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The best free art exhibitions in NYC

Discover New York City’s top free art exhibitions and gallery shows in our roundup of critic’s picks
Photograph: Courtesy Ortuzar Projects
By Howard Halle |

Looking for some free art, culture vultures? Thought so. Which is why we found a bunch of gratis art shows at galleries and museums in NYC that won’t cost you a cent. Visit well-known institutions like the Pace Gallery and David Zwirner and still have money in your pocket for lunch at one of the best restaurants in NYC.

RECOMMENDED: See the full guide to free things to do in NYC

Best free art exhibitions in NYC

Arlene Shechet, Full Steam Ahead, 2018
Photograph: Rashmi Gill, courtesy Madison Square Park Conservancy
Art, Contemporary art

“Arlene Shechet: Full Steam Ahead”

icon-location-pin Madison Square Park, Gramercy & Flatiron

For this outdoor installation, the artist is arraying a series of quirky abstract sculptures in porcelain, wood and cast iron around Madison Square Park’s central fountain, which has been drained for the occasion. The installation’s title is taken from a famous order given by Admiral David Farragut, whose statue stands nearby, at the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. When his squadron began to withdraw after one of its ships was sunk, he ordered it to reverse course and charge the harbor. “Damn the torpedoes,” he said, using period nomenclature for mines, “full speed ahead!”

Beau Dick, Ghost of Christmas Presents, 2016
Photograph: Courtesy Fazakas Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Beau Dick, “Devoured by Consumerism”

icon-location-pin White Columns, Meatpacking District

The native people of the Pacific Northwest known as the Kwakwaka’wakw are renowned for gorgeously fiercesome masks and totems, the aesthetics of which figure prominently in the work of Kwakwaka’wakw activist and chief Beau Dick (1955–2017). Conceived shortly before Dick’s death, this solo exhibition (the artist’s first in New York) includes 15 carved and painted sculptural works made between 1980 and 2016. Together, they take wry note of the clash between indigenous and consumer culture by juxtaposing supernatural beings from tribal lore with products. Works such as a mask wrapped in a garbage bag or an effigy watching television from a lawn chair point to the difficulty of preserving native traditions in the face of globalism.

Gilles Aillaud, Cage aux Lions, 1967
Photograph: Courtesy Ortuzar Projects
Art, Contemporary art

“Gilles Aillaud: Paintings 1964–1976”

icon-location-pin Ortuzar Projects, Tribeca

You won’t confuse French Gilles Aillaud’s paintings of animals for the ones in a World Wildlife Fund calendar: They aren’t cute, or portrayed as majestic beasts roaming through nature. Instead, Aillaud (1928–2005) depicts Lions, Rhinos, Orangutans and the like languishing behind bars or plate glass at the zoo. Aillaud imbues his subjects with a profound sense of alienation, even despair. And given that the work was created in the years bracketing the events of May 1968, they’re arguably allegories for the period, when growing disaffection with French postwar society eventually led to riots and strikes by students and factory workers, leaving France with a major political and cultural hangover that lasted decades.

Julia Rommel, 41 First Dates, 2019
Photograph: Dario Lasagni, courtesy Bureau, Inc.
Art, Contemporary art

Julia Rommel, “Candy Jail”

icon-location-pin Bureau, Lower East Side

Colorful and exuberant, Julia Rommel’s geometrically abstract paintings call to mind a mix of Kasimir Malevich and Richard Diebenkorn, among other masters of the form. But the work, in which flat applications of pigment are overlaid with choppy strokes, is indubitably her own, especially in the way she stretches, then removes, her canvases over different sized frames while they are in progress. The process leaves ghostly linear marks that add compositional complexity to her efforts.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982
Photograph: © Estate of Jean Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, New York
Art, Contemporary art

Jean-Michel Basquiat

icon-location-pin The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, East Village

The Greenwich, Connecticut-based Brant Foundation Art Study Center inaugurates its 421 East 6th Street outpost with a career survey of the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, the wild-child painter whose work went from street art to art-museum collectible. Basquiat’s furiously painted canvases reflect the headlong rush of his short-lived career (he died in 1988 at age 28), recalled here in an exhibition drawn from public and private collections, including the foundation’s own.

Peter Blake, Once Upon A Time, 1963
Photograph: Courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

“Peter Blake: The Artist’s Studio”

icon-location-pin Garth Greenan Gallery, Chelsea

A British Pop artist and noted member of the 1960s London School, Peter Blake is best known as the author of a genuine article of pop culture: The cover design for The Beatle’s epochal LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This achievement arguably overshadowed his other efforts, though his gallery debut offers visitors a chance to become acquainted with Blake’s paintings, drawings and collages, which are being presented here in an installation replicating his London Studio.

Installation view
Photograph: Diego Flores, courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York
Art, Painting

“Sheer Presence: Monumental Paintings by Robert Motherwell”

icon-location-pin Paul Kasmin Gallery, Chelsea

For many of Abstract Expressionists, bigger was better when it came to painting, a credo that Robert Motherwell, arguably the most polished and erudite of the bunch, avidly followed. This show of eight compositions spanning a period between the 1960s and 1990s lives up to its title with a selection of canvases whose enormity was calculated to swallow the viewer’s field of vision. Indeed in his own mind, Motherwell’s intent was to overthrow the “century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate,” as he put it. Essentially, Motherwell was returning to the “grande machine” scale of the academic painting these very same modernists had rebelled against. Whether Motherwell understood the irony involved is another matter.

Installation view of Adam McEwen, "10, Feels Like 2", 2019
Photograph: Jesse David Harris, Courtesy the artist, Lever House Art Collection and Petzel Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Adam McEwen, “10, Feels Like 2”

icon-location-pin Lever House Art Collection,

Adam McEwen signature schtick of milling replicas of everyday objects out of graphite blocks is on full display in this Lever House lobby installation of contemporary Americana, as the artist puts it. Presenting a sparse array of familiar items (the top of a Weber grill, a hubcap, an office wall clock and a packet of birth control pill) rendered in pencil-lead gray, the show aims to unpack the way ordinary things are invested with the weight of memory and history. The chilly allure of the work is turned down several degrees further by a floor covered in white polystyrene sheets that make the space look like an ice rink.

Portrait of Gretchen Bender, 1986
Photograph: © Hans Neleman
Art, Contemporary art

“Gretchen Bender: So Much Deathless”

icon-location-pin Red Bull Arts New York, Chelsea

A lesser-known light of the Pictures Generation, Gretchen Bender (1951–2004) set deconstruction to a dance beat in her pioneering video installations of the 1980s. This excellent retrospective gives the artist her due as a compellingly prescient interrogator of images, technology and mass communication, and the ways in which all three seduce and manipulate us. Arriving in New York in 1980, Bender quickly fell in with likeminded artists, including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, who became her partner. These artists explored how images work—like how, say, Sherman’s film stills of lone women engender both cultural attitudes and personal subjectivity. Bender followed suit, exhibiting reliefs that juxtaposed panels bearing appropriated images from advertising and television, along with others featuring works by her peers that pointed to the self-aggrandizement and sexism of the art world. But, dissatisfied with the limitations of static formats, she turned her sights on critiquing larger issues through moving images. Her experiments with multichannel videos on stacked monitors culminated in the ambitious Total Recall (1987), a theatrical arrangement of 24 monitors on four tiers. Eighteen minutes long with 11 channels and a driving post-punk soundtrack, Total Recall shows a rapid-fire succession of then-nascent computer animation, glittering 3-D corporate logos, TV commercials, military recruiting ads and clips from Oliver Stone’s film, Salvador, about El Salvador’s bloody civil

Time Out says
Mark Manders, Tilted Head, 2019
Photograph: Jason Wyche, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Art, Contemporary art

Mark Manders, “Tilted Head”

icon-location-pin Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Upper East Side

Dutch artist Mark Manders puts a new spin on face time with his public art project at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park. Seemingly in repose within the confines of the Doris C. Freedman Plaza adjacent to the park, Tilted Head appears to have been cut in half, with the missing sides shorn up by planks. Despite looking likes it’s been made out of (cracked) clay and wood, Tilted Head is actually completely cast in bronze, a bit of trompe l’oeil that’s something of a specialty for the artist. With its eyes closed as if it were sleeping, dreaming of the green space just beyond, the poetic sculpture speaks to Mander’s original ambition to be a writer and is of apiece with the artist’s aim to create a language out of objects.

Deborah Kass, OY/YO, 2015
Courtesy the artist and
Art, Contemporary art

“Something To Say”

icon-location-pin Brooklyn Museum Shop, Prospect Heights

For the next year, a group of text-based outdoor sculptures will be taking up residence in front of the Brooklyn's Museum main entrance as part of the institution’s “role as a civic space for conversation and shared learning.” Brooklyn Hi-Art! Machine, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Hank Willis Thomas are among the contributors, and so, too, is Deborah Kass, whose monumental sculpture OY/YO will be making its third public appearance after extended stays in Brooklyn Bridge Park and North Fifth Street Pier Park in Williamsburg.

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