London art galleries: The student’s guide to the city of art on the cheap

London art for students

By Ali Pantony,

Whether you’ve just embarked upon your London student life, wide-eyed with your ‘things to see’ list clutched tightly in hand, or whether you’re a virtuoso veteran of our fine capital, you may not be aware of just how blissfully easy it is to experience London’s art offering on a student budget. With a city famed for its sheer numbers of galleries as well as it’s huge variety, from the vast National Gallery looming iconically over Trafalgar Square to Brick Lane’s delightfully bright ‘Stolen Space’ urban independent art gallery, you can’t afford not to delve in. This article will be your trusty guide to ensuring that you fully experience the wonderful wealth of bewitching art and inspiration that your city has to offer while you’re at university in London.

First things first; if you want to experience the London art scene, you’re going to have to travel around. However, wherever you find yourself visiting one gallery, there is sure to be another within walking distance.  For example, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are both situated conveniently in Trafalgar Square, with the Institute of Contemporary Arts within five minutes walking distance… the the Royal Academy of the Arts 10-15 minutes from there , and so on. And this is not just the case in central London; this trail of art can be found all over the East and West End too; just use our trusty friend Google Maps to look for galleries near to the one you are planning to visit. Visit multiple galleries in a day and save yourself some travel money while having a fabulous day out with your equally-cultured course-comrades! 

An important money saving tip is to hook up your 16-25 railcard with your student Oyster. This can save you up to 33% on all off-peak travel. (Let’s face it; you aren’t going to get up at 7.30am to visit those galleries). While we’re stating the obvious, if you haven’t already, buy an NUS card. A very welcome majority of galleries and museums in London offer a reasonable discount on admission with a valid NUS card, which is available to all university students. It will save you anywhere between £2 and £6 per visit. Well worth it.

Now for the most exciting part. Many of the most notable art galleries in London offer free admission. You may have to pay a small charge for temporary exhibitions, but entry to the permanent collections is free to a number of galleries. The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Saatchi Gallery, The Tate Britain, The Tate Modern, The Wallace Collection, Photographers’ Gallery, The Serpentine Gallery and many more open their doors to a world of intricate Impressionism, compelling Contemporary, phenomenal photography, immense installations and so much more, for free. Could you ask for much more of our capital’s art scene? 

If the vibrant, unique, less-well-known world of exuberant discovery that is the East End art scene is more your thing, there are countless galleries, located very near one another, which you and your university pals can dive into for free.  These include The Whitechapel Art Gallery, White Cube Hoxton Square, Stolen Space Brick Lane, The Approach (entrance through The Approach Tavern hosting £3 pints; what an ideal scenario), MOT Gallery, Transition Gallery, Seven Seven Contemporary Art Gallery, Carl Freedman Gallery, One in the Other Gallery (overlooking Regent’s Canal), Maureen Paley Gallery and many more.

While on the topic of free galleries, be sure to visit the University of London’s Brunei Gallery. SOAS’s Russell Square gallery boasts intriguing exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with exhibitions such as ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’. A trip to a fascinating and unique gallery in the heart of London whilst supporting the University of London; how wonderfully loyal and cultural! 

With regards to special exhibitions which normally charge an entrance fee, be sure to investigate whether any websites are offering discounts, offers or vouchers. Days Out Guide (www.daysoutguide.co.uk) regularly offer 2-for-1 deals on art exhibitions throughout London.  Just find a friend and get booking!

Furthermore, if you are incredibly keen to make the most of the London art world, including exhibitions, museums, galleries and historic houses which charge admittance fees, you should seriously considering purchasing a National Art Pass. Go to http://www.artfund.org/get-involved/buy-a-national-art-pass and grab your pass for the cheapest fee of £18.75 (the ‘under 26’ offer is for 12 months for the price of 9 in your first year when you sign up using direct debit).  With your new best friend you will receive 50% off many major exhibitions, free entry to over 200 galleries and museums and many other benefits (see the above website for further details).

On a final note before you eagerly grab your collection of money-saving cards and dash off to your galleries of choice, takeaway triple-shot cappuccino in hand like a true Londoner, here is a list of some exhibitions running through the first university semester which offer NUS discounts when you book online:

  • ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ at Guildhall Art Gallery, £3 (saving £2), ends 08/12/13.  
  • ‘Australia’ at Royal Academy of Arts, £9 (saving £5), ends 08/12/13
  • ‘Whistler in London: Battersea Bridge and The Thames’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, £6 (saving £5), 16/10/13 - 12/01/14
  • ‘The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee’ at Tate Modern, £14.50 (with optional £1.40 donation, saving £2), 16/10/13 – 09/03/14
  • ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ at Tate Britain, £14.50 (with optional £1.40 donation, saving £2), ends 20/10/13
  • ‘Pearls’ at Victoria & Albert Museum, £7 (saving £4.20), ends 19/01/14
  • ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900’ at Victoria & Albert Museum, £9.20 (saving £4.20), 26/10/13 – 19/01/14
  • ‘Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs’ at London Transport Museum, £11.50 (saving £3.50), ends 27/10/13
  • ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900’ at The National Gallery, £5.50 (saving £5.50), 09/10/13 – 12/01/14
  • ‘Laura Knight Portraits’ at The National Portrait Gallery, £5.40 (saving 90p), ends 13/10/13

Be sure to check these galleries’ websites for further information on these exhibitions and, more importantly, on their other upcoming free exhibitions. There are plenty.

So, that concludes the guide to helping you survive the myriad streets of London’s gleaming art world. A few tips to make the most of this hugely diverse art scene, see all you wish to see, all while keeping that student-tight hold on your purse strings.  Happy gallery hopping!