There are swathes of Londoners with an ardent love of the capital’s East End. With the area’s heritage, cultural diversity and thriving artistic community, it is easy to see why.
East London owes its rich character to a long history of immigration. There is a large Bengali population, many sites important to Jewish history, and considerably-sized Pakistani, Caribbean, Kurdish and Turkish communities too.
A generation ago, the area was counted among the most deprived parts of the whole country, but the 1990s and 2000s saw a wave of gentrification. Today, the gallery scene has laid deep roots, and the local economy is thriving.
Here are ten art galleries in East London not to miss.
If you are interested in up-to-the-minute artists of international significance, Whitechapel Gallery is an absolute must. The public gallery has been at the forefront of London’s contemporary art scene since 1901, and exhibited such talents as Jackson Pollock and Frida Kahlo before they were household names. Today, exhibitions veer towards the conceptual and might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an enjoyable visit if you have an open mind and are comfortable to take your inspiration with a pinch of bafflement.
The majority of The Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibitions are free to visit, and it also features an elegant cafe that turns into a bar of an evening. However, hungry gallery-goers should note that Brick Lane is also only a few blocks away, the home of some of the best Indian food in the nation.
77-82 Whitechapel High St, London, E1 7QX
The Barbican Centre
The Barbican Centre is East London’s largest cultural complex, with a multifaceted arts program and iconic architecture worthy of a visit in itself. Conceived in a wave of post-war optimism to replace community housing destroyed in the Blitz, the vast concrete estate comprises two thousand flats, two art galleries, a cinema, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, two theatres and a concert hall.
Its Main Gallery charges a fee for entry, but the temporary exhibitions on offer are frequently among the most exciting of London’s major museums, often championing much-loved but under-celebrated artists. There is also a smaller, free-entry exhibition space on the ground floor, The Curve, which hosts lively commissions from contemporary artists. Finally, The Barbican is the London venue of both The Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra. There is enough world-leading culture at the concrete campus for visitors to stay a whole day —and indeed, it is so easy to get lost in the Barbican’s uniform corridors that you might well have to!
Silk St, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DS
Cell Project Space
If you aren’t in the know, it would be very easy to walk past Cell Project Space without ever catching the scent of an art gallery. Visitors must pass through a passage behind Cambridge Heath Road overground station and filled with leafy plants, which feels as though trespassing into a private warehouse complex. Beyond this pathway is a thriving community of 140 studios, which are offered at mate’s rates to artists at the start of their careers.
The charity runs exhibitions and events for its residents to share their work, from experimental performances, to artists’ talks and film screenings. In its best moments, Cell Project Space feels like the breeding ground for the next big thing.
258 Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9DA
The Guildhall Art Gallery
One of the less famous of London’s public museums, the Guildhall Art Gallery is perfect for anyone whose tastes in art tend towards the traditional. It was founded in the Victorian era to be “a collection of art treasures worthy of the capital city” — in practice, this amounts to a group of artworks that relate to London’s colourful history, and an exquisite collection of 19th century painting.
Although the gallery was only built in 1886, its site has been an entertainment destination for thousands of years. It was built on the grounds of a Roman amphitheatre; whose relics are on display in the gallery’s bowels. There is a charge for some temporary exhibitions, but its fascinating permanent collection is free to all.
Guildhall Yard, London, EC2V 5AE
God’s Own Junkyard
God’s Own Junkyard is one of the quirkiest art galleries in East London by far. A salvage yard stacked floor-to-ceiling with luminous signs, it houses the collection of the late neon artist, Chris Bracey. Featuring neons made for Soho’s sex clubs in the 1960s, for travelling fairs, and for use in the film industry, the collection is simultaneously dizzying and uplifting. Picture Aladdin’s cave crossed with the set of a retro science fiction film.
After basking in the glow, visitors can enjoy a thick slice of cake at its on-site cafe, The Rolling Scones. All in all, it’s an unusual experience particularly recommended for Instagram aficionados, families, and those looking for an unusual date activity.
Unit 12 Ravenswood Ind Estate, Shernhall Street, London, E17 9HQ
Just around the corner from the luscious greenery of Victoria Park is a small art space for those who like to be surprised. Chisenhale Gallery is a non-profit art space hosted in a converted veneer factory, founded by a group of artists in the 1980s. Its output mainly comprises cutting-edge new commissions, from exhibitions and performances to talks. This is one spot usually reserved for those in the know, but opening nights of exhibitions see the gallery packed out.
64 Chisenhale Rd, Bow, London E3 5QZ
The William Morris Gallery
Tucked away in Walthamstow, the William Morris Gallery is a hidden treasure for history buffs. Today, the Victorian designer William Morris is best known through his elaborate wallpaper designs, but this museum pays tribute to a far more interesting artist than such fame might suggest. Morris’ story unfolds across two floors, the leader of a visionary group who believed that art and crafts could be used to create a fairer society.
The gallery is especially well-suited to families, with children’s activities and interactive displays frequently on offer. Its sprawling, well-curated gardens are another draw – perfect for a picnic, if you are not tempted by the on-site cafe. Alongside its permanent collection, the museum hosts small but densely-curated exhibitions. It is always free to visit, in line with the polymath’s own principles.
Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP
Rix Mix is a vast cultural hub spread across five floors of a former leather factory. It hosts free contemporary art exhibitions in an unusual gallery space with a view onto its main stage area, as well as theatrical performances, live music, dance events, film screenings and themed festivals. Intended to benefit the whole of the East London community, Rich Mix is a place where high- and low- brow mingle freely: parent-and-child film screenings are as common as reading groups dedicated to social justice issues, poetry performances and viewings of the latest blockbusters. If you are craving culture of any kind, the chances are that Rich Mix will have something for you.
35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, Shoreditch, London E1 6LA
The Victoria Miro is an institution of London’s commercial gallery scene, representing a glittering roster of celebrated artists. Approaching the Victoria Miro’s East London premises for the first time, it is tempting to believe that you’ve gotten lost: the gallery is found just off a main road in London’s tech hub, the so-called ‘Silicone Roundabout’.
This unpromising location is deceptive, however. Set across two floors in a former furniture factory, the gallery hosts highly popular exhibitions which are always free to visit. Stars of its exhibition rota include the Turner Prize winners Grayson Perry and Chris Ofili, as well as the polka-dot genius, Yayoi Kusama, whose psychedelic ‘Infinity Room’ installations are frequently so popular that access must be limited to timed slots.
Please note, there is another Victoria Miro gallery space in the centre of the city. If you are looking to visit the larger East London gallery, do not let your smartphone direct you to Mayfair!
16 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW
In the beating heart of Shoreditch, Autograph is an arts charity known for social justice-oriented photography exhibitions which serve to empower and inspire art lovers. Its two-floor gallery was founded by the influential collective of black and minority ethnic British photographers, Autograph ABP, who championed the representation of British minority ethnic groups. Dedicated to artists who consider issues of identity, representation and human rights, Autograph hosts regular exhibitions which are free to enjoy. It also boasts an ever-changing repertoire of free workshops, from print, to dance to interactive performance.
Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA