Art hasn’t always been accessible; before the creation of printing methods which were capable of producing art prints, most people couldn’t afforded to buy original artwork or to have something painted for them. It’s very hard to imagine today but images were rare in the middle ages, there was no such thing as a public art gallery. Other than occasional decorative patterns or very simple woodcut playing cards, most people only got to see art when attending church, or if they worked in a wealthy person’s home.
Churches would occasionally make a selection of their art collection available for viewing by the general public; perhaps the earliest example of an art gallery. The Pope also supported the opening of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, with many buildings purpose built as galleries to allow large audiences to see them.
The wealthy collected original artworks for their own pleasure, and as status symbols within their home, but during the later Mediaeval period they would also sometimes make parts of their home accessible to the public, at least of certain social classes, so that they could view the collection. While this made art available to a much wider audience than those who could afford to buy it, these were still very limited audiences, mostly restricted to the upper echelons of society. It would take until the 17th century for true art galleries and museums to emerge.
The revolutionary connection to public art galleries, museums, and displays
In the late 1600s the earliest art museums began to emerge; the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, were both established to display relatively small collections of art to the general public, and in the mid 1700s the British Museum was founded. Royalty also began to make their collections more widely available for viewing; the Palais Royal in Paris and the Green Vault in Germany as two notable examples, but the real watershed came with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
The dramatic events of the turn of the century led to many collections being nationalised, or at least put onto public display. Even in countries retaining a monarchy, decision makers began to think in terms of purchasing great works for the benefit of the nation, or so as to preserve it for the benefit of all.
The art gallery concept was rooted in museum ideals, with an “art gallery” being more of a descriptive term for an architectural space within the museum. Whether it was privately or publicly owned, the intention was to preserve art somewhere that it could be looked after and stored by experts, with parts of it occasionally made for viewing. While most people still use the terms art museum and art gallery interchangeably, the true art gallery emerged when spaces began to exhibit works that it did not intend to preserve.
The rise of the commercial art gallery, and the art market
Artists faced a problem when trying to make a living from their art; outside of direct commissions from the church or the wealthy to create objects of aesthetic beauty, it was deemed beneath something as important as art to simply make it so as to sell it. Things began to change during the 19th century, with rising incomes and a gradual shift towards more modern values where art could be a commodity, purchased as an investment, and artists could act much more like any other business or trade.
By the Victorian era, commercial art galleries could be found in many capital cities, and the modern art market began to emerge. Auction houses handled the most valuable pieces for an elite selection of master artists, who were often long dead, and art galleries occupied a middle tier of the most skilled contemporary artists. Here collectors could find lower priced artworks they could purchase as speculative investment, or simply for their decorative quality, or perhaps even limited edition art prints of the more expensive Masters.
Art galleries have continued to evolve with our society; vanity galleries, collective gallery spaces, pop-up galleries, and online art gallery shops have allowed much further democratisation of art, making a vast range of original artworks by all kinds of artists available to almost any kind of buyer. And as we continue to dive into new technologies and new artforms such as digital art and contemporary NFTs, so art galleries are changing, moving into online and virtual worlds with almost no limit on space or the physical size of a collection, and interestingly, no necessity for any artwork to be “an original”.