More Proof LES Gallery Scene is Thriving

art boom title
Montage by Kim Sillen Gledhill.

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the May 2013 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

When Risa Needleman and Benjamin Tischer opened Invisible Exports, their sliver of a gallery at 14 Orchard St. in 2008, they joined a handful of independent-minded dealers fleeing the sterility of Chelsea for a new art frontier on the Lower East Side. Five years later, having firmly established a reputation for cutting-edge–and often provocative–shows, they are preparing to move on from a street bursting with galleries; there are six of them in a one-block stretch above Canal Street. But these young dealers are not abandoning the LES; they’re negotiating for a larger space in a neighborhood that Needleman calls a “new force to be reckoned with in the art world.”

This month, the highly regarded New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) stages the sophomore edition of its New York art fair in the neighborhood, at Basketball City on Pier 36. At the same time, a French fair called Cutlog makes its American debut on the Lower East Side. And the New Museum, which helped set off the art stampede with its arrival on the Bowery in 2007, hosts Ideas City, a three-day conference and festival focused on urban issues.

The three events, timed to coincide with the venerable Frieze Art Fair May 10-13 on Randalls Island, offer new proof of the Lower East Side’s growing importance as an alternative art destination. There are now more than 100 galleries stretching from the Bowery eastward, most of them established in the past three to five years. Increasingly, many of them are essential stops for serious collectors in search of cutting-edge works. NADA’s presence on the East River is one more sign of the times, said Needleman, who called it a statement of “solidarity with the LES arts community [that] helps validate what’s being created here.”

The decision to move NADA’s fair from the former Dia Art Foundation building in Chelsea to the sprawling Basketball City complex was made because the organization wants “room to grow in the future” and because there’s an opportunity to create a distinctive identity in the new facility, said Nicelle Beauchene, president of NADA’s board of directors. Beauchene, who lives on Grand Street and owns a gallery at 327 Broome St., thinks most local art dealers are “committed to staying in the neighborhood.” Lower East Side-based gallery owners, she explained, “have developed a sense of camaraderie and community,” that stands in contrast to the often cutthroat Chelsea art world.

Photo by Daniel Greer.
Photo by Daniel Greer.

The organizers of Cutlog, the French fair, were drawn to the Lower East Side’s alternative art environment. After four years in Paris, Bruno Hadjadj and Guy Reziciner hope to create an intimate, edgy multimedia festival at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center at 107 Suffolk St. Both men have LES ties: Hadjadj was an artist here in the 1980s and Reziciner, an architect, has lived in the neighborhood for the last six years.

“We want to reactivate that spirit that existed in the ’80s, bridging the two eras,” said Reziciner. Cutlog will feature about 40 galleries from around the world, as well as a diverse lineup of performances, films, food and an evening program, including live music and DJs. The quirky confines of the historic Clemente Soto Velez building, Reziciner said, will allow visitors to form strong connections to works from “artists on the rise.” The goal, he suggested, is to “reinvent the art fair” in a place that has always embraced change and innovation.

Many of the young gallerists who have descended on the Lower East Side in the past few years were attracted by the neighborhood’s entrepreneurial spirit, but they were lured here for a far more practical reason. Comparatively low rents allowed them the freedom to take some risks and to support forward-thinking artists who are pushing boundaries. While Chelsea and Soho collectors are forced to showcase the most conventional projects–works they know will sell for top dollar–LES gallery owners have seized the opportunity to experiment.

This is true not only of the art being championed, but also in the piloting of new business models.

Benjamin Tischer and Risa Needleman of Invisible Exports - photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Benjamin Tischer and Risa Needleman of Invisible Exports – photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, 2011.

Invisible Exports, for example, has an “Artist of the Month Club,” in which members pay $200 month for an original work from an artist selected by a team of esteemed curators.

Earlier this spring, curators Jason Patrick Voegele and Keith Schweitzer opened The Lodge, a gallery at 131 Chrystie St., where an under-the-radar bar, Fig. 19, has operated in a back room for the past year (another gallery, Envoy Enterprises, was previously in this space). The bar and the art space have a symbiotic relationship, each drawing from the other’s clientele and cache. On another level, both Voegele and Schweitzer have developed additional revenue streams, including a service managing private art collections and a charitable arm. In addition to their own shows, they intend to make the space available to other curators so there’s not the constant pressure to launch back-to-back exhibits.

The neighborhood’s newest gallery, Rox, at 86 Delancey St., is also planning a multifaceted approach. Its owner, Emerald Fitzgerald, another Chelsea refugee, says she “was absolutely desperate to find a space on the Lower East Side.” Rox made a big splash last month with its second show, which featured bare-breasted images of model Natalie White, photographed by well-known photographers. Fitzgerald, whose gallery is located in the same building as the iconic LES shop Sol Moscot (the eyeglass store is moving across the street), hopes to eventually take over an adjacent space for a retail store featuring clothing and accessories. “Who Shot Natalie White,” the provocative exhibit Fitzgerald hosted in April, offers some pretty obvious visual evidence that galleries are changing the face of the Lower East Side, but there are many other clues. While the art boom is adding a lot of creative vitality to the neighborhood, it’s also contributing to the rapid gentrification happening on many gallery-dense blocks.

On Orchard Street between Canal and Hester, you can still find a couple of Chinese-owned dry cleaners, an old-school lingerie store or two and a few restaurant supply businesses. But on this same block, trendy restaurants such as Fat Radish and Leadbelly and high-end clothing stores like Gargyle have popped up in recent years. Residential rents on this stretch are escalating. One real estate listing touts an apartment’s “easy access to countless art galleries.” It’s an old story: art as a precursor for retail and real estate development. The New Museum, which is often cited as the root of gentrification on the Bowery, as well as a catalyst for the LES gallery explosion, has demonstrated this all too well.

Local galleries, many of them financially precarious, are themselves susceptible to displacement due to rising rents. Beauchene, whose first gallery was located on the Orchard Street strip, moved to a larger space a few months ago to accommodate more expansive exhibits.

“I thought I owed that to my artists,” she said. But after searching for many months, it became apparent that spiraling rents were prohibitive. In the end, Beauchene found a creative solution, moving into a shared space with fellow dealer, Jack Hanley.

Influential gallery owner James Fuentes, who’s vice president of the NADA board and was instrumental in moving the fair to Pier 36, echoes local gallery owners on the value of collaboration.

“We have to band together because we are in direct competition with major galleries (in Chelsea and elsewhere) for artists, for press, for collectors,” he said.

Fuentes grew up on the Lower East Side and moved his gallery from Chinatown to 55 Delancey St. in 2010. While he believes real estate prices will eventually force many galleries to seek out new neighborhoods, Fuentes said, “there’s no foreseeable replacement” for the LES, and the gallery community still has room to grow here. At the moment, he notes,  “there are increasing numbers of all kinds of galleries on the Lower East Side,” offering “an amazingly diverse range of rigorous, thoughtful work that’s really accessible.”

In other words, the LES art scene is having a moment.

Three large-scale art events take place on the Lower East Side this month. Here are the details.

NADA New York
Basketball City, Pier 36, 299 South St. (Montgomery St.)
May 10: 2-8 p.m.
May 11: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
May 12: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cutlog New York
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St. (Rivington)
May 9: 5-9 p.m.
May 10-12: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
May 13: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Events May 9-12 include: L’après Cutlog; 7 p.m.-midnight; outdoor film screenings, live performances
$15 adults; $12 students/seniors
Ideas City New York
May 1: Keynote address by Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab
May 2-3: Conference and workshops, various locations
May 4: StreetFest along the Bowery, including 125 local artists, architects, poets, technologists, historians, community activists, entrepreneurs and ecologists.
Pass for all May 1-2 events is $50.