This article addresses how older people understand and engage with contemporary art in the gallery context – whether there is something unique to the art, the format of the visits, the pedagogical approaches used by gallery educators, the social contact, or a combination of all these factors. It also addresses the psychosocial barriers to engagement. It draws from ‘Contemporary visual art and identity construction – wellbeing amongst older people’, a two-year research project funded by the cross-research council New Dynamic of Ageing Programme. Over 21 months, 43 participants aged 60–92 made three visits to contemporary art galleries in north-east England. The potential for art galleries to develop lifelong learning opportunities for post-retirement people has implications for the cultural, health and voluntary sector.