We all know how expensive New York can be. It is an amazing city, with a huge variety of things to do and places to visit, but it can soon become your worst nightmare if you travel on a budget.
But have no fear! As a former New Yorker, when it comes to contemporary art I can list quite a few things you can do for free or at a very reasonable price.

New York is a real Mecca for every contemporary art lover. It is home to some of the most important galleries and museums in the world, not to mention the amazing private foundations, collections, and temporary exhibitions spread all around the city. It surely has something for everyone! And although some of the museums’ tickets can be very pricey (at least compared to Europe), it could be a good idea to splurge a little bit to enjoy a quieter visit to the museum. Not to mention the whole physical or social distancing measures we will face once the pandemic is over! I bet you don’t want to visit a packed museum, am I right?

That being said, there are still a lot of free or almost-free activities you can do in New York to enjoy contemporary art on a budget. Here are my top five:

1 – Gallery hopping in the Lower East Side area

So you might say, why not Chelsea? Because if you like contemporary art, that is quite obviously already on your bucket list. The Lower East Side, on the other hand, might not, but it should. It offers a good number of smaller galleries, paired with a nice atmosphere, and a lot of cool and cozy (and possibly affordable) places to eat or drink something during your tour. The Lower East Side area is also close to Chinatown and Bowery. Hence you can add the New Museum of Contemporary Art to your visit, finishing up your day with a delicious Chinese meal.  

In this area, galleries tend to be smaller and exhibitions rotate fast. The area hosts some of the most interesting and diverse galleries, as well as big names, such as Galerie Perrotin. 

Check out Downtown Gallery Map for a monthly update on all the exhibitions in the area.
They also have a nice printed and foldable map, that you can easily find for free in many of the galleries listed.

Also, check out this article on New York galleries to get more detailed

Installation view of the exhibition The Red Bean Grows in the South, Faurschou New York, 2019. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging, © Faurschou Foundation.

2 – Private foundations

Private foundations are real hidden gems. Most of the time they are a little less known than major museums and galleries, yet they have amazing collections and exciting exhibitions. The visit is usually free or very reasonably priced. Plus, foundations in NYC are often located in off the beaten track areas, which makes them even more enjoyable if you want to escape the crowds.

My two favorites so far are:

Hill Art Foundation
Located in Chelsea on the third and fourth floors of The Getty, it is a beautiful space, with large windows and natural light, overlooks the High Line and 10th Avenue. It was founded in 2019 by J. Tomilson and Janine Hill, collectors and philanthropists based in New York, to host rotating exhibitions.

Faurschou Foundation New York
Located in Greenpoint, it was also recently opened as part of a larger, world-spread foundation. Mr. Faurschou is a Danish collector and Art Advisor, his foundation has 4 different galleries around the world, located in Copenhagen, Beijing, Venice, and New York. The foundation aims at fostering cross-cultural dialogue, in particular between the East and the West. 

3 – Street or public art around New York City 

New York is famous for its graffiti history and most of us remember the 90s films and tv shows depicting the city underground art scene. Although some things have changed, NYC is still home to a lot of great public and street art. Artists here find large walls to paint and open-minded commissioners to help them, making the city a thriving environment. You can plan a nice walk around New York to enjoy contemporary art while still be very budget-friendly.

If you want to experience some of the best murals in town, head to Houston & Bowery corner: here Keith Haring painted his first large scale mural in 1982 and after that, it became a center point for street art. Last year, the area hosted the amazing project “The Gun Chronicles” by JR, the French street artist and one of the most recognized street artists nowadays. 

When it comes to public art, another favorite is Public Art Fund. Founded in 1977, Public Art Fund is a non-profit organization that brings free exhibitions on display in public spaces around the five boroughs of NYC. Over the years, they have worked with some of the most important artists in the world, bringing five hundred exhibitions to life. The ultimate goal of Public Art Fund is “to offer the public powerful experiences with art and the urban environment”, as they state in their mission, creating unique chances for everyone to experience contemporary art in their daily life, whether on their way to work or while walking their puppy dog. Check their website for an updated list of their exhibitions.  

New York Guggenheim Museum
The New York Guggenheim Museum’s Rotunda | Photo Blackandwhite_Carlotta

4 – Museums membership cards 

Ok, I know I might sound contradicting, but follow me here. If you really want to save some money while in New York looking for contemporary art, you should consider membership cards. The truth is, if you think you can enjoy a nice, meditative visit to a museum during one of those free nights, you are far from right (given that we will still have free nights in the future!). Museums are usually packed, lines are long and time-consuming and most of all you can’t properly enjoy the artworks on display.

On the other hand though, if you are planning to stay in New York for a while, signing up for a membership can be a good choice for you. Basically, every museum offers this type of card, they can seem pricey at first but they come with a lot of benefits. In the long run, you can save quite some money off your budget while discovering the New York contemporary art scene.

With a membership card, you can get inside the museum and its exhibitions for free, as many times as you want, you have access to members-only visits and events, and you can even get free or discounted tickets for a guest. Plus, you can visit the museum whenever you want, you can skip the line for the tickets and enjoy the visit for free without having to wait till any pay-as-you-wish night.

I would recommend choosing one museum you particularly love, one that has your favorite pieces or your favorite artists, and most of all one that provides a few different events and benefits for its members.

5 – Magazzino Italian Art, if you want to take a day off and travel Upstate

Last but not least, a small gateway from the city’s madness. If you plan to travel Upstate or take a day trip outside of New York City, Magazzino Italian Art is the place for you. 

Located in Cold Spring, about one hour north of Manhattan, it is a private museum dedicated to “advancing scholarship and public appreciation of Postwar and Contemporary Italian Art in the United States”. Opened in 2017 in the Hudson Valley, their program includes exhibitions, lectures, and several other events, most of which related to Italian contemporary art. Being Italian, it is definitely one of my favorite places to spend a day: their collection of Arte Povera is stunning and they host some of the most interesting lectures on Italian art I have ever found. 

Also, you can easily get there by train, since they provide a free shuttle bus from the Cold Spring station. Lastly, the visit is also free, and you can pair it with some of the other amazing art spaces located upstate in the Hudson Valley. A great chance to breathe some fresh air outside of Manhattan and enjoy nature and art! 

What are your favorite places? Where do you go in New York to discover contemporary art on a budget? I am sure this city has a lot more to offer, let me know which places I shouldn’t miss on my next trip to NYC.