The art gallery deconstructed

What is an art gallery? It sounds like there is an obvious answer to this and while you would be right in such an assertion, this understanding does not give a full picture. An art gallery is from a very straightforward point of view a space that exists to display works of art and objects of cultural and aesthetic significance.

That makes sense, but beyond the obvious, there is a lot more to this institution than what we understand as visitors attending an exhibition. Galleries – which, in part, have overlaps with museums in this article – are hubs of varied activity beyond the showcasing of art.

Their remit can extend into areas like research, conservation and commercial endeavours, three key areas that can exist all at once in any given space, or independently as a unique selling point that defines one gallery from another. A lot of this can be directed from whether they are private or public in orientation.

Buying and selling

While purchasing and selling works of art is evident in both private and public galleries, for privately-owned spaces, it will be focused around the establishment acting as a manager on behalf of artists, who will promote their work and earn a commission on a sale.

For public counterparts, the emphasis on acquiring works is to do with reputation and collection, so a work will come into such a gallery to complement what is already in the institution’s possession.

The latter will be a lot more costly than the former, because nine times out of ten, the painting or sculpture in question will be of particular historical importance (thought that doesn’t devalue the works being acquired by smaller galleries).

Conservation and Restoration

What use is there in being a space that exhibits works of art if you are unable to do just that? As galleries have evolved so too has their remit and one area that has grown in importance over the years is conservation-restoration (which can be referred to as singularly conservation or conservation and restoration).

The philosophy of this discipline is simple – to preserve works of art. There are two reasons for this. One, future generations can enjoy it, and two, keep an important item in as good a condition as possible because, while it may be too fragile to show, they exist as historical artefacts.

Some of the activities undertaken by teams at galleries include documenting, researching, examining, treating and restoring works of art. Interestingly, it is a practice which is predicated on utilising as little intervention as possible.

For example, from a practical vantage, when it comes to moving works of fine art into external storage or other rooms, the less the better. The same applies with location – it has to be kept in controlled conditions.


Though we can determine that curation happens – if you’re displaying works of art, then, by association, they have been curated – some galleries often outsource this service, so it isn’t an department or area of expertise to be found in every gallery.

It is vitally important to invest in this area, as a curator can conceive of some fantastic ideas that can change our understanding of art forever. Showing art is more than just sticking up paintings and installing sculptures. It is about sharing new ideas.

For example, the Ashmolean museum currently has an exhibition juxtaposing the works of Francis Bacon with Henry Moore. Entitled Flesh and Bone, it pits the two twentieth century titans against one another, though not necessarily as competitors.

You learn more about both of them as individuals, how their work complements one another and their place as contemporaries during the violent, macabre and tumultuous century.

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