Best free places to see art in New York City: Museums, galleries, auction houses and street art

New York City is the perfect destination for art lovers– even if you’re broke. There are plenty of free alternatives to traditional art museums, which typically charge over $20 a ticket.

You can enjoy the work of established and emerging artists throughout the city at no cost. If you have a venue to add to the list, please leave a comment below!

Chelsea Art Night is every Thursday in Manhattan

Chelsea galleries, like this one, feature artist talks and free wine on Thursday nights.

Gallery Nights and Art Walks

Chelsea Gallery Night

When: Every Thursday night
Where: Most venues are between 22nd and 27th Streets, West of 10th Avenue, in Manhattan
Looking for a free happy hour? Head to Chelsea on a Thursday night. Galleries open their doors to the public and serve up wine and the latest art. Consult the Art Cards website for exhibit details before you head out, or simply follow the stream of trendy New Yorkers from one gallery to the next.
Schedule: www.Artcards.cc

DUMBO’s “First Thursday”

When: The first Thursday of every month
Where: On and around Front Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn
Brooklyn’s chicest neighborhood hosts this monthly art crawl. The participating galleries are all within walking distance of the F train, and wine flows freely at most venues. After taking in a few shows, head the the waterfront for great views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline.
Schedule: www.Brooklynartproject.com

Lower East Side Gallery Night

When: The third Thursday of every month
Where: Most galleries are on Orchard, Stanton and Rivington Streets below Houston Street, in Manhattan
The Lower East Side is luring art lovers away from Chelsea with its “Third Thursday” gallery night. Launched in 2011, it features over two dozen venues. Pick up a guide at the Lower East Side Visitor Center at 54 Orchard Street, and don’t forget to stop by the New Museum’s “Free Thursdays” while you’re in the neighborhood. (See below for details).
Schedule: www.Lowereastsideny.com

Auction Houses

Manhattan’s leading auction houses offer free entry to pre-auction exhibits. The featured artwork varies widely, from impressionist paintings to Playboy memorabilia and historical books.

Sotheby’s

Location: 1334 York Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan
Schedule: www.sothebys.com

Christie’s

Location: 20 Rockefeller Plaza, Midtown, Manhattan
Schedule: www.christies.com

G Train Salon art show at Urban Alchemist store in Park Slope, Brooklyn

G Train Salon holds art shows in unconventional venues like the Urban Alchemist boutique in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Free Museum Nights

New Museum “Free Thursdays”

When: Every Thursday from 7pm to 9pm
Where: 235 Bowery, Manhattan
This contemporary art museum focuses on “new art and new ideas.” If you happen to visit the New Museum on the third Thursday of a given month, stop by the Lower East Side Gallery Night to cap off your evening of free art. (Details above).
Schedule: www.newmuseum.org

MoMA “Free Fridays”

When: Every Friday from 4pm to 8pm
Where: 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan
Tickets cannot be purchased in advance and this weekly event draws a large crowd. Be prepared for long lines and little elbow room! The “Free Friday” ticket grants you access to all exhibits, galleries and films at the museum.
Schedule: www.moma.org

Brooklyn Museum “First Saturdays”

When: The first Saturday of every month from 5pm to 11pm
Where: 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
Free entry to the museum also covers art programs and musical performances. Tickets are required for some events; plan to arrive at the Visitor’s Center 30 minutes early to secure yours.
Schedule: www.Brooklynmuseum.org

The East Village is filled with street art, like this colorful mural.

The East Village is filled with street art, like this colorful mural.

Always Free

Public Parks

Manhattan parks are brimming with art. Some highlights:

Union Square Park and Central Park are known for their artist vendors, who sell a wide variety or work– paintings, photographs, drawings– for as little as $5. It’s free to walk past their booths and soak up the creative energy. The park artists are fighting city restrictions on the number of art vendors in popular parks; ask them about it and you’ll find yourself in a lively conversation!

Chelsea’s Highline Park was extended in June 2011 and now features temporary art exhibits. The park sits on an old elevated railroad line and offers sweeping views of the New Jersey skyline and parts of Lower Manhattan.

Midtown’s Bryant Park is also home to occasional public art exhibits. These are officially sanctioned, so don’t expect to find emerging guerrilla artists here.

Street Art

New York City is home to a diverse collection of street artists. You don’t have to venture off the beaten path to find graffiti masterpieces; the Lower East Side and East Village are hotspots.

Create your own art walk by heading east on Houston Street past Broadway. You’ll pass a graffiti wall that has featured the work of Shepard Fairey. Make a left at Bowery and stop at Mars Bar, a local dive known for its edgy art wall (sample works include a scary street art clown). Continue strolling through the East Village to encounter work by Swoon, Jim Joe and dozens of other artists.

>> Update: Mars Bar, an East Village institution, closed to make way for a high-end condo development. However, there is no shortage of street art in New York. Share your favorite spots for sighting street art in the comments section!

Independent Curators

Skip the crowds and discover emerging talent by visiting an independently curated show. The G Train Salon holds exhibits in unconventional venues, including private homes, stores, a church and even a motorcycle shop. Check their website for upcoming shows in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

For the Brave at Heart

Skipping the Suggested Donation

There is one more option if you want to see the work of big-name artists– Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh– without spending a cent. The steep $25 admission fee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is actually a “suggested donation” so you can get in without paying. I’ve never done this myself (it makes me feel a bit guilty) but, as several Downtown Traveler readers have pointed out, it’s a viable option for budget travelers. In their words:

“Technically, the Met is free but asks for a ‘suggested donation’. Personally I think if you have the means you should pay the full fare, but if you truly don’t, that’s an option.” – Kris

“Haha I don’t feel like a total cad paying a smaller sum for admission, because, sorry, I can’t really spare $20! But would the Met really let you in if you didn’t give them any money at all? I mean, I know you can give $1 but nothing? Really?” – Aaron

“I have never felt bad not paying anything at a ‘Suggested Admission’. Not like you’re sneaking in or showing an expired student ID. (See: list of other things I also don’t feel bad about.)” – Roni

“I’ve also been known 2 blow off the “suggested donation” at the Met” – @FreakOutofTown on Twitter

Clearly this is a heated topic! If you feel strongly about it, leave a comment letting us know…

Have you ever skipped a “suggested donation” at a museum?

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded DowntownTraveler.com after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.