For obvious reasons, art museums are usually our go-to places to see art, but they aren’t the only option. While often overlooked, art galleries also provide opportunities to see art in person, and they’re free to enter. Their perceived snobbishness and exclusivity often stop people from taking advantage of them, but that attitude is not always accurate in my experience. Art galleries are basically stores that sell art, and they are generally a lot less intimidating than you might think.
First of all, what is an art gallery?
In the broadest sense, an art gallery can be any physical space where art is displayed, from an individual room to an entire building. That’s why spaces within museums are often called galleries, and an entire museum can even include the word “gallery” in its name (like the Yale University Art Gallery). However, the most common meaning of the term art gallery (and the subject of this post) is an institution that sells art in the commercial marketplace. Its employees are called art dealers or, less commonly, gallerists. Usually located in storefronts, townhouses, or freestanding buildings in commercial districts, art galleries can feel like a mixture of museum, store, and office all in the same space. There are galleries that cater to all different interests and tastes. The majority display contemporary art, often acquiring works from artists directly, but there are also plenty of galleries that sell historical art. Naturally, fewer sell the older and rarer kinds than the more prevalent ones.
Generally speaking, displaying, marketing, and selling art are galleries’ primary activities, but to a lesser extent, they may also do things like write books and pamphlets and conduct research. At the higher end of things, some may even curate exhibitions that seem more like museum exhibitions. You don’t even have to physically visit galleries like Sam Fogg and Les Enluminures (two of my favorites) to enjoy their robust online offerings. Many art dealers are skilled art historians, and some also act like publicists or agents for contemporary artists with whom they have exclusive representation rights.
How to visit
You’ll tend to find art galleries in major cities, wealthy areas, towns with lots of seasonal or tourist traffic (like shore towns), and places that currently have or used to have big artist communities. You may not even realize that an area is artsy until you see how many art galleries it has.*
In my experience, galleries tend to congregate on the same few streets or section of town. This makes it easy to enjoy several in quick succession without any advanced planning. Just find one gallery – perhaps through an online search or an advertisement in a local periodical – and then walk around the area and you’ll likely find more. But just note that gallery hours may be variable or limited, and occasionally appointments are required.
Art galleries are basically stores that sell art
Big, prestigious mega-galleries definitely exist, but so do more modest galleries, local galleries, and even tiny mom-and-pop galleries. Many are located in town centers next to cafes and bookstores and are staffed by people who are probably more used to greeting casual browsers than having intense discussions with major-league art history types. Just like in any other store, tons of people come in to look without buying. It’s simply not as big a deal as you probably think. In no gallery that I’ve visited have I ever felt any pressure to make a purchase, nor have I gotten the impression that my window shopping was at all unusual to the staff. In my experience, gallery employees will stay away from serious art talk unless you initiate it, meaning that they do not expect their patrons to necessarily be art savvy.
Smaller-town galleries are probably your safest bet for a reliably welcoming experience. However, big cities also offer plenty of inviting galleries in all sizes. This advice in this article is mainly intended for those two groups. I don’t really discuss high-end or big-name galleries, mainly because I don’t have that much recent experience with them. There’s no question that these major galleries are often designed to feel impressive, expensive, and trendy, and that may be a turn off to many people, but there is absolutely no reason you can’t visit them and look around if you wish.
Here are a few more great reasons to visit art galleries
They are always free to enter. And depending on your geographic area, they may be more easily accessible to you than museums.
You’ll see a different selection of art than you would in museums. Very often, the artists whose works appear in galleries are not the same artists represented in museums. They are sometimes even local artists not well known outside of the area. This means that you’ll get to see art you wouldn’t experience otherwise. In the realm of contemporary art, some galleries may show you more traditional and easy-to-understand selections than the ultra-trendy art that tends to populate contemporary art museums. Even in historical galleries, you’re quite likely to discover some unknown names. When interacting with artworks that don’t have big reputations, you may find it easier to enjoy the experience and have your own reactions without the fear of “getting it wrong”. That being said, art in galleries is still high quality and worthy of your time and attention.
Art galleries tend to be small. Some have only one or two rooms, and even the largest are much smaller than museums. This makes them low-commitment experiences. If you visit one and don’t like the vibe, you can easily walk out. If the art on display doesn’t appeal to you, you haven’t wasted time or money. You can experience something new and strange in a bite-sized serving. The exhibitions tend to be small, but since multiple galleries often inhabit the same area, you can still see plenty of art in one afternoon.
Gallery staff tend to be friendly and talkative, and it’s easy to ask questions. Odds are, you won’t be in any gallery for long before the owner or an employee starts talking to you. In the smaller galleries, someone will pretty much be in the room with you the whole time, since the work spaces coexist the displays. (Unfortunately, having to peer around an occupied desk to look at a painting simply doesn’t get less awkward with practice.)
Just remember that being chatty is what good salespeople do; it doesn’t mean they have singled you out, are judging you, or expect you to buy something. (In fact, any gallery employee who isn’t courteous to you isn’t doing their job very well.) This is a very different experience than the silence of museum visits, but whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your personality. When someone strikes up a conversation and you don’t know how to reply, try pointing out an artwork you enjoy and mention something you like about it. You can be super vague, like “I really love the colors in this one.” That will likely prompt the other party to start talking up a storm. Asking to hear more about the artist is also a good technique. Gallery owners and employees can be super knowledgeable and passionate about the artists they sell and often love to tell people about them. If you tell them you don’t know much about the type of art them display, I’m sure many would be happy to explain everything you need to know.
A final word of encouragement
This article was inspired by a recent visit to several art galleries in the unexpectedly artsy and charming town of Lambertville, New Jersey. There, I visited about five lovely galleries, saw lots of memorable art, and had several wonderful conversations. I recognize that I am something of an insider, but visiting these galleries did not feel any different than entering the nearby coffee shop (where I had an excellent breakfast) or any of the other stores in the town center. They were just another part of the town’s commercial district. All of the gallery employees were generally welcoming. They seemed accustomed to people looking around casually and did not automatically assume I was going to buy something or knew a lot about art.
Therefore, if you are ever unlucky enough to encounter a snobby gallery or employee, please remember that they are not the norm, and don’t let them stop you from taking advantage of the great art-viewing opportunities that art galleries can provide.