New York is quite simply the capital of the art world. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere and that is particularly true for contemporary art galleries.
In the past 100 years, New York has been the real place to be and despite the birth of many more contemporary art hubs around the world, New York is still THE city.
Many reasons explain the predominance NY has over the art world. First of all, the American market is still the biggest contemporary art market in the world and New York is its capital. Second of all, during the XX century, the city witnessed and promoted the birth of some of the most prestigious museums entirely dedicated to contemporary art, such as MoMA founded in 1929, and the Guggenheim Museum, founded in 1939.
Last but not least, New York has that special vibrance that makes the city so special and brings together artists, collectors, and traders under the same sky. New York was home to some of the best artists when they flee from Europe at the beginning of the XX century, but it was home and the main stage of all the American artists that brought American art to its peak during the second half of the last century and today it is still the city where we all want to live and thrive.
That being said, it comes with no surprise that New York City is rich in galleries scattered around all five boroughs. Galleries of every dimension, type, and relevance. From small to enormous space, from non-profit foundations to small businesses here are the top three areas of Manhattan where you can find the best galleries.
If you are looking for big galleries and big names, look no further. A gallery hop in Chelsea is the quintessential experience for every art lover in the world. The area became popular between the late 90s and the early 00s when galleries started moving here from SoHo, as Chelsea was rich in warehouses that provided much bigger spaces for much cheaper rent (at least back in the 90s!).
Nowadays the majority of the galleries are located between 18th and 28th streets, 10th and 11th avenues, with some other spaces in the surrounding streets and avenues. The area is popular among tourists and art lovers alike, and it’s become even more popular after the opening of the High Line, a former train rail reconverted in a park and suspended promenade, and The Vessel – a seemingly useless divertissement for people to climb up and enjoy the view.
You can easily access the High Line promenade near the Vessel and walk south through the Chelsea Art District, to end up right next to the Whitney Museum of American Art. It makes a whole day-long visit if you fancy squeezing that much art into your day, and you can also check the museum at the end.
What should you expect from Chelsea then?
As I said, big galleries and big names. Here you can find all the top galleries in the world (or at least most of them), some of which have multiple spaces scattered around Chelsea. Just to name a few, the area is home to Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Lisson, and so on. Exhibitions here almost always have a museum-like taste, you can see powerful installations or video projections, XX century masters, and with the best contemporary art has to offer. Galleries are big and you can rest assured you will always find something interesting going on there.
Two of my favorite spots in the area, though, are much smaller non-profit spaces. The first one is the Doosan Art Center, a small gallery dedicated to Korean contemporary art, which also offers artists’ and curators’ residency programs. The other one is Hill Art Foundation, a private foundation located on the third floor of a beautiful building on 10th Avenue. You can read more about the Foundation here.
Lower East Side
The Lower East Side is home, it is where I used to work and hang around and it has a special place in my heart. Unlike Chelsea, galleries around the LES area are generally smaller but boast the same quality when it comes to exhibitions and artists. The area is still growing and has been growing for a little over ten years since the first pioneers started moving here. The area is also home to the New Museum and the International Center of Photography, that further stretch the offer. It is a lively area, full of bars, cafes, and restaurants, as well as little shops and galleries.
The vibe is very different from Chelsea. Here you can easily feel home after a few visits, and you can often bump into the same faces over and over. Even galleries have a different vibe. Most of them are small and the staff is friendly and eager to connect with visitors. It is not unlikely to meet people and start meaningful conversations while visiting a gallery or going to an opening, something that rarely happens in bigger galleries like those in Chelsea. Moreover, the area is home to several “mixed” places, bars that host exhibitions, artists that run small shops, and it is always a lot of fun to just walk around and connect with the locals.
So where in the Lower Est Side should you look for the best art?
Most of the galleries are located in the historical area of the Lower East Side, while a growing number of new spaces are rising around the edge of Chinatown and Two Bridges. Here you can find small independent galleries, non-profit spaces, and artist-run spaces. Among my favorites are Chinatown Soup, a gallery, cafe and artist studio, and TOTAH, a small gallery on the edge of the Lower East Side and Alphabet City.
Bigger galleries are located around the area as well and offer a wide range of different exhibitions, which a rich program of openings and events. You can easily spend a whole weekend hopping from one gallery to the other, as most of them are open on Sunday as well (unlike Chelsea). Among the best galleries of the area I like to mention Galerie Perrotin, one of the leading galleries worldwide with a 4 story space on Orchard St., but also Marc Straus (it was my home for a while and I am dearly fond of this beautiful space and the amazing staff!) on Grand Street, right next to 47 Canal and James Cohan, both in the same building.
The area is very rich and every time you can spot a new place. I would recommend checking Downtown Gallery Map for an updated list of exhibitions around that area.
Upper East Side
One of the wealthiest areas of New York, the Upper East Side is chic and world-famous for being the background of numerous films and tv shows (Gossip Girl anyone?). The area is rich in high-end shops and luxury boutiques, but it is also popular for art.
Located between 59th and 96th streets and 5th Avenue and East River, the Upper East Side is home to some of the most important museums of Manhattan and New York City in general, located along the so-called “Museum Mile”. Here you can visit the Guggenheim Museum, Met Museum, and Met Breuer just to name a few. Needless to say, the area is home to several major galleries, often hosted in beautiful and elegant buildings.
As for Chelsea and the Lower East Side, you can easily spend a whole day here, visiting galleries and museums or just taking a break in Central Park. Or you could also go shopping on Madison Avenue or Park Avenue if you fancy the luxurious vibes.
When it comes to galleries, here you will find major names both in terms of galleries and artists. My feeling is that here you can find the “bourgeois” elite of the Manhattan art world, with galleries offering exhibitions of modern masters of the XX century and more recent well-established artists. The quality of the exhibitions is always very high and the artists presented are usually well-known, which gives exhibitions around this area a close resemblance to these of the nearby museums. Here you will find Postwar American masters, as well as European painters, but also KAWS and contemporary sensations. Some of my favorite galleries around that area are David Zwirner, Skarstedt, Almine Rech and Mignoni gallery.