The NYC Gallery Scene: Where to Begin?

With over 600 galleries in New York City, how do you begin to decide where to visit and what to see? It can feel a little overwhelming to try and dissect this industry yourself, but luckily there are people who can help you along the way! There is always the option of wandering around Chelsea and popping into shows you pass. There are also maps online that focus on this area and keep up-to-date information on current exhibitions (I recommend this one). And while Chelsea is a fantastic place to start, there are other neighborhoods across the city with growing gallery scenes and fascinating new artists being exhibited at all times.

One of my favorite ways to experience this element of the NYC Art Scene is with New York Gallery Tours. The curated tours are led by Rafael Risemberg, a former college professor with a Ph.D. in arts education. Mr. Risemberg focuses on a single neighborhood for each tour, visiting a wide range of places in each area ahead of time, and narrowing it down based on what shows he thinks are the best or most interesting. He is also often able to include special elements such as a discussion with an artist or Q&A with a gallery employee. I love this aspect of the tours because you get a more in-depth understanding of the show, and learn something you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. The tours are $25, but discounted at $15-$18 if you sign up early. I highly recommend putting yourself on the distribution list so you can receive the discount. It’s a pretty unbeatable deal!

Earlier in February, I went on a tour of Soho galleries led by Mr. Risemberg. He had chosen 7 spaces to visit in the area. We began at Postmasters Gallery to see a debut exhibition of paintings done by up-and-coming artist Canyon Castator entitled “Pissing Match.” Castator’s work is primarily large-scale oil paintings of debauched and sometimes disturbing scenes. Most depict vices being carried out in a party atmosphere, and were inspired by a lot of what the artist was exposed to while growing up in Boulder, Colorado and witnessing the party culture at the University of Colorado.  Each painting is a narrative of exaggerated reality depicted in bright and bold colors that emphasizes the depravity but also injects a dose of humor into the works.

Cesspool 2017 oil on canvas
The Pillars of Society 2017 oil on canvas

I was fascinated to learn that Mr. Castator begins all of his paintings on an iPad to experiment with the composition before starting on the actual canvas. I found Mr. Castator’s work to be jarring, but incredibly detailed and captivating. I especially enjoyed the dashes of  humor sprinkled in — is that Grumpy Cat I see on one canvas?

Canyon Castator, Butting heads with strays, 2017

The second gallery we visited, Bortolami, was my favorite, because the current installation is wholly unique. The artist, 74 year-old Claudio Parmiggiani, creates original pieces using fire. I’m not really sure what genre these pieces might fall into, as they are made mostly from soot and ash. To create the large 12-panel work for the installation at Bortolami, Mr. Parmiggiani lined halves of bottles and jars against a white canvas on shelves in his studio. After setting and maintaining a fire in his studio over two days, he removed the vessels and left the work untouched. He does not spray a fixative or anything on the canvas, as that would disrupt the soot. The works are incredibly fragile, but the end result is captivating in its beautiful subtlety and creative novelty.

Claudio Parmiggiani, 2018

The third gallery, Apex, is a nonprofit space that exhibits artists based on submitted proposals. The works are not sold by the gallery, and the organization offers corresponding programming for each exhibition that is free and open to the public. The artists exhibiting at Apex were by far the most contemporary and “out there”. Entitled, “Rendered Cities”, the current show looks at architecture and considers how digital rendering is changing and affecting this industry. The three artists featured were Felicity Hammond, Lawrence Lek and Laura Yuile. Ms. Hammond and Ms. Yuile had created sculptural installations, while Mr. Lek was exhibiting a video essay. At Apex, Elizabeth Larison, the organization’s Director of Operations, gave us a brief talk on the artists’ work and the mission of the space. It was very helpful hearing more about the exhibition and the intentions of the artists, as the work was very avant-garde.

The fourth show was at Soho Photo Gallery, another nonprofit space that shows the work of up to seven artists on a rotating basis. The current exhibition, open through March 3rd, featured a very diverse group of artists, and we got to briefly meet with one of them. James McCracken, whose photos also happened to be my favorite of the show, had entitled his installation “American Beauty.” The photos focus on people in their natural environments and aim to expose viewers to the beauty of a world we may not be familiar with or may have prejudgments about. I was shocked to learn that some of the photos were taken in Brooklyn, especially one picture of a man outside a silver trailer, his stomach tattooed with the words “American Beauty.” Believe it or not folks, that was taken right in Williamsburg! Speaking with James and hearing about his creative process really helped me open up to the work and appreciate the spirit of each person he is able to capture with his camera.

american beauty
James McCracken American Beauty 2018
american beauty 2
James McCracken American Beauty 2018


But my favorite part of Soho Photo Gallery? The bathroom! No joke. I loved the wall-to-wall photo coverings of new and old photography. If I hadn’t been holding up the line, I could have spent many more hours in there looking at all the images!


There were three additional stops on the tour, but unfortunately I had to duck out early. Luckily for me, Mr. Risemberg gives tours almost every Saturday, and I look forward to exploring more neighborhoods with him in the future!