Manhattan has more than 500 private art galleries selling everything from old masters to tomorrow’s news. That number effectively makes the Big Apple the planet's premier marketplace for contemporary art.
Galleries are free to the public (nobody will expect you to buy, so don’t worry) and generally open Mon–Fri from 10am to 6pm, although many are also open Saturdays (outside the summer months, that is). Thursday evening gallery-hopping, in particular, is a favorite pastime. That's when exhibition openings occur, which may mean free wine (see below for more on that) and a party atmosphere.
Right now, more than 250 galleries are now on the blocks spanning 20th to 29th streets between Tenth and Eleventh avenues in West Chelsea, so if you want to visit several in one fell swoop, this is is the easiest place to do so. Gallery after gallery has taken over the former warehouse and industrial spaces of this dusty old 'hood, creating an eminently walkable arts district. You can have a perfectly lovely time simply getting lost in the area and wandering blindly from one space to the next. You might hit a lot of clunky exhibitions (just as with any collection of new art, some are better than others)—but so what? If you want to take this course of action, start on 24th Street, which has the largest assortment of well-known galleries. If you want to see more affordable art, you'll want to go to the upper floors of the buildings that house multiple galleries. Just look for directories on the main floors of these buildings; any place where the door is open, or the door is made of clear glass, welcomes members of the public to visit.
You can also winnow down your choices is online at www.nymag.com/arts/art, which will give you full access to New York magazine's full reviews, capsule reviews, and simple listings of what's on at the top galleries. The New York Times offers an even more curated list of the shows it's recommending here: www.nytimes.com/section/arts/design. For the broadest possible array, for all the good and bad that implies, head to www.galleriesnow.net which has photos from a mind-boggling large array of galleries across the city; www.artnet.com and www.artinfoland.com can also be useful. A final excellent source—more for practicals on the galleries and the artists and genres they represent rather than current shows—is www.artincontext.org.
Or if you're in town on a Thursday (or Wednesday), you might want to tipple as you tour the galleries, by planning a route around the ones that are celebrating openings. To do so, go to the Instagram account of the ThirstyGallerina. She posts 10 to 12 art openings each week.
(Opening night party at the Seizan Gallery in Chelsea)
Top Chelsea Galleries to Visit
Another tack might be to catch a tour of the area (see below) or to concentrate on the following twelve galleries, which have made their reputations with consistently thought-provoking shows.
Note: Your best subway option for all the following galleries is to take either the C or E line to 23rd St.
303 Gallery 555 W. 21st St. (www.303gallery.com; (212/255-1121). The Whitney biennial has this gallery on speed dial, having picked up works by several of the young to mid-career, cutting-edge photographers and painters who present shows here. For a good look at the artists the gallery represents, visit the website first.
Cavin-Morris 210 Eleventh Ave. (www.cavinmorris.com; 212/226-3768). In addition to contemporary art from all parts of the globe, Cavin Morris is one of the foremost dealers of tribal art in the city, with a focus on masks; as well as an important source for Asian ceramic works.
Paula Cooper 521, 529 and 534 W. 21st St. (www.paulacoopergallery.com; 212/255-1105). Cooper used to be one of the biggest names in art, the dealer that everyone wanted. Though she’s now in her mid-80's she's still going strong, still has the exquisite taste she’s always had, and exhibits a number of prominent artists, including Mark di Suvero, Claes Oldenburg, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd.
Gagosian 555 W. 24th St. and 522 W. 21st. (www.gagosian.com; 212/741-1111). A massive, important family of galleries (two uptown, one in Los Angeles, several in Europe), it presents blockbuster shows of works from such major 20th- and 21st-century figures as Julian Schnable, Helen Frankenthaler, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman.
Barbara Gladstone Gallery 515 W. 24th St. and 530 W. 21st. St. (www.gladstonegallery.com; 212/206-9300). Come here to see the artists who have emerged as big honchos in the last decade or so, such as Matthew Barney and Richard Prince. Gladstone tends to feature conceptual, often highly political art—most prominently photography and videos, but also sculpture and paintings.
Greene Naftali 508 W. 26th St. (www.greenenaftaligallery.com; 212/463-7770). If you miss the shows of Rachel Harrison, Tony Cokes, or Walter Price here, you just may get to see them at the Museum of Modern Art. A number of this esteemed galleries clients are featured there, and at other important contemporary art museums around the world. Tip: Head upstairs to the galleries 8th floor for bird's eye views of Hudson Yards.
Hauser & Worth 548 W. 22nd St. (www.hauserwirth.com; 212/790-3900). Representing the estates and works of a number classic Modern Art stars (Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Eva Hesse, Dieter Roth) exhibitions here are often done as retrospectives, with works for sale, and other borrowed for the show to give viewers a better understanding of the trajectory of an artist's work.
Yossi Milo 245 Tenth Ave. (www.yossimilogallery.com; 212/404-0370). One of my personal favorites, Milo works almost exclusively with photographers and has a terrific eye for the next big thing. He also runs a very friendly gallery, and he and his staff are always happy to talk with interested patrons. Because he represents photographers, some of them selling multiple editions of their work, you just may be able to afford to buy something here.
Pace Gallery 510 W. 25th St., 537 W. 24th St. (www.pacegallery.com; 212/421-3292). Another “Blue Chip” gallery, with two outposts in Chelsea (see above), one in Midtown (32 E. 57th St.), one in London, and two in China. Pace has been a powerhouse since the 1960s. Shows in 2014 featured the works of such biggies as Chuck Close, James Turrell, and a Mark Rothko retrospective.
Andrea Rosen 544 W. 24th st. (www.andrearosengallery.com; 212/627-6000). The Rosen gallery is a terrific place to see emerging artists, especially those who are “installation happy” and like to create entire environments for their viewers. It seems that each time I come here I’m stepping into some new type of utopia (or dystopia); the experience can be chilling and exciting.
Sonnabend Gallery 536 W. 22nd St. (www.sonnabendgallery.com; 212/627-1018). Maybe I’ve just hit it right, but I find that the Sonnabend has something that’s missing from so many galleries: a sense of humor. Most of the work I’ve seen here has been purposefully funny—odd Star Wars sculptures, videos of Germans singing along to Madonna songs, clocks shaped like ships—and after all of the “serious art” at other places, coming into this playful atmosphere is a delight. Sonnabend is one of the more established galleries, founded by the former wife of famed dealer Leo Castelli. Sometimes entry is appointment-only.
David Zwirner 525 and 533 W. 19th St. and 437 W. 20th St. (www.davidzwirner.com; 212/727-7020). This is not the place for people with delicate sensibilities, but if you don’t mind seeing art that’s really on the edge, you’ll often find something here that will get your adrenaline pumping. Zwirner was profiled in the New York Times in March 2013, which praised his “idiosyncratic roster, with great oddballs like R. Crumb and Raymond Pettibon alongside institutional darlings like Stan Douglas and Francis Alÿs.” The gallery also has outposts at 52 Walker St. and 34 E. 69th St.
Lisson Gallery 504 and 508 W. 24th St. and 138 Tenth Ave. (www.lissongallery.com; 212/404-0370). Founded in London, Lisson shows cutting-edge international art, featuring the works of Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović, Shirazeh Houshiary, and others. Other spaces in Asia and Europe.
Art Gallery Tours
Allowing an expert to lead you through this ever-shifting maze of art is a good idea. New York’s foremost experts in the Chelsea Gallery scene—he visits 50 to 70 shows a week just to keep current—is Raphael Risemburg of NY Gallery Tours (http://nygallerytours.com; 212/946-1548). Risemburg, a former professor at Keane College in New Jersey, has a droll, friendly manner and leads his tours in Socratic fashion: He’ll tell you what he thinks of the art at the four to five galleries you cover on your tour, and then ask your opinion on the unanswered questions it poses. His open tours are offered almost every Friday and Saturday ($31), and he also leads private tours for $300 (though you can bring along multiple people on those).
Lower East Side Galleries
Rising rents in Chelsea have pushed a number of galleries into the Lower East Side, but the transformation of the area from immigrant enclave to haven for the hip also played a role. So which New York City gallery area should you see?
You never know what artists or types of artwork will be on display, but there’s usually something intriguing to see at 291 Grand Street, the neighborhood’s first all-gallery building (it houses four; it’s at the corner of Eldridge Street, near the Grand Street subway stop, which gets the B and D lines). 17 Essex Gallery (at 17 Essex St., www.17essex.info) is another sure bet, female-owned with works only by women artists. And for a taste of bubbly with your browsing, head to the Richard Tattinger Gallery (154 Ludlow St., richardtattinger.com); the scion of the French champagne house has an expert eye for contemporary African art, and often treats gallery visitors to a drink of the family wine. Other notable art dens include Bridget Donahue (99 Bowery, 2nd floor, near Hester St.; www.bridgetdonahue.nyc); Andrew Edlin (212 Bowery St. btw. Prince and Spring streets.; www.edlingallery.com); Pierogi (155 Suffolk St. btw. Stanton and East Houston sts.; www.pierogi2000.com); Shin Gallery (pictured above; 322 Grand St.; shin-gallery.com), and Mitchell Algus(132 Delancey St. at Norfolk St.; www.mitchellalgusgallery.com).
There are also some blue-chip galleries on the Upper East Side, plus up and comers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You can see what's at many of these galleries by clicking on the links at the top of this article.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.