New York's New Edge: Contemporary Art, the High Line, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Sideby David Halle, Elisabeth Tiso
The story of New York’s west side no longer stars the Sharks and the Jets. Instead it’s a story of urban transformation, cultural shifts, and an expanding contemporary art scene. The Chelsea Gallery District has become New York’s most dominant neighborhood for contemporary art, and the streets of the west side are filled with gallery owners
The story of New York’s west side no longer stars the Sharks and the Jets. Instead it’s a story of urban transformation, cultural shifts, and an expanding contemporary art scene. The Chelsea Gallery District has become New York’s most dominant neighborhood for contemporary art, and the streets of the west side are filled with gallery owners, art collectors, and tourists. Developments like the High Line, historical preservation projects like the Gansevoort Market, the Chelsea galleries, and plans for megaprojects like the Hudson Yards Development have redefined what is now being called the “Far West Side” of Manhattan.
David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso offer a deep analysis of the transforming district in New York’s New Edge, and the result is a new understanding of how we perceive and interpret culture and the city in New York’s gallery district. From individual interviews with gallery owners to the behind-the-scenes politics of preservation initiatives and megaprojects, the book provides an in-depth account of the developments, obstacles, successes, and failures of the area and the factors that have contributed to them.
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New York's New Edge
Contemporary Art, the High Line, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side
By David Halle, Elisabeth Tiso
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Chelsea as New York's Dominant Contemporary Art Gallery Neighborhood: A Real Estate and Finance Story
Congratulations! You own a garage on 22nd Street! —Gallery owner Matthew Marks's lawyer, 1994
It is hard to know what the art world will look like in the future. I believe there will always be a place for the traditional kind of art dealer who represents artists. Artists will always need someone to run interference between them and the rest of the world. —Matthew Marks, 2013 (Dreishpoon 2013)
TWO STORIES ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART
The rise of Chelsea, and decline of SoHo, as New York's dominant Contemporary Art gallery neighborhood is a real estate and financial story primarily, albeit a fascinating one. Told in this chapter, it is about rents and landownership and talented entrepreneurial gallery owners such as Matthew Marks, Paula Cooper, and Larry Gagosian, and the price of art compared with that of designer clothing. More recently it is also about the future of the commercial art gallery, in the context of such challenges as the movement to sell art online and the growth of annual art fairs. We call this the first story about Contemporary Art. Since it coincided with the most expansive art market ever, it is easy to conclude this is also the story of the meaning of the art. That would be a mistake. The chapter after this discusses the art in Chelsea and its meaning for the audience, and shows that for most people, including the majority of the collectors who purchase it, the art is not basically about money and investment. Instead it has far more to do with representing viewers' lives. We call that the second story about Contemporary Art.
THE LOGIC OF GALLERY CONCENTRATIONS
Commercial art galleries tend to concentrate in particular locations, a tendency that economist Richard Caves calls "the logic of art centers" (Caves 2000). Galleries specializing in Modern Art and the host of new art styles that followed concentrated in cities such as Paris, New York, London, and Berlin, with Paris dominating until World War II, and New York thereafter. Within these dominant cities the process of concentration continued, with a tendency for gallery neighborhoods to emerge that specialize. In New York, Old Masters have been on the Upper East Side for decades, while Contemporary Art is concentrated nowadays in Chelsea with 306 galleries by mid-2014 (though the Upper East Side is now showing much Contemporary Art too).
Still, in the long run in New York City a gallery neighborhood can lose its dominant position, and especially in the field of Contemporary Art this seems to happen. There the center of new art moved from 57th Street in the 1950s (with Abstract Expressionism as the dominant style) to SoHo in the 1960s and Chelsea in the late 1990s (see figs. 1.1 and 1.2; table 1.1. and Szántó 1996 and 2003). When one site loses dominance, galleries do not disperse, but a new dominant center emerges, at least so far.
Why this concentration of commercial galleries occurs is not evident. The standard economic model predicts that retail organizations in general, of which commercial galleries are one type, are far more likely to disperse than to cluster. This is so the retail outlet can be the sole seller, or one of a limited number of sellers, of that product located near any particular group of customers. It does not usually make sense for several stores selling liquor or meat or bakery products to open next to each other, where they must compete for the same pool of local customers and match each other's prices.
In studying why, by contrast, some retail organizations such as art galleries tend to cluster, economists have found that the dispersal forces can be overridden if two conditions are met. The first is when customers for a particular type of product wish to view a wide range of those products, sold by a variety of dealers, before making their choice. It then makes sense for the dealers to cluster, minimizing the purchasers' travel and shopping costs. Even for customers located far from the concentration, making a trip to one location where many products and dealers are clustered is probably efficient if a large amount will be spent on the item. This condition clearly applies to the world of Contemporary Art and is encapsulated in the practice of "gallery hopping," whereby viewers go from one gallery to another in a dominant gallery neighborhood (or at the higher agglomeration level of annual international art fairs, discussed later).
The second condition needed for the clustering of retailers selling the same category of product is that each seller's items are differentiated from those of other sellers, the more different the better. If, on the contrary, each retailer were selling the same or similar items, then consumers would gravitate to the retailer with the lowest prices, and the others would go out of business. Works of Contemporary Art meet this condition more than almost any other product. They are distinct from each other in a host of ways (e.g., subject matter, style, artist who produced the work, status of the gallery displaying it), especially given the heterogeneous definition of Contemporary Art. Almost every work is unique (though not, of course, works produced in limited editions). In economist Richard Caves's words: "Pervasive product differentiation in the art market (infinite variety) curbs price competition" (Caves 2000, 30).
This hyper product differentiation is fortunate for commercial art galleries, since it somewhat protects them from the ongoing Internet revolution, whose ability to act as a site where items may be purchased has undermined traditional vendors of other cultural products, for example physical stores that sell music, movies, and books. Technology does not yet allow most purchasers to view artworks online in enough detail to make an informed choice when they are not already familiar with that artist. Buyers typically still need to see the art in person.
These two factors—viewers' desire to see a broad range of works of art before making a purchase, and the highly varied nature of artworks—explain the emergence of dominant gallery cities (such as New York), and within such cities the emergence of a dominant commercial gallery neighborhood (such as Chelsea for Contemporary Art).
In other cities such as London or Paris or Berlin, contingents of commercial galleries selling Contemporary Art also cluster, though often without one area necessarily becoming dominant. Paris has smallish clusters of Contemporary Art galleries in several neighborhoods. The London Contemporary Art gallery scene is divided into two main, somewhat diffuse areas, the West End section (e.g., Savile Row/Piccadilly Road) and an East End section (e.g., Hoxton Square). Berlin's Contemporary Art galleries, after clustering in the Mitte district right after the city's reunification, later dispersed into several clusters, partly differentiated from each other by the status of the galleries in each cluster, as geographer Melanie Fasche has pointed out (Fasche 2013). Such clustering differences probably reflect the fact that these cities lack New York's dominance of the field and the consequent pressure for a single gallery area to be the dominant place to which collectors and other viewers must go.
LEAPFROGGING, AND WRONG TURNS IN NEW YORK
There seem to be strong, long-run destabilizing forces that produce a tendency for the center of the commercial gallery scene to shift location in New York. A striking feature of this shifting is that when the center moves, it "leapfrogs" to another neighborhood some distance away and often quite undeveloped commercially. Leapfrogging is unusual for commercial real estate in New York. Far commoner is for retail establishments to open near existing commercial developments in an "organic" movement (creeping not leaping), rather than to periodically shift en masse to an underdeveloped location.
This leapfrogging, whatever its causes, creates a particular dynamic for commercial galleries, forcing them to constantly wonder how long the current center will hold and, if it moves, to where. For a gallery intent on being in the dominant, successful gallery neighborhood, the process is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty, presenting an abundance of possible "wrong turns," of which there are two main types. One involves being a pioneer somewhere that never, in the end, becomes the new dominant gallery neighborhood, perhaps fading after initial promise. This is the "overestimation" error. The East Village in the 1980s was an example, as it failed to supplant SoHo. In Chelsea's case, so was Williamsburg in the early 1990s and probably the Lower East Side since 2007, both of which once seemed to have the potential to supplant Chelsea but have not.
A second type of wrong turn for a gallery is the "mistiming" error, that is, arriving too early or too late into what does become the new dominant gallery neighborhood. Arrive too late, and rents or purchase prices of buildings have become prohibitively expensive. Too early, and there are not enough customers to sustain business, as in Larry Gagosian's first move to Chelsea in 1985.
For a gallery, successfully negotiating this process somewhat resembles playing the game Chutes and Ladders, but with the added problem that the correct path is partially hidden and changes. Finding and staying on it is hard, full of possible wrong turns and costly detours.
Finally, although the commercial center of Contemporary Art moves and reconstitutes, the reconstituted center does not, typically, just replicate the old one. There are, for example, a number of ways in which Chelsea differs from SoHo, which it replaced. Above all, SoHo was pioneered by artists who moved into spaces where they lived and worked, and were then joined by galleries. By contrast, Chelsea lacks artists living, or working, in the neighborhood. With a few exceptions such as Jeff Koons, who maintains a large studio there, artists could not afford the general area of Chelsea from the start, let alone after it developed as a gallery neighborhood. In any case, the core of Chelsea's gallery neighborhood was, and still is, zoned to forbid residential properties, so living there is illegal. Instead, Chelsea represented the triumph of the commercial galleries, at least for now. "For now" because, as Chelsea developed, the traditional model of a gallery center located in a physical neighborhood was challenged by new types of centers, including international art fairs and the Internet. In this sense Chelsea bears the marks of its time as part of a process in motion.
STAGE 1, 1985–1993: THE NONPROFIT DIA MOVES TO CHELSEA
In 1985 the Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that showed performance art, moved from SoHo to Chelsea on West 19th Street, at a time when almost no commercial art galleries existed there. A year later the far more important nonprofit Dia Art Foundation also moved from SoHo to Chelsea (see fig. 1.3). Dia's move was eventually critical for Chelsea's development as a gallery neighborhood.
Dia was founded and funded in 1974 by Dominique de Menil's daughter, Philippa, and Philippa's then husband, the dealer Heiner Friedrich. The de Menils were a French family who had made a fortune in the Texas oil industry (as owners of the oil conglomerate Schlumberger) and were major art patrons in Houston and Europe. Dia had an important presence in Europe and spaces in SoHo for many years. But in the mid-1980s it had financial problems associated with the declining price of oil, so was seeking a new space in which to reorganize and expand. Chelsea was far less expensive than SoHo, so Dia converted a four-story building, on 22nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, into its first large-scale, rotating exhibition space in New York City, opening as Dia Chelsea in 1987.
Nonprofits and American Culture
In 2000 a young Frenchman, Frédéric Martel, who had begun a four-year term as France's cultural attaché in Boston, decided to examine his country's prevailing view that American culture was basically shaped by market forces, in contrast to French culture, which was heavily government-funded and organized. After traveling widely through the United States, he concluded that the French view of American culture was misleading, because it overlooked the key role of nonprofits in America. He published his findings in a 622-page book Culture in America, whose title echoed, for the domain of culture, Tocqueville's broad study of American democracy (Martel 2006).
It is true, Martel argued, that the direct role of the federal government in culture in the United States is far smaller than in France. For example, the entire budget of the US National Endowment for the Arts (founded in 1965), at around $125 million in 2005, was just 40 percent of what the French government gave to Paris alone for culture that year. But a key role in American culture is played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities, and community organizations, which receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives. So although a European-style culture ministry is not found in the United States, indirect government support of nonprofits and other tax-exempt organizations is, Martel concluded, a major reason why in America "cultural life is everywhere."
The role of the nonprofit Dia in Chelsea's development as a commercial gallery neighborhood exemplifies Martel's point (as do the later key roles of the nonprofit Friends of the High Line and the Whitney, as well as the New Museum of Contemporary Art opening in 2007, in the emergence of the Lower East Side as a gallery area). These nonprofits are performing important planning functions too, as analysts have stressed.
1980s and 1990s Chelsea: Not "Classic" Gentrification
Overall, the movement of art galleries to this section of Chelsea was not "classic" gentrification, where middle-class and richer residents displace working-class and poorer residents, since there were almost no residents to displace. (By contrast, the later development of art galleries on the Lower East Side associated with the opening of the New Museum had affinities with classic gentrification.) The section of Chelsea to which Dia relocated in 1986, west of 10th Avenue, was far off the cultural map. Zoned mostly for manufacturing, not commercial or residential, it contained primarily large warehouse and industrial production buildings. The latter included some garment manufacturers, who were permitted to have "commercial" showrooms in their buildings—art galleries counted as showrooms.
Excerpted from New York's New Edge by David Halle, Elisabeth Tiso. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
David Halle is professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of UCLA in New York: Cities and Cultures, Summer Travel Program. He is also an adjunct professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and the author of America's Working Man and Inside Culture, both published by the University of Chicago Press. Elisabeth Tiso is an art historian who has taught at Parsons, Fordham University, and UCLA in New York. She has published reviews and articles on contemporary art and architecture in Art in American, ArtNews Magazine, Parole Gelées, and other academic publications.
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