The best major art institutions
Between the regular commissions for the Curve gallery and the always interesting shows in its main exhibition space, the Barbican is a serious destination for art lovers. Whether it’s an endless torrent of rain that you won’t get wet in or a passionately in-depth look at Jean-Michel Basquiat, these concrete halls always come up with the goods.
This (relatively) bijou building is the oldest public art gallery in the UK and its bright spaces house a brilliant collection including work by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Gainsborough. It has recently branched out with an annual pavilion commission, just to give the Serpentine a run for its money, and its temporary shows are well worth a trip across town.
After closing for a two-year refurbishment, the South Bank’s greatest heap of concrete brutalism thankfully reopened its doors in 2018. The refurb has brought light spilling into its spaces, and the programming – Diane Arbus, Lee Bul and Andreas Gursky, among others – is as brilliant as ever. Plus, Prince Charles hates the building. If that doesn’t make you love it, nothing will.
If you’re going to call yourself the Institute of Contemporary Arts, you’d better be delivering some seriously edgy, forward-thinking exhibitions, and boy does the ICA deliver. This is the place where pop art was invented – if you catch the right show here, you just might spot the next big art movement.
Da Vinci! Velázquez! Van Gogh! Rubens! Hoooo, mama, the National Gallery is full of huge names. You can’t walk through its calming rooms without falling completely in love with art. And (except for its fantastic blockbuster exhibitions of work by the likes of Caravaggio and Michelangelo) it won’t cost you a penny.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a blurry painting of Ed Sheeran (and maybe you have, who are we to judge?!) the NPG is the place to be. And when you’re done admiring all that ginger paint, enjoy the rest of the collection, which is a who’s who of great Britons and brilliant artists.
For 250 years, Britain’s first art school has been a hotbed of artistic talent. You name ’em, they were an Academician. But the RA’s also got serious pedigree when it comes to putting on big shows, like 2016’s totally incredible ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show. Now, it’s got a big old extension, including its first free permanent collection display – and it’s just as important as it’s ever been.
Nestled deep in Hyde Park, the Serpentine puts on some of the most adventurous temporary art exhibitions in town. Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have all graced its tranquil west London buildings. Combine that with its annual pavilion commission and you have pretty much the best thing in all of Kensington.
Tate Modern’s older, more refined sibling may be a little stuffier, but it’s still full of amazing work. Focusing on the history of British art, it’s a treasure trove of works by Bridget Riley, John Martin and JMW Turner. Sure, it can feel like we’re a country full of xenophobes who can’t let go of the Empire sometimes, but it’s nice to know we’ve made some good art over the years.
As well as having an international collection of modern and contemporary artworks that few can beat, Tate Modern is a historic piece of architecture worth visiting in its own right. It’s hard to imagine how empty London’s modern art scene must have been before this place opened in 2000, but we’re sure glad it did.
Forget all that fancy modern art with its highfalutin conceptualism and performance shenanigans. Sometimes you just need a nice old painting of a lady on a swing. The Wallace Collection has a great one – by Fragonard – alongside tons of other lovely old paintings in its swanky townhouse off Oxford Street.
For more than a hundred years, the Whitechapel has championed major names in art – helping introduce Londoners to stars like Jackson Pollock and Frida Kahlo. Years later, it’s still putting on world-beating exhibitions.
Incredible mini museums
Way up on Finchley Road, Camden Arts Centre has been quietly ploughing its own artistic furrow since 1965 (it was Hampstead Central Library before that). It used to provide arts and crafts classes to the local community; now it’s north London’s go-to for contemporary art by the likes of Haroon Mirza, Eva Hesse and Doris Salcedo.
The Chiz has been one of London’s most radical commissioners of new art for the past few years. It’s always a challenge, and always surprising. You never know what you’re going to get, but you know it’ll get the old noggin ticking.
Designed by Turner Prize-winning architecture collective Assemble, this brand new gallery in a grade II-listed former Victorian bathhouse seems hellbent on ignoring the usual art conventions and putting on whatever shows it bloody wants. Which is a really, really good thing.
Ever wanted to know what’s in Damien Hirst’s house? Probably a lot of the stuff you’ll find at this gorgeous Vauxhall gallery, which was built specifically to put on shows of Hirst’s art collection. Jeff Koons and abstract maestro John Hoyland were among the first artists to get shown in this amazing vaulted space. Thanks, Damo.
This not-for-profit gallery puts on contemporary art shows that you’re not meant to walk away from confused, exploring often complicated work in an approachable way. Situated next to Victoria Miro gallery, it’s a big building full of nice art that we can all understand – what more could you want?
Six storeys of nothing but photography: this Soho gallery is heaven for art fans who’ve had enough of paintings and sculptures, and want a bit of reality in their culture. Its programming is forward-thinking, its exhibitions are great, and there’s nowhere else like it in town.
Nestled next to Camberwell School of Art and with Goldsmiths to the east, you’d expect the South London Gallery to know its art onions – and you’d be right. With its new fire-station building, and a history of shows by artists including Katharina Grosse and Lawrence Weiner, it’s fast becoming one of the city’s most important art spaces.
In the cultural wilds of Clapham, Studio Voltaire – non-profit gallery and artist studios – is a beacon of artistic hope. The gallery puts on shows worth travelling for, all of which seem to have an edge of cultural criticism that is not just welcome but very needed. More of this, please
Some of the best shows in London over the past decade have been put on by The Vinyl Factory, and now it finally has a permanent home: a huge brutalist office block on The Strand. Concentrating on relentlessly ambitious AV work, it has collaborated with the Hayward Gallery and New York’s New Museum to put on immersive exhibitions that are genuine must-sees.
Anita Zabludowicz is a major art collector and has turned an incredible nineteenth-century chapel into a focal point for experimental contemporary art. The remarkable neoclassical building has hosted shows by some of the best young artists in the world, and has become a proper hub for the London art scene in the process.
Amazing small galleries
This Fitzrovia gallery has some serious art clout, representing Juergen Teller plus the estates of Robert Mapplethorpe and Ana Mendieta.
All alone, out on Cambridge Heath Road, this gallery concentrates on digital and internet-focused work by young artists – one of the only places in London that does it, and does it well.
This radical gallery has recently upped sticks from Peckham to Soho – all because it didn’t want to contribute any further to the gentrification of south London. Too late for that, but it still puts on properly interesting shows.
Now home to those incorrigible art world cheeky chappies the Chapman Brothers, BS deals in edgy contemporary art, no funny business.
In a lonely building in a south London park, Cabinet is a bit of a London art hermit, doing its own thing with shows by artists like Ed Atkins.
In what can charitably be described as the back end of nowhere, this Mile End gallery has become one of the best places for contemporary art in London. Previous artists shown here include Ed Fornieles and Oscar Murillo.
A towering Mayfair townhouse of a gallery, Zwirner always delivers, whether it’s with the cartoon pop of Rose Wylie or the mid-century modernist classicism of Josef Albers.
Larry Gagosian is essentially the biggest gallerist in the world. He has two enormous spaces in London and one little piddler – for shows by artists like, oh, you know, Picasso.
A Pierre Huyghe monkey film and gorgeous Lee Lozano paintings are just two of the impeccably curated shows this mega-swanky Savile Row space has put on recently. It’s become one of the most important galleries in town.
This Clerkenwell gallery has managed to produce a whole bunch of Turner Prize winners and nominees, including Lubaina Himid and Charlotte Prodger – a pretty good guarantee that it knows what it’s doing.
Still going strong after more than 50 years, Lisson is one of this list’s oldest UK galleries, having introduced the world to Anish Kapoor, Julian Opie and Douglas Gordon.
From a show by the legendary John Baldessari to an incredibly in-depth exploration of animals in art, this London spin-off of the New York gallery puts on some of the capital’s most ambitious contemporary exhibitions.
Robin Klassnik, who runs this gallery, does things his own way, and always has. This is a London institution that never stops moving.
Walking into this gallery is a bit like walking into a flat owned by the richest person on earth. It might be a little intimidating, but Werner puts on top-quality shows by the likes of Peter Doig and the legendary Sigmar Polke.
Having recently taken over a big, pristine, warehouse-like space on Vyner Street, Stuart Shave’s Modern Art gallery now has the surroundings to match its artists, including the brilliantly confrontational Linder.
Tucked in at the back of the Royal Academy is the UK outpost of the Pace international gallery chain, the perfect place to spot artists such as James Turrell and Richard Tuttle.
Housed in an intimidating office block – but soon to move to new digs in Bethnal Green – this tiny gallery focuses on art that questions and undermines gender and identity norms.
This Mayfair gallery, which moved recently from Fitzrovia, is the best place in town for radical feminist art, heavy-theory conceptualism and classic performance.
Flooded with light, Sadie Coles’s big Soho warehouse is the perfect place to catch her fantastic roster of artists – Martine Syms, Raymond Pettibon and Monster Chetwynd among them.
A brilliant Mayfair gallery, Simon Lee deals in all sorts of contemporary art, including the militaristic brutality of Mai-Thu Perret and the shocking photographs of Larry Clark.
Probably London’s only 24-hour gallery, Soft Opening is a window space in Piccadilly Circus station that puts on contemporary art for the commuting hordes.
The London outpost of this major German gallery hosts exhibitions spanning classic minimalism to contemporary art by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Donald Judd.
This Mayfair gallery knows how to delight the old eyeballs, showing work like the gorgeous blue paintings of Lisa Brice and the shocking steel sculptures of Melvin Edwards.
Having moved on from its roots in Peckham to a fancy new space in Vauxhall, The Sunday Painter brilliantly puts on shows of fascinating contemporary art, and is nailed-on to be one of the big galleries of the future.
This huge Mayfair townhouse looks like a spa, but the only things getting a treat here are your eyes, with exhibitions by big names such as Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Beuys.
These two spaces in the poshest bit of town host shows by major names like Oscar winner Steve McQueen. In 2017 Thomas Dane showed Anya Gallaccio’s enormous clay 3D printer that splodged out a mountain over the course of several weeks.
You’ll know this cavernous Old Street gallery as the place everyone queues round the block to get into whenever it puts on a Yayoi Kusama show. But there’s more to this beautiful space than dotty pumpkins and infinity mirrors. Come for artists like Alice Neel, Do Ho Suh and Idris Khan too.
The one that started it all. White Cube brought us Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and loads of other YBAs. After moving into its huge Bermondsey space, it became one of the first museum-quality commercial galleries in the world. Seriously impressive.
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