Americans have been falling out of love with museums and galleries since the early 2000s, and because these spaces remain difficult for artists to enter as exhibitors, exhibiting at alternative art spaces is becoming increasingly popular.

According to a 2012 study by Humanities Indicators, only 21 percent of the U.S. population reported visiting a museum or art gallery in the previous year–the lowest level recorded over the three decades that data have been collected, and almost six percentage points below the highest level reported (26.7 percent in 1992). And not only are Americans visiting art institutions less frequently than ever, according to Arts in NYC, the majority of artists represented in those institutions are white men, leaving behind women and people of color.

The lack of diversity in museums and art galleries means many of today’s working artists are facing compounding issues that make getting their work into art galleries nearly impossible. But there is good news: Art galleries aren’t the only places where artists can display their work. Alternative art spaces like cafes, coworking offices and venues are popular options for artists seeking to exhibit their work before a large, engaged audience. In this article, we’ll explore three of the best alternative art spaces to show artwork, with tips on getting it done and making the most of it.

alternative art space

Locate alternative art spaces like coffee shops and ask if they show and sell local art.

Explore Cafes and Co-Working Spaces as Alternative Art Spaces

Long have cafes been synonymous with burgeoning arts scenes. From literary gem La Closerie des Lilas in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway once wrote, to The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville where Taylor Swift was first discovered by Scott Borchetta, cafes have always been beacons of light in the creative community. So it’s no wonder many local cafes pay homage to their past by supporting artists in their communities. Cafes like Happy Bones and Homecoming in New York City, or Holy Grounds and Bliss Art House in Los Angeles feature a rotating selection of art for sale. In fact, Homecoming’s newest location in Williamsburg will curate exhibitions and events for the artists and designers with whose work they promote in-store.

Locate coffee shops in your area, visit each one and figure out if they currently show and sell art. Before you introduce yourself to cafe managers, put together a portfolio of your recent work. The portfolio should include high-resolution photos of your artwork along with sketches and concept drawings. As you meet cafe managers, inquire about the cadence of their shows and ask if they’d be willing to look at your artwork for a potential show. When they agree to host your work, offer to help produce an opening and closing party. Work with them to promote the shows and invite friends and family. During the event, leave an email signup list at the front, and make a point to network with new people; visit the cafe frequently during the show’s run.

 Other alternative art spaces to show your artwork are co-working spaces. They are filled with creative types, so it’s a great way to get brand exposure and potentially sell artwork. Many creative co-working spaces including Grind and The Yard in New York, regularly show work from local artists, so requesting to show artwork is a common request. When you make connections, ask if you can leave a small stack of business cards near your artwork. This way, people interested in you can get in touch even when you’re not present. You may end up getting commissioned work because someone loves your style.

Not only are co-working offices great alternative art spaces for showing artwork (many have large, clean white walls), they are also great spots to meet and connect with other artists and designers. If you have extra budget, consider joining one to help expand your artist network. Some offer discounted rates for current students and entrepreneurs, so ask about special deals and promotions. For a traditional open space co-working with a desk and business amenities, The Yard charges just under $400/mo. But if you just need a physical address to set up your arts business, you can sign up for The Yard’s Virtual Office for $50/mo. This deal also gets you unlimited shipping and receiving from one location, useful during a period of heavy sales.

Music Venues Are Looking for Artwork, Too

Outside of cafes and co-working spaces, another popular alternative to the white box gallery is the music venue. In Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill, the raised stage is flanked by for-sale paintings of classic musicians. Instead of listing a price under each work, which would be hard to read, the venue put up the artist’s phone number with a message to text for pricing. This is a creative way to get around the hurdle of a bar manager telling you, “Oh, it’s too dark in here,” or “We don’t have space for pricing on the wall.” When speaking with venue managers, keep that method of contact in mind. It may come in handy.

People attending shows are already supporters of the arts, so you have an audience that’s primed to appreciate creative work. Check out musical venues and bars with stages near you, and you’ll find many have local artists’ works on the wall. As you explore options for your next show, consider the content of your work. Is the subject of your work related to any music venues in your area? Is the content relevant to a particular region? If so, look for venues that match those ideas. It’s easier for a venue manager to agree to show artwork that aligns with their existing programming. Check schedules online for upcoming events and shows to see if anything in the future matches. Come into introductory meetings with a plan of attack.

There are a lot of alternative art spaces for artists looking to show their work, but finding the right fit takes time. From researching what’s available in town to introducing yourself and your artwork to managers, it’s no small task. If you’re questioning whether or not showing your artwork in alternative art spaces like a cafe, co-working office or venue will hurt your reputation or chances of getting a gallery show in the future, the answer is no, it won’t. Getting artwork and your name into the world is the first step to what’s next; no one will fault an artist for pushing conventional limits and making progress on their own accord. Yes, a gallery show is a common litmus test set by the industry to measure the success of an artist, but we believe that if you’re selling artwork and making a living, that’s real success and it doesn’t matter if you’re selling it from alternative art spaces or the most reputable galleries in town.

Rachel Wells
Rachel Wells

Rachel Wells is a writer based in Nashville, TN. In addition to her writing, she has a professional background in content development, digital distribution and public relations. Her projects and clients have been featured in the The New York Times, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine and Pitchfork.

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