Top 10 lesser-known art galleries

Undertakings such as Google’s Art Project (, which digitise and create virtual tours of hundreds of works of art from around the world, are the next stage in André Malraux’s idea of a “museum without walls”. While it might be preferable to tour the Van Gogh Museum from the comfort of your sofa rather than jostle with soggy tourists, something is undoubtedly lost in doing so.

Museums create a spectatorial experience. The way works of art are arranged, hung and lit within a room influences our perceptions of them. These museums often take this experience to another level: some spaces enhance the art, some buildings compete with it and others make you question its origins and context.

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, UK

Standing on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the entrance to Number 13 is discreet and unobtrusive, belying the treasures that lie within. The building is home to the collection of Sir John Soane, a 19th-century architect, who built the residence and arranged for it and its contents to be maintained “as nearly as circumstances will admit in the state”.

This mandate of stasis is integral to the museum’s unique character: the rooms are higgledy-piggeldy hoards of Classical antiquities, Renaissance art, architectural drawings, paintings and furniture preserved as they were arranged more than 200 years ago. They include masterpieces by Hogarth, Watteau, Canaletto and Turner, and there’s an Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement. A restoration programme is underway but the main house remains open as usual. On the evening of the first Tuesday of every month, the museum is lit by candlelight, making it a particularly atmospheric and popular time to visit.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, UK (; 00 44 20 7405 2107). Admission is free.

2. Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

Marguerite and Aimé Maeght opened an art gallery in Paris in 1945 that went on to become one of the most important and influential galleries of the 20th century. It forged relationships with artists such as Giacometti, Miró, Calder and Braque. In 1964, the couple opened Fondation Maeght in the hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence, about an hour’s drive from Nice.

With its distinctive building, lush gardens and a library containing more than 30,000 books, the foundation was an attempt to create the ideal setting for the appreciation of modern and contemporary art. Indeed, the place succeeds in rescuing art from the confines of a gallery. There’s a courtyard with Giacometti sculptures, a pool tiled by Braque, Calder mobiles in the grounds and a labyrinth with work by Miró. This integration of art with environment makes it one of the most pleasurable places in the world to experience art.

Fondation Maeght, 623, chemin des Gardettes, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France (; 00 33 4 93 32 81 63). Tickets cost €15 (Dh74) per person.

3. Dia:Beacon, New York, US

Just under an hour and a half’s journey by train from New York’s Grand Central Station, the town of Beacon on the banks of the Hudson River has become a centre for the arts in recent years. At the heart of this transformation from manufacturing town to cultural hub is the Dia:Beacon, which opened in 2003 and displays art from the 1960s to the present day.

Occupying a former box-printing factory built in 1929, the building has more than 22,000 sq m of gallery space. It is light, airy and vast - a wonderful place to view art as well as escape the hemmed-in feel of the city. On long-term display are works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter and Donald Judd, while the current exhibition is Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977. The attraction, though, is not just the work but the context. A place where each parking space has its own fruit tree makes a relaxing change for people from the nearby metropolis who usually struggle to find a parking place at all.

Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, New York (; 00 1 845 440 0100). Admission costs $10 (Dh37) per person.

4. Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France

The architect Jean Nouvel combined industrial materials such as glass and steel with traditional Arabic and Islamic motifs to create this striking building on the left bank of the Seine. This architectural masterpiece includes a facade that responds to changes in weather, thus regulating the amount of light let into the building.

Founded in 1980, with the building completed in 1987, the institute is a showcase for Arabic culture. It puts on exhibitions - currently on the work of the architect Zaha Hadid - and houses a permanent museum of Arab art. There’s an auditorium with a programme of films, music and dance from across the Arab world as well as a library with more than 85,000 books, documents, periodicals and journals, mainly in French and Arabic. Take the glass lift to the ninth floor to Le Zyriab restaurant for excellent views of Paris.

Institut du Monde Arabe, 1, rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, Place Mohammed V, Paris, France (; 00 33 1 40 51 38 38). Admission costs €6 (Dh32).

5. Mauritshuis, The Hague, the Netherlands

“At times it seems to me,” writes WG Sebald, “as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar.” The Mauritshuis, along with the Tate, was Sebald’s prime example of the relationship between art and the profits from the sugar trade in the 18th century. The museum is now owned by the Dutch government but it still reeks of this history. Once the home of Johann Maurits, it has small rooms with high ceilings and creaky floorboards. Exceptional works by Rembrandt, Veermer and Holbein are fixed on the gloomy walls.

Unlike other museums with world-famous masterpieces, you can get very close to the paintings. You don’t have to jostle with crowds or peer through thick, bullet-proof glass. The Mauritshuis is a remarkable museum. As well as allowing you to appreciate art in an untroubled context, it prods you to ruminate on the relationship between art and the wider world throughout the ages.

Mauritshuis, Korte Vijverberg 8, The Hague, the Netherlands (; 00 31 70 302 3456). Admission is €11 (Dh55) per person.

6. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Iran

This modernist concrete structure was built during the 1970s on the west side of Laleh Park. The Shah’s last wife, Queen Farah, set about filling it with work by the greatest names in 20th-century Western art: Giacometti, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pollock and Rothko, to name just a few.

The collection, estimated to be worth about $2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) and often dubbed the greatest collection of Western art outside Europe and the US, languished in a basement for three decades after the Islamic Revolution, until an exhibition in 2011. The majority of the museum’s gallery space is still devoted to Iranian artists from across the ages in temporary exhibitions. There’s also a sculpture garden with works by Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, and a library, bookshop, cafe and cinema.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Kargar Avenue, Tehran, Iran (; 00 98 21 8895 5754). There is a nominal charge for admission.

7. Beirut Art Center, Lebanon

Beirut’s flourishing art scene was a fluid collection of ad-hoc venues and commercial galleries until the Beirut Art Center opened in 2009. The centre was a welcome permanent - and non-commercial - addition to the city’s contemporary art landscape.

Located in a former factory on the eastern outskirts of the city, the white two-storey building has 1,500 sq m of exhibition space as well as a cinema, bookshop, library and cafe. Every year, the centre organises up to five major exhibitions, along with weekly concerts, talks, lectures and film screenings. It is a great place to take in the best and the latest in Middle Eastern contemporary art. It is currently exhibiting a solo show dedicated to Fouad Elkoury, the Lebanese artist and photographer.

Beirut Art Center, Jisr El Wati, Building 13, Street 97, Zone 66, Adlieh, Beirut, Lebanon (; 00 961 1 397 018). Admission is free.

8. Museo Picasso, Málaga, Spain

Picasso wanted his work to be shown in his home town of Málaga, but the Spanish dictator Franco spurned the artist’s offer to send paintings from France to Spain in the 1950s. It was not until 2003, 30 years after Picasso’s death, that his desire was fulfilled with the opening of the Museo Picasso Málaga. Donations from the artist’s daughter-in-law and grandson, Christine and Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, form the core of the collection.

The works span the artist’s career and include paintings, drawings, ceramics and engravings, all housed in a beautifully restored 16th-century Andalusian palace with a marble courtyard. Some of these family heirlooms have never been displayed in public before. The museum also puts on temporary exhibitions - currently on Picasso, as featured in the work of the photojournalist David Douglas Duncan.

Museo Picasso, Palacio de Buenavista, c/ San Agustín, 8, Málaga, Spain (; 00 34 952 127 600). Admission to the permanent collection costs €6 (Dh32) per person.

9. Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 and moved to London to study art in 1952. The artist has lived in London and spent time in Cascais since the 1970s. She has had many solo exhibitions around the world, but her work found a permanent home at Casa das Histórias Paula Rego just outside the Portuguese capital in 2009.

The collection consists of hundreds of paintings, drawings and etchings from across the artist’s career. The artist donated and loaned most of the works, including 52 paintings that include Vivian Girls and In and Out of the Sea. The collection reveals the breadth and scope of the artist’s career, which spanned more than 50 years. The building itself is also a delight. Designed by the architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, it consists of two pyramidal towers made from red concrete, and four different-sized wings. These unusual shapes, textures and colours are a splendid complement to the art contained within.

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Avenida da República, 300, Cascais, Portugal (; 00 351 214 826 970). Admission is free.

10. Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China

Founded by Guy and Myriam Ullens in 2007, art collectors from Belgium, the UCCA lies at the heart of Beijing’s 798 Art District. Also known as Dashanzi Art District, this collection of 1950s factories and other industrial buildings on the fringes of the city has become home to Beijing’s thriving artistic community. Since 2002, a plethora of galleries, studios, cafes, design companies and publishing houses have moved into the area.

The Ullens Center, a non-profit organisation, is one of the biggest galleries, with nearly 8,000 sq m of display space. It puts on a range of exhibitions featuring established and emerging contemporary artists. At the moment, there are shows by Tatsuo Miyajima from Japan and Song Dong from China. The centre also hosts events, talks, films and workshops and has a restaurant, bar, cafe and bakery.

UCCA, 798 Art District, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China (; 00 86 10 5780 0200). Admission costs 15 yuan (Dh9) per person.

Published in The National.