The first way to get acquainted with the Triangle’s art scene is to visit its major museums: Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road, 919-839-6262) and N.C. Museum of History (5 East Edenton Street, 919-807-7900), the Gregg Museum of Art & Design (1903 Hillsborough Street, 919-515-3503) at N.C. State, and CAM Raleigh (409 West Martin Street, 919-261-5920). And don’t forget Durham’s Nasher Museum of Art (2001 Campus Drive, 919-684-5135) and Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum (101 South Columbia Street, 919-966-5736), affiliated with Duke University and UNC, respectively.

That’s the easy part. But how to find your way through the Triangle’s maze of galleries?   

Luckily, each town and city’s arts council provides a map with its respective Friday art walk, a monthly evening when local galleries open their doors—mainly from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.—for self-guided tours, often with food, drinks, and even live entertainment. Art walks have become such a vital contact point between galleries and the public that many orient their opening and closing receptions around them. Though the idea is social exploration, we’ll tip a few galleries you should be certain not to breeze past on your Friday fling. Though they’re smaller (and not represented here), note that Hillsborough and Cary both have art walks of their own on the last Friday of each month.

On Raleigh’s First Fridays, stop at 311 Gallery (311 West Martin Street, 919-247-4915) in the Warehouse District. In addition to juried shows, its gallery is fueled by more than thirty local artists, working in styles from traditional to modern, who reside in its twelve studios. Artspace (201 East Davie Street, 919-821-2787) is a visual arts center that shows new work, usually local, in several separate galleries. It serves as a leading community space. So does the roomy Visual Art Exchange (309 West Martin Street, 919-828-7834), a nonprofit “creativity incubator.” And Litmus Gallery (312 West Cabarrus Street, 919-571-3605) is a reliable source for local art coming out of its studios.

For a taste of old Raleigh, Gallery C (540 North Blount Street, 919-828-3165) is one of the oldest galleries in the city, displaying and selling fine art (and specialties like Haitian art) since 1985. And The Mahler Fine Art (228 Fayetteville Street, 919-896-7503) is a classic white cube that shows representational and abstract work alike, in a historic building where the past seamlessly meets the contemporary. At the other end of the spectrum, newcomer Imurj (300 South McDowell Street, 919-825-1515) is a flexible collaborative space that points to the Raleigh art sceneís future. So does Lump (505 South Blount Street, Raleigh, 919-757-9533), which houses some of the city’s most adventurous art exhibits even though it’s been around for decades. 

On Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s 2nd Friday ArtWalk, youíll find exhibits in a mélange of cafes, community centers, salons, and gift shops. But itís slim pickings for dedicated galleries, most of which have fled for cheaper pastures.  The most central place to go is The ArtsCenter (300-G East Main Street, Carrboro, 919-929-2787). In the multiuse community center, you can see an exhibit and then catch a concert or play when the art walk winds down at nine.

Third Friday Durham offers a bigger bounty. A manageable good night might look like this: Get your feet wet at the Durham Arts Council (120 Morris Street, 919-560-2787), the city of Durhamís art enterprise, with several galleries housing something for all tastes. Then get a little more adventurous with a trip to Pleiades Gallery (109 East Chapel Hill Street, 919-797-2706), whose member artists fill a cozy street-level storefront in the heart of downtown with buzzy contemporary colors. Find out what the people associated with Duke University’s master’s program in experimental and documentary arts are up to at the American Tobacco Campus’s Power Plant Gallery (320 Blackwell Street, #100, 919-660-3622). Then take a short stroll down Main and plunge into Golden Belt (807 East Main Street, 919-967-7700)—both the textile-mill-turned-mixed-use-center itself and The Carrack Modern Art (947 East Main Street, 919-294-8605). A vibrant, social, fast-paced gallery, it’s the best place to see what the Durham art scene is all about at the most community-oriented level—and on Friday art walks, community is what it’s all about.