Alternative Spaces for Artists

Artists have always pioneered the alternative space - a substitute or replacement for the mainstream gallery.

There is a general consensus that art is shown in galleries and by that people tend to think of traditional spaces:  The Tate, MOMA, Louvre, Whitney, Guggenheim, municipal (city) galleries and commercial spaces. 

Complex, a site which describes itself as Next to Twitter, the most influential content provider in the world published a list of its top 100 galleries.  You will recognise many of them.

But what of the other spaces, those locations where remarkable creative events, installations, objects and works take place?

Previously, if an artist wanted to appear successful, they needed to be represented by a serious gallery and have shows there on a regular basis - they needed the support of that gallery to promote them, publish the full-colour catalogues, organise the openings for collectors, the media and curators.

That is no longer the case.  Exceptional and successful work is being shown in other venues.  Artists are promoting themselves and their exhibitions, which appear to go against the traditional view of what an exhibition might be. These are short run, pop up, limited access, transitory. They are in vehicles, disused buildings, homes, under bridges, in bridges and water towers, in art group spaces and studios.  Visitors now find out about them mainly through social media and feed the initiative by attending.

Artists are very good at finding and using alternative spaces - often ones they respond to or make work about.

We asked Fleur Donnelly-Jackson, who set up and runs artlobby to give her advice on establishing, developing and using alternative exhibition spaces from the view of someone setting up a new space or an artist wanting to show in one.

The Artists View

One key consideration is transport - can people get to the space to come and see the work? Can you get your work to the space? How heavy or delicate is your work to transport - can you get any help to pay for transport? I've also found that people like to see art where there are clusters of galleries, rather than traveling to one small place in the middle of nowhere.

Is it worth your while to show in the space? Do the people running the space have knowledge of publicity? Can they get the press to review the exhibition? It may be fun to take part in a group show and meet other struggling artists, but for some artists, this is less important - they would just like their work to find an audience. Sometimes curators, gallerists or collectives can make real demands on your time - they might want you to do performances or talks, or to interact with gallery visitors - to give a show a different twist and to attract an audience that might not otherwise visit. Work out whether you are any good at this kind of thing and whether you can afford the time before you commit!

Make sure you take photos of the work in situ. Don't miss a chance to document your work, especially if it's in a very different kind of space. This builds your portfolio and shows other galleries the potential of your work.

The Practicalities

If you are taking on an exhibition space, there are other considerations - do you need public liability insurance? Do you need signage for the space? Does the space have lighting and safe electrics? Have you listed your exhibition with online/arts listing sites? Do you have invigilators lined up for the days and times when the exhibition will be open? Is the space accessible for disabled people? Do you have a toilet? Is there wifi?

These are all very practical and mundane things, but can really make a difference to how people interact with the space. If someone visits after a really difficult journey to get there, can't find the door, or they get there and you are shut because you didn't have anyone to open up - then you will not get many visitors!

For me the most challenging aspect of setting up a pop up gallery was that I had to do nearly everything myself whilst also working. It was challenging, rewarding, something I'm very proud of and I managed it on a shoestring budget - but ultimately I paid for everything out of my own pocket and was exhausted by the end of the 3 month period that I had the space.

If I were to do it again - I'd think first about how to finance the space in advance and create a better business plan to make running the space more sustainable and I would definitely try to find partners to help and co-manage the project.



We have also listed a number of articles and references, which might help you make an informed decision about setting, up or exhibiting in, an alternative space:

Background and historical context:

10 Alternative Spaces That Transformed American Art

The Independent Wedge: A Brief History of Alternative Exhibition Spaces 

Curating Alternative Spaces

Collectives and artist-led projects: artist-created exhibitions and events

A guide to using empty shop units for alternative exhibition spaces

London's secret galleries


Independent and artist-run spaces


Art in Unusual Spaces (AIUS)

An organisation set up in 2009 to assist with the use of public, underused and temporarily dormant spaces by artists. The directors of AIUS have over 40 years of experience in cultural programming, event management, art practice and research with specific knowledge in public and socially engaged art.





The image we used to illustrate this item is taken from on international art project by Shared_Studios who set up golden portals (shipping containers) to act as discussion spaces across physical boundaries.  More info here.


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