What makes a great art gallery is difficult to pin down. Is it the gallery building itself, the size of the collection, the number of acknowledged masterpieces or the possessor of your favourite work or genre of art?
We have selected a range of art galleries whose appeal are timeless for the quality with which they combine setting and curation.
Britain has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the grand dames of art gallery institutions. The National Gallery in London, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh house some of the best and most impressive collections in the world. Outside the capitals, Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham Art Galleries also hold world-renownwed collections. National galleries are the most popular, not least for the fact that they are usually free admission, with a request for a small donation and to this end have the most accessible atmosphere. Housed in splendid old city buildings, their collections can be appreciated in a unique historic setting.
National Portrait Gallery
Like many museums, art galleries have evolved to be commercially savvy, with the necessity of bringing in volume and repeat visitors. Special temporary shows have done a great deal to popularise and refresh the images of many of these institutions with high profile works and the attendant media appreciation.
The history of today’s renowned art galleries has often been determined by the fate of private collections that found their way by donation or inheritance into the hands of existing galleries. Some provided the foundation of new galleries, or were so substantial that they became the principle collection. The Burrell Collection in Glasgow is one of the more significant and eclectic collections bequeathed by just one man. The purpose built modern architecture designed to house this collection and others such as the Hepworth in Wakefield and The Lowry in Salford are destinctive settings for the art works they accommodate.
Without donations from wealthy collectors and philanthropists, some of the finest gallery collections would not exist and some of the greatest works of art in the world would never be seen outside of private viewings. The Tate is a renowned group of galleries that started with the first Tate Museum established in 1897 when successful industrialist Henry Tate offered his collection to the nation. Both the collection and the number of sites have expanded to include more galleries, Tate Modern on the Southbank of London and outposts in Liverpool and St Ives, each with their own distinctive setting. The turbine hall of the highly recognisable former power station housing Tate Modern is the premier venue for large scale installations of the modern art world.
When it comes to the gallery experience the maxim of ‘less is more’ most definitely applies. Where the balance between size and quality of the collection is in optimum balance with the energy the viewer has to enjoy them. You need look no further than the small but beautifully curated Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House and the sublime Wallace Collection set in a historic London townhouse.
The Wallace Collection
The distinguishing aspect of the National Portrait Gallery is the principle underpinning the curation of its collection. Unlike most galleries that are focussed on quality, the National Portrait gallery prioritises the subject of the artwork. While this means that quality is not uniformly high, there is freedom to select for their collections those portraits with modern appeal, often tapping into the zeitgeist of celebrity and fashion.
Art galleries are not simply for the purpose of art viewing. Many British galleries, like the Henry Moore Institute, a centre for the study of sculpture, have the principle objective of education. The Courtauld is the world’s leading centre for the study of art history and conservation.
Galleries dedicated to the work of a single artist are guaranteed a satisfied audience. Fans of the Arts & Crafts movement’s William Morris will get what they came for at the William Morris Gallery.
Art appreciation can be perceived as something of an elitist interest but for an example of a gallery that brings great art to the community, the Whitechapel gallery is renowned for doing this, with a constantly revolving collection and no permanent work.
'The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls' - Pablo Picasso
Please browse our gallery of selected Art Galleries above for inspiration and enjoyment, and click on each of the images to find more useful information and links to help you appreciate or visit each one.