Local Gallerist James Fuentes – True to His Roots

James Fuentes at his new gallery at 55 Delancey St.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of our print magazine.

It’s all in the neighborhood for James Fuentes, whose past, present and future are colliding on the Lower East Side. Fuentes’ eponymous gallery, at 55 Delancey St., isn’t far from where he grew up on Madison and Jackson streets. He now lives in the East River Co-op with his young family.

“It feels very much like a homecoming,” he says of moving to Grand Street in May 2010 and opening the gallery in September of the same year. Before that, Fuentes lived in Chinatown at Canal and Allen streets and ran a gallery for more than three years at 35 St. James Place.

He’s been part of the gallery world for more than a decade, opening a gallery at Broome and Varick straight out of college. He went on to curate an exhibition at Gavin Brown, became a director at Lombard-Freid and then a director at Deitch Projects. At his current gallery, Fuentes focuses mainly on new and emerging artists, though there are exceptions for established but under-appreciated artists: A show of Jonas Mekas’ photographs of life in a postwar displaced persons camp in Germany was on view last month. It was the first time Mekas, a co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives, has exhibited the photographs.

Fuentes’ shows have consistently caught the eye of The New York Times’ art critic Roberta Smith, garnering his artists critical recognition. He holds 10 solo shows a year and represents nearly a dozen artists.

“I believe the work speaks for itself. It’s more what the artist is doing than what I’m doing—I’m providing an umbrella for that.” Fuentes credits Miguel Abreu Gallery, which set up shop at 36 Orchard St. in 2006, with creating an art community that he wanted to join.

“At the time, the New Museum was about to relocate on Bowery, so once that happened, I knew the neighborhood would become a destination and it would really solidify the gallery scene,” Fuentes says. “I had studied the trajectory of gallery districts in New York over the last 40 years. The East Village in the ’80s was full of artist-run spaces whereas here, the upstart gallerists are really professionalized before they open. There’s still a DIY feel but there’s also some experience to back it up.”

Aside from Miguel Abreu, Fuentes’ favorite LES galleries for discovering innovative artists are 47 Canal, Feature, Ramiken Crucible and Rena Spaulings Fine Art.

“They consistently present things that are out of the ordinary even by their standards. It’s not necessarily that what they’re doing is out there all the time, but it’s thoughtful, rigorous and I feel like they each have very distinct voices,” says Fuentes.

Fuentes says he’s happy to be a part of the LES gallery scene but, he notes, “Within the parameters of the gallery, what we’re trying to do is to create something that can function anywhere—we could just as easily be on 57th Street. It’s pretty high rent here now.” Overall, “It’s a really…an ideal time for people who are interested in learning about contemporary art to discover it through these startups that are really dynamic and accessible.”

How will the LES gallery scene evolve? “What’s happening down here is an alternative.” He says, however: “If past experience is any indicator of what’s to come, people will be looking for another neighborhood in five years. I think we should enjoy it while it lasts.”

Fuentes isn’t certain which neighborhood is next for art: “There’s nowhere to go. Williamsburg almost had a viable gallery district until 2003, but it couldn’t generate enough people to visit,” he says, adding, “It’s probably easier to get someone to go to Berlin to see a show than go to Brooklyn.”