Six Art Galleries in Unexpected Places

Around the world, factories, distilleries and bunkers have second lives as art venues

Pirelli HangarBicocca
The Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan is an art museum housed in a former factory of train parts and farm equipment. Photo by Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

When the functions of our built environment are no longer needed, buildings often sit empty or get torn down. So it’s refreshing when visionaries give abandoned architecture new life. These six art galleries and museums around the world are located inside unexpected infrastructure, with paintings and installations gracing spots like a former train factory or an empty water cistern.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern (Houston, Texas)

Anri Sala: "Time No Longer" in the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

Every two years, a new installation is staged at Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, where visitors descend into a 1926 underground drinking water cistern to see spectacular art lighting up the walls. Multimedia artist Anri Sala’s immersive sound and film experience titled “Time No Longer” is currently on view. Exhibitions fill up the entire space—all 87,500 square feet of it, braced with 221 columns.

“It’s really an ambitious public art program itself, just because everything we do in there has to take up a very large space,” says Karen Farber, vice president of external affairs at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the organization that owns the cistern. “But it’s also a dream for any artist to be able to go in there and create something totally original for that space.”

The cistern was decommissioned in 2007 after an irreparable leak was discovered. The city of Houston was looking for someone to demolish it in 2010, when the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a nonprofit group dedicated to revitalizing the 10-square-mile Buffalo Bayou area of the city, came across the site. The art program is curated, rather than open call, and every installation is site-specific, meant to play off the size and reverberation of the space with visuals and audio. Buffalo Bayou Partnership keeps about a foot-and-a-half of water in the bottom of the cistern. Visitors follow a walkway wrapped around the edge of the cistern, near the top of the 25-foot-tall columns. “It creates this incredible reflective surface because the water is absolutely still and glassy,” says Farber. “It looks like an infinite space.” In addition to the art program, the Partnership hosts history tours of the space and sound healing meditation sessions.

Feuerle Collection (Berlin, Germany)

The Feuerle Collection celebrates its 5th anniversary this year.

The Feuerle Collection in Berlin houses early Imperial Chinese furniture dating from 200 B.C.E. to the 17th century, Khmer sculptures from the 7th century, and pieces by a handful of international contemporary artists—all tucked inside a former World War II bunker. It’s part of a very specific design choice to juxtapose ancient art with more modern periods and cultures, something namesake Désiré Feuerle did in a former art gallery in Cologne in the 1990s. The roughly 79,000-square-foot space displays artwork in two main exhibition halls, and then a few rooms: the Sound Room, the Lake Room and the Incense Room. In the Incense Room, visitors will find a collection of Chinese incense artifacts and can participate in an incense ceremony as art—the Feuerle Collection is the only institution in the world to present the ceremony in this manner. Visitors can also meditate and take gong baths among the artwork. To visit, you must be 16 or older, and make a reservation.

The Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Six Art Galleries in Unexpected Places
The Mattress Factory Popscreenshot via Wikipedia

As the name implies, the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art venue in Pittsburgh, occupies a former mattress warehouse. The building, which once produced Stearns & Foster mattresses, was built in 1900. Artist Barbara Luderowski purchased the property in 1975, and founded the museum two years later. Three historic buildings now make up the campus: the former factory and two historic rowhouses. The Mattress Factory is well known for pushing boundaries in contemporary art, continually developing alternative forms that include video, performance and site-specific installations. The current exhibition (the first in-person one since the pandemic began) is called “making home here.” It focuses on five local Pittsburgh artists and the work they produced while in Covid-19 lockdown. The artists include Naomi Chambers, who drew inspiration from the Black Panthers and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; Justin Emmanuel Dumas, who recreated an actual home in his exhibit space; and Harrison Kinnane Smith, who arranged for the Mattress Factory to mortgage its own property, with the proceeds then directed to a Black homeowner in the neighborhood as a response to discriminatory property tax policies. The exhibit runs until Spring 2022.

Arquipélago—Contemporary Arts Center (São Miguel, Azores, Portugal)

Arquipélago—Contemporary Arts Center
Arquipélago—Contemporary Arts Center Courtesy of the museum

On February 8, 1893, a newspaper in the Azores announced a plan to open three alcohol distilling plants, all on the largest island in the Portuguese archipelago, São Miguel. Ultimately, due to economic concerns and political movements, only one would get built in 1896. The Ribeira Grande Distillation Factory was in operation until 1902, before the building went on to be used as military barracks and then a tobacco factory, until 2006. Now, the property is an art museum, the Arquipélago—Contemporary Arts Center.

Repurposed by architects Francisco Vieira de Campos, Cristina Guedes and João Mendes Ribeiro, the museum consists of exhibition space on the first floor and in the basement, a theatre, archives, a library, a store, a bar and an artist-in-residence program that requires artists to make use of the soaring ceilings of the factory. Current exhibits include “Quatro Quatro,” an exhibit focusing on four local artists (until February 6), and “Se podes olhar, vê. Se podes ver repara.,” an exhibit showcasing the collage works of João Amado (through January 16).

Gallery NAGA (Boston, Massachusetts)

Gallery NAGA
Gallery NAGA Flickr user mjsawyer

Gallery NAGA in Boston isn’t just a functioning art gallery—it’s located inside an operating church. The Church of the Covenant, built in 1867, is a neo-Gothic stone church in the Back Bay neighborhood, and a piece of art all its own, with the country’s most extensive and complete Tiffany church interior. It showcases rare glass mosaics, glass lanterns, 42 large windows and many other Tiffany features. Gallery NAGA moved into the church in 1977, when congregation members who were artists asked if they could hang their work inside. It’s now a cooperative gallery; NAGA stands for Newbury Associated Guild of Artists. The artworks inside are all by artists local to New England.

Pirelli HangarBicocca (Milan, Italy)

Pirelli HangarBicocca
Visitors view Blind, 2021 during the solo exhibition "Breath Ghosts Blind" by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, on July 16, 2021. Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

At about 161,500 square feet, the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan is one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces. The nonprofit art museum’s building, built in the early 1900s by engineer Ernesto Breda, served as a factory producing train parts and farm equipment until the 1980s. The art museum took over the space in 2004, with exhibitions that focus on community engagement and interactivity. In the past, visitors have been able to walk through the artwork itself (rather than look at it from a distance like in a typical gallery), ride through strapped into seats, or even fly through on a harness. In addition to permanent installations by artists Anselm Kiefer, Osgemeos and Fausto Melotti, two temporary exhibits are currently running: Neïl Beloufa’s walk-through “Digital Mourning” that focuses on the concept of life in a digital world, running through January 9; and Maurizio Cattelan’s “Breath Ghosts Blind,” running through February 20, that explores the existential concepts of life. Entrance to the museum and the special exhibits is free.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.