Introduction: What is the Difference Between an Art Gallery and a Museum?
We all know art galleries or museums are the places to be to visit art exhibitions. However, although, at first, they seem to do the same thing, which is organizing exhibitions for the public, they are, in fact, completely different entities. But in what way are they different? What is their objective and organization?
An art gallery is a private and commercial enterprise curating exhibitions with its portfolio of artists while selling the exhibited artworks. In contrast, a museum is a public and non-commercial institution curating an exhibition program for cultural and educational purposes.
To understand what this means explicitly and how it is noticeable in reality, we’ll take on different characteristics and compare them first with the art gallery and then with the art museum. As a result, we will discuss their objective or purpose of existence, their organization, the main focus of the exhibition program, their services, and their essential role in the art world.
Further, we will discuss the blurred distinction between the art gallery and the museum due to the emergence of so-called ‘mega-galleries‘.
Key Differences: Art Gallery versus Museum
The first key difference between the art gallery and the museum is their purpose of existence. The objective of an art gallery is to support artists by exhibiting their artworks and building their career and resume while earning money on a commission basis. Here, the art gallery works as a dealer who curates exhibitions. However, the art museum does not make sales, nor does it support and monitor the careers of certain artists. A museum’s main aim is to curate a relevant exhibition program for the public to visit. In doing so, the museum’s objective is to contribute to the education of the public, supporting and contributing to the canonization and preservation of cultural heritage.
Due to this difference, art galleries primarily focus on modern and contemporary art, whereas museums concentrate on any particular era. For instance, the Louvre in Paris focuses on art from any period of history, or other museums focus on a specific era, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which focuses primarily on Modern Art. In doing so, museums have different sections canonizing art history in rooms, catalogs, and their collection in general. As a result, there are different types of museums, and not all museums are about art. Think of military museums, archeological museums, natural history museums, maritime museums, or historic museums, to name a few, in which a specific collection of artifacts from a particular niche or domain is being collected and exhibited.
In doing so, we arrive at a third difference between the art gallery and the museum, the ownership of the exhibited artworks. A museum has its collection of artworks, whereas art galleries exhibit artwork who are still owned by the artists in question. However, not all works on display are straight from the museum collection. It is, in fact, prevalent for temporary exhibitions to loan or lease-lend artworks from other museums or private collections.
Art galleries offer artists the service to promote, support, and monitor their careers, whereas museums provide an educational service to the public and visitors. As a result, the organization of galleries and museums is totally different. Most often, galleries have a limited number of employees as the organization is private (except for ‘mega-galleries’ – cf. infra), where all employees receive their salary from the gallery owner. With museums, the organization is public, with the museum being funded by the state, resulting in a larger organization with, generally speaking, more employees and larger infrastructures and public buildings.
A final key difference is the different roles of the art gallery or the museum in the art world. Generally speaking, the art gallery links the artist and the art market. The gallery walks you through the art world toward being a successful artist (read our article on how to succeed as an artist/painter here). In other words, working with an art gallery is the first step before an artist can work with a museum. Only when the artist is established in the art market and has become a relevant figure in the contemporary art scene can they be invited by a museum. This is the next step for an artist toward being an established artist after having multiple shows at various galleries. It is the artist’s and gallery’s aim to work towards recognition from institutions such as the art museum. As a result, an exhibition with an art museum is a significant distinction for any artist and a great asset to their artist’s resume.
In a nutshell, the role of the art gallery is to support artists and build their careers, being the link between the artist and the museum. On the other hand, the art museum is a recognition and an indication of quality and relevance to the art scene. In doing so, art galleries and museums work together very often. The art gallery represents the artist or the artist’s estate to help realize the exhibition the museum wants to curate.
If you are interested in a more in-depth take on the art gallery, read our more extensive article: The Art Gallery: Everything You Need to Know.
A Blurring Distinction: Mega-Galleries versus Museums
As we have discussed in our article on the Top 10 of the Biggest Art Galleries in the World, the top art galleries have been growing exponentially over the past few decades, resulting in the so-called ‘mega gallery’ phenomenon.
In this article, we defined the ‘mega-gallery’ as a highly influential art gallery with multiple locations with the infrastructure, number of employees, and standard of quality equal to major museums’ standards. As a result, the abovementioned differences seem to blur slightly but surely.
The new buildings of those mega-galleries take the shape and form as if they are built as a museum. Furthermore, the educational purpose of those galleries becomes increasingly important, as is the case with museums. Then there is the editorial aspect of art galleries expanding their services, becoming publishing houses and trustworthy discussion platforms, canonization, and education.
Therefore I would like to conclude with this nuance and footnote regarding the difference between art galleries and art museums. Generally speaking, several critical differences exist regarding both entities’ organization, objectives, and role in the art world. However, due to their interaction and development, both are becoming increasingly intertwined, and in some cases, those differences start to blur with the ‘mega-galleries’.
With many museums experiencing financial issues, dated infrastructures, and a lack of available public resources, one could argue the museum and ‘mega-gallery’ will merge over time, and private commercial enterprises will take over the roles of the public institutions.
 Artnet, The Mega Galleries That Blur the Line Between Gallery and Museum (2016), at https://news.artnet.com/market/mega-gallery-museum-difference-542972 consulted 8/10/2021.