Whether it’s a landmark landscape by an old master or something a little more à la mode, this city’s thriving art scene offers just about everything you might be after. From massive fine art museums to some cosier (and much edgier) exhibition spaces, you could probably pack most of the best art galleries in Bristol into just one weekend trip – though that might mean ignoring some of the city’s other marvellous attractions. All we know is, having seen some of the brilliant temporary shows these guys put on, you’ll definitely want to come back and catch whatever’s next.
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Best art galleries in Bristol
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Arnolfini Café has the best brownies this side of the Pearly Gates. Aside from that, the ’Fini is a Bristol institution, with three floors dedicated to contemporary art in all its forms, from the calmly experimental to the downright bizarre. It’s an enormous old building that used to be a tea warehouse, in an unbeatable location smack bang on the harbourside. There are live events throughout the year, ranging from performances and one-off workshops to festivals. There’s a cosy reading room where you can broaden your knowledge, or just watch the water, and a bloody good bookshop too.
Located in an impressive, grade II-listed building at the top of Clifton Triangle, the RWA has been going for more than 150 years. It’s the place to come if marble stairs, opulent ceilings and award-winning deli cafés are your bag. With the Queen as head patron, this gallery is comfortably classical, exhibiting work from across the UK. Although it’s a tad old school, it’s actually not too stuffy. In some exhibitions, fine art sits comfortably alongside work composed in earth and charcoal, or eerie sculptures constructed from steel and bone-white sycamore. For every era, the focus is very much on established artists.
Trying to list all the attractions at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery makes you sound like a carnival showman. Egyptian and Ancient Assyrian artefacts! Diamonds and fossils! Alfred the stuffed gorilla! Contemporary ceramics and glassware! Not to mention the balcony gallery and an art collection ranging from Pissarro to the Old Dutch and Italian Masters. Stepping into the high atrium, and seeing the Bristol Boxkite suspended above your head in flight, there’s a feeling of childish excitement. Think the Natural History Museum, but with added Victorian and Edwardian paintings. Changing shows are just as bogglingly miscellaneous as the permanent collection.
If the Arnolfini dominates one side of the floating harbour, Spike Island takes care of the other. It’s in good company, spitting distance from the SS Great Britain and Aardman Animations. Focusing on contemporary art and design, with particularly impressive audio installations, the main exhibition space is cavernous, and shows are usually on a grand scale. They’re almost always free, or at least heavily subsidised. There are regular talks by resident or visiting artists, and you might not escape without getting your hands dirty at one of the free art workshops for adults and children.
In the heart of the city, down a dubious-looking brick alleyway, you’ll find Centrespace. This semi-industrial gallery and its two floors of studios are run co-operatively by a collective of artists, illustrators and craftspeople. You’ll find work in all media here, by a mix of established professionals, early-career artists, students and charities. The gallery itself comes complete with exposed steel girders and a paint-splashed concrete floor. Programming is done by application; anyone can submit, so there’s no way of knowing exactly what the year’s exhibitions will hold. Whatever it is, you can guarantee it won’t be predictable.