Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond

Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond

by Ann Fensterstock


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Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond by Ann Fensterstock

A fascinating tour of the last five decades of contemporary art in New York City, showing how artists are catalysts of gentrification and how neighborhoods in turn shape their art--with special insights into the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons

Stories of New York City's fabled art scene conjure up artists' lofts in SoHo, studios in Brooklyn, and block after block of galleries in Chelsea. But today, no artist can afford a SoHo loft, Brooklyn has long gentrified, and even the galleries of Chelsea are beginning to move on. Art on the Block takes the reader on a journey through the neighborhoods that shape, and are shaped by, New York's ever-evolving art world. Based on interviews with over 150 gallery directors, as well as the artists themselves, art historian and cultural commentator Ann Fensterstock explores the genesis, expansion, maturation and ultimate restless migration of the New York art world from one initially undiscovered neighborhood to the next.

Opening with the colonization of the desolate South Houston Industrial District in the late 1960s, the book follows the art world's subsequent elopements to the East Village in the ‘80s, Brooklyn in the mid-90s, Chelsea at the beginning of the new millennium and, most recently, to the Lower East Side. With a look to the newest neighborhoods that artists are just now beginning to occupy, this is a must-read for both art enthusiasts as well as anyone with a passion for New York City.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137278494
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ann Fensterstock is an art historian and a collector who serves on boards and committees at several museums and nonprofits in New York City and Washington. She speaks regularly on contemporary art and lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Art on the Block

Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond

By Ann Fensterstock

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2013 Ann Fensterstock,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-36473-9



"Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work."

— Chuck Close, New York Times, December 18, 2012

When the question "What moves the art world?" first occurred to me, I ran it by some of the artists, dealers, directors of nonprofit exhibition spaces, writers and critics who are a part of it. Reactions were myriad. Rents and real estate, space and light, compatible community and collector convenience were all suggested, often insistently. Many (in this essentially liberal cohort) suspected the manipulative hand of city government or civic politics. Shrewd property speculators, ruthless developers and rapacious landlords were regularly cited. The responses were impassioned but rarely consistent. And yet, as I considered the actual history of the art world's migration from neighborhood to neighborhood, each in its own way contained elements of the truth. They all had their merits.


Artists and fledgling galleries move into a neighborhood that is unloved and unwanted because the big spaces they need to make and show their art are cheap. The arts community cleans up the neighborhood and gives it cachet but is then forced to move on and make way for the far more profitable fashion, food and fabulous people. Of the more than 150 art world participants I interviewed for this book — gallery owners, directors of not-for-profits, creators of experimental exhibition spaces, artists, art and cultural historians — many firmly believed this to be the one and only explanation necessary for the art world's frequent moves. Some of them still hold to that view.

There is a good deal of truth to the credo, and it would be naïve to deny the crushing velocity of the gentrification juggernaut. Stories abound in this narrative of greedy landlords and bourgeois dilution of a neighborhood's artistic vibe by yuppie scene seekers and stampeding tourists who drive up the price of everything from apartments to a cup of coffee.

Yet examples abound of artists, galleries or other exhibition venues leaving a neighborhood for new climes even when they are not at the mercy of the real estate market. In 1996 pioneer dealer Paula Cooper moved her gallery to utterly desolate Chelsea despite the fact that she already owned her SoHo exhibition space. There is also ample evidence that loyalties to a neighborhood, or a sense of origins and identity, will persuade an artist or exhibitor to stay long after the audiences have thinned and the rest of the crowd moved on. Devotees of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are a case in point. While gentrification is a big thing, therefore, it's not the only thing. It's but one strand in a richly textured amalgam of phenomena, many of them particular to the art world.


A number of the players who weighed in on what moves their art world feared that it might all be bigger and even badder than just that: the economy at large was to blame. Indeed the Big Apple's compulsive propensity for producing and selling the best and the brightest, its cutthroat ambition to be the first out of the gate and its shameless embrace of conspicuous consumption make New York the market of all markets. Homes, fashion, food and culture — even health and education — are all quickly commodified here and are indiscriminately flogged to the highest bidder.

Since New York has been alternately fueled or drained dry by its Wall Street machine, it's no surprise that many see the art world simply as a function of economic cycles. Flourishing with the ups and floundering with the downs very much in lockstep with the real estate market that does or doesn't put up the walls on which to hang the art — supply, demand, markets and money have often colored the picture. Art is after all still a luxury product. Surely, then, a strong market must nourish the art neighborhood and a weak market diminish it.

It's true that rising fortunes among collectors do often result in a spike in art shopping, and several of the gallery relocations I track here were financed by the years of plenty. Similarly, a market downturn, reduced sales for artists, gallery closings and funding cuts to not-for-profits can decimate a building full of studios, shutter an entire block of galleries or cause nonprofits to lose the roof over their heads. Yet art districts regularly prove an exception to this rule, and economic slumps often mean that advantageous deals are to be had by those looking to find a studio or expand a gallery in a now-depressed real estate environment.

Qualitatively, also, the art world is tricky. Some of the most depressingly fallow years in terms of great work, iconic dealers and visionary exhibition programs have occurred during the go-go sprees of an overheated economy. Some of the best art, the most game-changing galleries and the most counterintuitive arts initiatives have found fertile soil among the ravages of New York City's catastrophic cyclical crashes. Art neighborhood shifts have therefore often come about in opposition to the prevailing economic trend.


New York City is famous for cultivating extremes in many things, not the least of which is its politics. The political movements spawned, the radical groups fostered, the larger-than-life politicians put into office and the national, even global, attention the city's policies and practices have garnered mean that a certain undercurrent of politics must run through any accounting of its history. Its art world history is no different.

The political convictions of artists regularly inform the art they produce, particularly in times of war such as the Vietnam era or during America's seemingly endless engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Polemics against sexism, racism, homophobia, government incursion of individual liberties, environmental disaster and the demands of the green movement have also found a way into the imagery. These images have then demanded a sympathetic site in which to be to be seen.

The women's movement of the 1960s and '70s undoubtedly empowered such SoHo gallery pioneers as Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon and Angela Westwater. Similarly, the Stonewall Riots in the West Village in 1969 and the ensuing gay rights movement did much to pave the way for artists like Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong to find empathetic galleries in the East Village of the 1980s.

Just as periods of political progress have helped to stimulate fledgling art neighborhoods, political disorder such as the Tompkins Square Riots or acts of political terrorism like the attacks on the World Trade Center have impacted the art world's capacity to survive. Ironically, they have also provoked it into re-creating itself. The August 1988 riots in many ways marked the final demise of the East Village scene, but it picked itself up and went elsewhere. Similarly, the paralyzing state of self-doubt experienced by most artists, dealers, curators and arts writers in the days that followed September 11 — tripped as they were of all faith that art making mattered — was ultimately overcome and is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent in this New York story.

At the same time, New York — size egos of every political stripe have wandered on and off the local art world stages throughout the years described in this history: power mongers such as the "Master Builder" Robert Moses, his nemesis the preservationist Jane Jacobs, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Congressman John Lindsay must all be considered in terms of their impact on the civic landscape. Equally, New York City's mayors — Lindsay again, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolf Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg — have all governed its cultural geography and affected where the art world settled and how long it stayed.


One of the strongest factors that surfaced during my five years of researching this topic is the notion of arts professionals colonizing in like-minded communities. In my own interviews with present-day artists (struggling and no-longer-struggling), with directors of both underfunded nonprofit organizations and megamillion-dollar revenue dealers, the need for proximity, collegiality and mutual support was palpable.

Visual arts workers' stock-in-trade is essentially ephemeral, not concrete; it is psychic rather than physical. The worth of the "product" is measured in aesthetic, intellectual or otherwise intangible terms. For many artists working alone in their studios, the result is an interiority and isolation that proves unsettling at best and terrifying at worst. Fundamentally visual communicators, artists still need language (their own or that of a studio visitor), reaction (from collectors or critics visiting their exhibitions), debate (about the process, not just the product), support (when a work is floundering or a show bombs) and confirmation (when the reverse is happily the case.)

Most will still attest to the need for connection, association with a group, ideally one whose members are struggling with the same misgivings about the life to which they have been irresistibly called, and who face the same challenges (personal, social and financial) out there on the margins. Often having started out without much support (from anxious parents, dubious teachers or bourgeois skeptics of indolence), artists routinely live in fear of no recognition of their talent or, even worse, no talent after all. No money for studio rent and no dental plan add to the pressure and intensify the need to confirm that there are others like them doing this thing.


In addition to artists producing work in their studio enclaves, the art dealers whose job it is to exhibit (and hopefully sell) the art from their galleries also spoke of the need to be together. Motives differed in many ways between artists and dealers, but there were also many overlaps. Even the most successful gallery directors (financially speaking) confirmed that a peculiar sense of passion, absolute faith in one's vision and an unshakable commitment to the worth of the art they represent are prerequisites of the trade. Equally, like the artists they show, they have misgivings and doubts; errors of judgment occur and problems with touchy artists and difficult collectors become wearing. A gallery situated close to others either exulting in the same joys or suffering like miseries was often mentioned during our discussions.

Proximity and ease of access one to the other also facilitates dealers' need to keep a grip on the critical discourse, to see what work their competitors are showing, to hear what their colleagues think of their program. Like most of us, arts professionals need to keep abreast of developments in their field, but in this case not just by reading or talking but by actually looking and spending time with the work. Again and again, directors of exhibition spaces confirmed the importance of getting out and about to the neighboring shows, and they often bemoaned how rarely they found the time to do so.

Galleries — their objectives being fundamentally commercial — also see trade benefits in being co-located. They want to be on the map, on the itinerary of gallery-goers and part of the choreography of opening nights. More often than not, galleries colonize around a key venue — what is often called the "destination gallery." In 1970s SoHo the dealer magnets were Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend, André Emmerich and John Weber at 420 West Broadway. In the East Village of the 1980s Patti Astor's Fun Gallery or Gracie Mansion were the neighborhood draws and in Williamsburg Pierogi and Momenta. The destination gallery is the one that achieves name recognition and raises all the other boats. If a neighborhood doesn't get one, it often bodes ill for the health of the other galleries and is perhaps the reason that otherwise likely-looking neighborhoods such as Harlem, Long Island City or Dumbo in Brooklyn never really took hold.


That said, even with the allure of a significant destination gallery, the gallery-goer does have to actually get there to see what's on show. If an artist's studio, a gallery or a not-for-profit exhibition program is situated in a hopelessly inaccessible location, very few in the art world audience will go there. I say "very few" because quite regularly in doing my rounds, artists or dealers would name a hard core who would track down the good art come hell or high water. That said, if no one gets to see the work in the far reaches of a Bushwick studio, it will not get picked up by a Chelsea gallery or be offered for sale at an art fair in Miami.

Close-by subway stops with trains that actually run do not necessarily concern the wealthy collector, but freelance critics and junior curators, even of the well-respected publications and the most revered institutions, do not generally have a limousine idling out front. They rely on public transportation. Even the price of a cab does you no good if taxi drivers won't go there. The island- dwelling Manhattanite is also particularly squeamish about crossing bodies of water, and the Williamsburg or Brooklyn Bridges might as well be space ships in terms of many a collector's inclination to be on one. This, as will be seen, can impact where an art scene develops and how well it endures.

While the volume of foot traffic is important to exhibitors of contemporary art, the quality of that traffic is of equal importance. When a well-colonized neighborhood with one or more destination galleries draws the right kind of visitor, the neighborhood flourishes. When the quality of that traffic changes, and the area becomes invaded by tourists, opportunistic bargain seekers or "scenesters," the serious are quickly driven away.

Just how to attract "the right kind of people" is a devilish little conundrum that has either graced or eluded many a worthy New York City enterprise — be it art show, Broadway production, restaurant or yoga class. In the case of the art world, there are at least four vitally important components to its highly judgmental client base: the collector (without them no sales), the museum curator (crucial to having an artist's work enter museums and thus the canon of art history), the art critic (all important in the intellectual discourse that attaches itself to serious art), and the broader media (key to having word travel beyond the very limited ranks of the first three).


If a sufficient density of venues develops around a destination gallery in a given neighborhood, the expedition becomes worthwhile, and bridges and tunnels get crossed. Build it and they will come. The initial wailing and gnashing of teeth among Upper East Side collectors and foot-fatigued critics when they were first required to trudge to early-days West Chelsea was eventually overcome once there was enough art there to make a day of it. The same can be said about Williamsburg, across the East River in Brooklyn, during its turn-of-the-millennium heyday.

But too much access and too many people being in the know has also been the ruin of many a good neighborhood. Along the course of this history, the voices of both inside observers and outsider commentators are enormously powerful. The press, whether serious journal or sensationalizing tabloid, has an impact and it is a protagonist in this story. As such, I give as much weight to the popular coverage of the art world by general readership publications like the New York Times and the Village Voice as I do to the cerebral essayists at Artforum. On more than one occasion, too much hype from New York Magazine or gossip in the New York Post has been as influential in the meteoric rise or crashing downfall of an artist and his gallery as a review from a respected critic.

What artists and dealers perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the fickleness and ultimate perfidy of the arts writer is legend. Attracting critical support in the first place is often an uphill battle. Even Betty Parsons, the visionary dealer of the as yet unappreciated Jackson Pollock, could rely on only one critic in the 1950s — the New York Sun's Henry McBride — to lend support to her artists in the early days. The conflicting interests of critics (those who are friends or lovers of artists they review, collectors or dealers of their work) have also been debated for as long as there has been an art press. Critics making a cluster of galleries their darlings and then dropping them like so much old news can also be devastating. Certain Williamsburg galleries felt themselves to be on the receiving end of just such a cooling of affection around 2005.

Neighborhoods have shifted for lack of critical and media attention and the neglect of their excellent programs, and they have also fled in horror of it. Dealers have nursed the broken hearts of many an artist whose terrific show was completely ignored, and directors of exhibition spaces have decamped to escape media-instigated swarms of tourists seeking restaurant recommendations or teenage night clubbers vomiting in their doorways. Both extremes are responsible for some roadkill.


Excerpted from Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock. Copyright © 2013 Ann Fensterstock,. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xii

1 What Moves the Art World? 1

2 Moderns in Midtown: The End of an Era 15

3 Hell's Hundred Acres: Early Soho 27

4 Getting it Together Downtown: 1968 to 1975 39

5 Dilution and Discontent: The Later Seventies 59

6 Decade of Decadence: Soho 1980 to 1990 75

7 The East Village Scene 99

8 The State of the Art: Into the Nineties 119

9 Wild Times: Williamsburg 1990 to 2000 133

10 Whither Williamsburg?: 2000 to 2005 153

11 Fleeing to Chelsea at the End of the Century 175

12 Into the Aughts 191

13 After the Fall: 2007 to 201 215

14 The Lower East Side Redux 231

Epilogue 241

Notes 245

Selected Bibliography 257

Index 263

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