flux isn’t a gallery so much as an institution with a multi-floored gallery. One a single evening there can be an opening on one floor, a lecture or screening on the second, and a party on the third. As they describe themselves on their website: e-flux is a publishing platform and archive, artist project, curatorial platform, and enterprise which was founded in 1998. Its news digest, events, exhibitions, schools, journal, books, and the art projects produced and/or disseminated by e-flux describe strains of critical discourse surrounding contemporary art, culture, and theory internationally. If you want more than a viewing experience with your art, this place is definitely worth the pilgrimage to the far east side of lower Manhattan.
New Museum: 235 Broadway
Free on Thursday evenings, this multi-floor museum is dedicated to contemporary art from around the world. Like PS1, its focus is less on acquiring work than showcasing it. It’s multi-level galleries often feature up to three artists at a time, and will even dedicate a room to a single work. It also hosts plenty of events in the bar that graces the top floor which offer decks with jaw dropping views of Manhattan. Unfortunately, you can’t get on the big boat suspended in front of it.
Chelsea is the big leagues. These are the galleries that represents many of the world’s major player artists, and they look it too. No longer are you cramming into bleached white former storefront, these are spaces that are imposingly beautiful, architecturally elegant, and show work that is unabashedly ambitious. This is the kind of place where you stumble upon a Ryan Trecartin show rather than stand in line for one. Like the LES, Chelsea is chock-full of galleries, and like the LES it also comes with a comprehensive guide (be sure to zoom out once to get ALL the galleries). Here are some stand-outs.
David Zwirner Gallery: (two locations – 519, West 19th Street & 537 West 20th Street)
Zwirner perfectly embodies the Chelsea gallery vibe, and has even created enough of a reputation for its namesake founder to be profiled by the New Yorker. On the days we went to visit, one of its buildings had been turned into a large-scale walk-in theater playing ten Stan Douglas films at once. By contrast, the space next door offered a more meditative look at Thomas Ruff’s art inspired by FBI classified files. If you get a chance, right across the street is the storied avant-garde performance venue the Kitchen where Arthur Russell once worked as the music director.
Hauser & Wirth: 511 West 18th Street
Up a grand staircase flanked by lollipop-colored walls, the Chelsea location of franchise gallery Hauser + Wirth opens into a large catacomb of concrete rooms often boasting some of the largest retrospectives happening in the city at any given time. A recent exhibition of the artist Mike Kelley turned the entire space into a gooey fantasy of caves and spaceship like portals.
Andrea Rosen Gallery: 525 West 24th Street
A multi-room gallery with a speciality for video art, Andrea Rosen occasionally transforms its spaces into small theaters, such as had happened for the recent Ryan Trecartin exhibition of four new video works, where each theater was given a theme – a jungle, a trailer park, a senior citizens home, a gymnasium- corresponding to the subject of Trecartin’s movies.
Gladstone Gallery: 515 West 24th Street
Just next door to Andrea Rosen is a space known for its installations and a roster of artists that include Matthew Barney and Sol Lewitt, Gladstone works the extra mile to ensure that the work you are seeing is viewed in the most aesthetically pleasing environment as possible. On the day we went, the rooms had been dimmed and a cluster of TV screens were hung on ceilings and walls showing only the movement of clouds. If you’re a Buddhist-leaning lover of art, this is the spot for you.
The Whitney, 99 Gansevoort St.
The last museum to make the cut, the Whitney moved spaces from its Upper East Side location down to Chelsea just last year. Dedicated entirely to American art, the Whitney’s tends to place work in generational order by floor: turn of the century – modern – minimalism and abstract expressionism – the 80s – the 90s – contemporary. Admission is also free Friday evenings.
Feeling that empire state of mind? Check out work from NY artists and our collection of NY inspired art!
Michael Barron writes for VICE, Bomb, Frieze, and other places. He lives in Brooklyn.
Victoria Masters’ photography has appeared in publications like NY Magazine and RANGE, and regularly shapes the music site S&S. She lives in Brooklyn.