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 Perrotin New York
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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

1
Installation view
Photograph: Courtesy Perrotin New York
Art, Contemporary art

“Aloalo: Mahafaly Sculptures of the Efiaimbelos”

icon-location-pin Lower East Side
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Since the 18th-century, the Mahafaly people of South Madagascar have created tomb sculptures called aloalo, which commemorate deceased individuals with vertical, polelike totems carved from wood. This show focuses on the work of Efiaimbelo, an aloalo practitioner noted for his vibrantly colored, modernizing takes on the tradition. On his death in 2006, he passed on his practice to his son and grandson, who have continued his life’s work to become aloalo disciples in their own right. Their sculptures join Efiaimbelo’s in this showcase of the family’s remarkable achievements.

2
Genevieve Gaignard, Counter Fit, 2018
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
Art, Contemporary art

“Genevieve Gaignard: Counterfeit Currency”

icon-location-pin Chelsea
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In her NYC gallery debut, biracial L.A. artist Gaignard presents photographic self-portraits and installations that delve into race, gender and body image.

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3
“RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder,” installation view
Photograph: Courtesy Red Bull Arts New York
Art, Contemporary art

“RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder”

icon-location-pin Chelsea
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An inspiration for artists ranging from Basquiat to the Beastie Boys, Rammellzee (1960–2010) was a pioneer of hip-hop, graffiti art and Afro-futurism. His unique career is recalled in this survey.

4
Araki, Untitled (Flower Cemetery), 2017
Photograph: Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery
Art, Contemporary art

Araki, “I, Photography”

icon-location-pin Midtown East
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Bad-boy Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki is best known for erotic depictions ranging from bondage scenes to images of Yakuza members having sex with prostitutes. Still, even with his heavily fetishized approach to sexuality, he’s always framed the subject within the larger context of the natural world—as in this show, where floral still lifes and expanses of sky share space with paint-doused images of female nudes and close-ups of genitalia.

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5
Orra White Hitchcock, Anthracite In Greywacke Slate. Newport, R.I.
Photograph: Archives & Special Collections, Amherst College, Massachusetts
Art, Folk art

“Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796–1863)”

icon-location-pin Upper West Side
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Art can arise from the strangest of circumstances—as in the case of Orra White Hitchcock, one of America’s first women botanical and scientific illustrators. The wife of Edward Hitchcock, a professor of natural sciences at Amherst, Orra White Hitchcock created drawings—including images of flora and fauna, and geological strata—that were used for her husband’s publications and classroom lectures. The results, which in some instances seem to meld into pure abstraction, are visually stunning.

6
Mel Chin, Wake, 2018
Photograph: Chelsea Lipman, courtesy Times Square Arts
Art, Contemporary art

Mel Chin, Wake + Unmoored

icon-location-pin Midtown West
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Climate change and New York City’s maritime history are the intertwined themes in this pair of public art projects. In Wake, a 21-foot-tall animatronic female sculpture (a replica of the figurehead the once graced the prow of the 19th-century clipper ship, USS Nightingale—which, during its lifetime, included guns and slaves as part of the manifest) presides over an installation of wooden ribs that evoke a shipwreck or the skeleton of a sea creature. Meanwhile, in a nearby pavilion, Unmoored invites visitors to don VR goggles and view Times Square as it would appear after rising sea levels transform it into a midtown version of Waterworld. 

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7
Photograph: Courtesy Mad. Sq. Art
Art, Contemporary art

“Diana Al-Hadid: Delirious Matter”

icon-location-pin Flatiron
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The sculptures of Syrian-born Brooklyn artist Diana Al-Hadid are known for commenting on history, globalism and the human condition through a haunting mix of fragmentary figuration and abstraction. “Delirious Matter” represents the artist’s first major public art project and comprises six new installations spread out over Madison Square Park.

8
Manuel Mendive, Nature, Spirit and Body, 2017
Photograph: John Rowe
Art, Contemporary art

“Manuel Mendive: Nature, Spirit and Body”

icon-location-pin The Bronx
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For nearly a half century, Cuban artist Manuel Mendive has explored the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose homeland includes parts of present-day Nigeria, Benin and Togo. Aspects of their spiritual tradition have been passed down—mainly through the slave trade—to Caribbean religions such as Voodoo and Santeria, both of which are practiced in Cuba. Mendive’s multidisciplinary approach to the subject includes performances that re-enact Yoruba-inspired rituals.

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9
Photograph: Courtesy Public Art Fund
Art, Contemporary art

“Yinka Shonibare MBE: Wind Sculpture (SG) I”

icon-location-pin Upper East Side
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British-Nigerian artist Shonibare (who appends the MBE to his name in recognition of his receiving the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is adding some additional color to Central Park with an undulating Fiberglass sculpture covered in bold shapes sporting a palette of bright hues. According to the artist, the scheme is inspired by the beaches near his childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria, but they also recall the batik fabrics (produced in Indonesia by the Dutch to export to Colonial Africa) that have become signature references in his work.

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