Best art galleries in our region

The best art galleries to visit in the South West

Discover some of the incredible artwork in our region

Art galleries have long had an undeserved reputation – places of quiet contemplation, paintings hung lifelessly from walls and shushing security guards. But there’s so much more to these incredible spots. They’re records of history through the eyes of the people that saw it, telling the story of entire cultures through sculpture, painting or photograph. Interactivity is more commonplace, with many galleries encouraging the next generation of artists with outreach programs, courses and classes. Here we’ll take you through some of our favourite galleries in our region – perfect for an afternoon out!

Southampton City Art Gallery

Housed in the understated and elegant classically-styled Civic Building – a local icon that draws visitors’ eyes with its lighthouse-like clock tower – the Southampton City Art Gallery’s fine art collection holds over 5,300 works that tell the story of western art from the Renaissance to the present day. What’s more, the gallery’s collection of 20th-Century British art is one of the most important outside of London.

Southampton Civic Gallery
Southampton Civic Art Gallery

The gallery has opened a number of online exhibitions, including a collection curated by the staff to encourage you to relax and reflect, and one to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from Southampton. When you’re able to visit again, the gallery holds a number of exhibitions every year to showcase the extensive art collection.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Blessed with an imposing facade (and an effortlessly cool address among the café culture of Clifton), the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is one of those heart-warming public spaces remembered from childhood school visits that blends permanent collections illuminating geology, natural history, local history and other subjects with an impressive programme of temporary exhibitions.

Bristol Museum & Gallery
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Even when they’re closed to visitors, the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery have a huge selection ways to enjoy the collections – from learning materials about Bristol’s Black history and home webinars to online festivals celebrating the occasions like the Lunar New Year and LGBT History Month. And, of course, it’s easy to support their amazing work with a visit to the now-online gift shop.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery

Exeter’s Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery was the brainchild of Devon MP Sir Stafford Northcote of Pynes, one of Prince Albert’s secretaries for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Conceived as a memorial to his former boss, RAMM has evolved, since its completion in 1868, from a combined museum, gallery, public library and technical institute, into an award-winning public treasure that hosts impressive permanent collections and temporary exhibitions that are well worth seeking out.

There’s lots of ways to explore RAMM online, and the team have made sure the experience is almost as engaging as a visit in person. You can take virtual tours, explore the digital scrapbook of Exeter’s history, explore the collection in depth and even download maps for Minecraft servers so you can explore Exeter throughout the ages.

Sculpture by the Lakes

Okay, this entry is fully outdoors – so best saved for a sunny day – and requires a short taxi drive from Dorchester to visit, but we think you’ll agree that this extraordinary showcase of sculpture nestled in 26 acres of bewitching Dorset countryside is well worth making an exception for.

 

Sculptures by the Lake, Dorchester
Search for Enlightenment by Simon Gudgeon

 

Created by and showcasing the work of renowned sculptor Simon Gudgeon, this is a constantly evolving space – change being dictated in part by purchases of existing exhibits and the creation of new works. With the natural surroundings enhancing the placement of Simon’s sculptures (and vice versa) at every turn, a walk here is a transformative experience.

These days, of course, visiting from home is the best way to experience the sculpture park, and Sculpture by the Lakes has produced a 14-part virtual tour taking you round the expansive collection.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset

As a world-class Swiss art gallery specialising in contemporary and modern art, Hauser & Wirth have a clear pattern when it comes to choosing locations for its exhibition spaces: Zurich, London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong…and, surprisingly, the village of Bruton.

 

Hauser and Wirth Gallery Somerset
The Hauser + Wirth Gallery, Bruton

 

As it happens, Durslade Farm on the edge of Bruton is where founder Iwan Wirth made a home, and the extraordinary gallery and multi-purpose arts centre he created here in 2014 is a breathtaking destination in itself – the original farm buildings have been restored and new buildings added. Then there’s the exquisite Oudolf Field, designed by famed landscape architect Piet Oudolf. It’s also a hub for talks, screenings, workshops and exhibitions you’d ordinarily expect to find in national galleries.

Once lockdown finishes, the gallery is free to enter, and hosts exhibitions with highly-rated artists from around the world.

Aspex

Housed in a former Navy storehouse in Gunwharf Quays since 2006, Aspex (short for ‘Art Space Exhibitions’) specialises in the work of emerging artists. This means a visit to Aspex offers a rare opportunity to see high-quality art that’s (as yet) largely free from the push and pull of critics’ opinions that might sway our own feelings.

Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth
Aspex Galleries, Portsmouth

2021 is a major anniversary for the Aspex galleries, celebrating 40 years of supporting local and emerging art creators with a collection of 40 stories by the Directors of the Aspex as well as some of the artists, curators and educators that have worked with them.

While you can’t visit during lockdown, Aspex have worked to make sure that they’re still at the heart of their community’s art – with Generate, a dementia-friendly art creation group, and Mini Makers, aimed at young children making their first foray into creativity.

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St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery

St Barbe draws its inspiration from the area it’s at the heart of – the New Forest Coast. Their art and collections reflects life in the region, from prehistory to the smugglers, salt makers and boat builders that used the Solent shores, as well as the extensive photographic archives of the area.

When open, the Rathbones Art Gallery hosts eight-week exhibitions that in the past have been supported by Tate, the V&A, British Museum, Imperial War Museum and many others – as well as prestigious academic institutions like the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village

One of the more unusual galleries in the UK in being dedicated to a single artist, the Watts Gallery has been as “a national gallery in the heart of a village”. Devoted to the works of G. F. Watts, a Victorian painter associated with the Symbolist movement, more than a hundred of his paintings can be found here in the village of Compton near Guildford.

Watts Gallery - Artists' Village
Watts Gallery - Artists' Village, Compton

But it’s not all about Watts – regular exhibitions and contemporary art can be found here, along with a usual artist-in-residence. There are also online courses and talks to be found, covering online group tours of the grounds and of Limnerslease House, kids art clubs, and even history of art courses for those wanting to learn something new.

Despite the lockdown, there’s still plenty to explore when it comes to enjoying the varied culture of the south west. Of course, it’s never too early to start planning your next trip – and when we can get out again to explore the world, you can find all sorts of ways to save money on your train tickets. There’s big savings to be had when you buy in advance too – and when you buy with a railcard.

When you do travel, make sure to check ahead on the latest coronavirus travel advice, and make sure to wear a mask from when you enter the station until you leave.