Manhattan’s Lower East Side: an impossibly tight conurbation south of Houston Street and east of the Bowery, long a multiethnic enclave and now home to roughly 100 contemporary art galleries alongside boutiques and clothiers, restaurants and their suppliers, community centres and hotels, housing projects and luxury condos. It’s a story of uneven, and uneasy, development, and it’s not new. It could easily begin on the eve of the 1980s, with The Real Estate Show, an exhibition (a pop- up, in today’s vernacular) in an abandoned storefront at 125 Delancey Street. The show began with a ‘manifesto’, explaining that it would be ‘a short-term occupation of vacant city-managed property’. Gentrification was the enemy.
The city had been dragging its feet on renewal commitments, depressing prices and wooing private developers to pick up the city’s slack. As Rebecca Howland’s poster for the show declared, ‘a building is not a precious gem to be locked – boarded – hoarded’, so the artists took over. They cleaned the space, turned on the heat and the lights, and hung the work. It was open for 24 hours before the city’s padlocks appeared. In a public- relations coup, the artists held a press conference on the street in front of the locked doors, and the press actually showed up. The attention brought the city to the negotiating table. When it was all done, a different space, at 156 Rivington Street, was made available to the artists, long-term. ABC No Rio (the name comes from an old and nearly illegible storefront sign that capped the entrance) was born.
The Lower East Side has long been a magnet for this kind of upstart, street-level, socially conscious and committed work (venues and organisations such as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center and PAD/D). It has to do, in part, with the density and the scale of the urban fabric here, which is lower-rise and tighter than the rest of Manhattan. Soho, just to the west, is similar, but there cast-iron warehouses predominate, with open floorplans and ten-foot-or-higher ceilings. One could get a lot of work done indoors, which is why artists colonised the area and ushered in the era of ‘loft’ living, especially when the streets were dangerous come nightfall. The Lower East Side, in contrast, had long been residential.
‘Tenement’ living, though much less glamorous, was its main feature. If you wanted light and air, you went up to the roof, or out onto the street, which was your yard, your coffeehouse, your community centre, your court. The ground floor of every tenement building was a storefront, which meant many different stakeholders – eyes and ears, in other words – and so an abiding interest in what was happening outside the front door.
It’s this small-scale, street-oriented infrastructure that has made the Lower East Side so attractive to the many contemporary art galleries that have opened (and closed) in the neighbourhood over the last ten years. That, and the fact that many of the landlords are either Jewish or Chinese; two groups that, according to a number of gallerists, are willing to sign commercial leases without the security of pristine credit.
As catalyst for the Lower East Side’s transformation into an art destination, however, most people would point to the New Museum’s announcement in 2002 that a parking lot on the Bowery at Prince Street would be the site of its new building (the museum opened to the pubic in 2007). And few would disagree that the area gained long-term security with the 2007 arrival of Lehmann Maupin in the two-storey former headquarters of the East Side Glass Co (previously Levine Brothers Glass) at 201 Chrystie Street, which had occupied that address since the 1940s; or with Gian Enzo Sperone and Angela Westwater’s Sir Norman Foster-designed minitower on the Bowery, which opened to much acclaim in 2010.
These are big galleries, literally, with big plans. Lehmann Maupin has used the double height of the Chrystie Street space to stage large installations by Do Ho Suh, Teresita Fernández and Jennifer Steinkamp – the kinds of installations meant to appeal to institutional collections (and those that aspire to be). And for all of its verticality, Sperone Westwater has less a double-height space than a double-height wall, which means most of its exhibitions still tend towards a domestic scale, even when showing big personalities such as Tom Sachs and Not Vital. As the name implies, though, on the Lower East Side there is nowhere to go but up.
Not all galleries’ ambitions can be equated to such ardent desires for rank. In contrast to Chelsea, there remains an air of refusal on the Lower East Side – if ABC No Rio is any indication, it goes with the territory. Participant Inc, a nonprofit space founded by Lia Gangitano (once of Thread Waxing Space in Soho) has been in the area since 2002 and may be the most legitimate inheritor of ABC No Rio’s alternative legacy. Canada, the now well-recognised gallery founded by Phil Grauer, Sarah Braman, Wallace Whitney and Aaron Brewer – all artists in their own right – has been in the neighbourhood since then as well, only recently moving from its lower Chrystie Street home to a new one on Broome Street. Yet the origin of the neighbourhood’s current status as a contemporary art haven may be better, or alternatively, traced to the opening of Reena Spaulings Fine Art at 371 Grand Street in 2004 and of Orchard, at 47 Orchard Street, in 2005.
Reena Spaulings began as a project of the Bernadette Corporation, a group of artists that modelled the form of their activities – bookwriting, fashion design, artmaking, etc – on the start-up creative media companies that had blossomed in the 1990s. It was a type of avant-garde move that joined other familiar ways of changing and challenging the conventional status and romantic image of the fine artist. The gallery, named after the title character of a Bernadette Corporation novel, offered the artists another way of occupying a commercial concern without fully embracing, or succumbing to, the coercions of full-blown capitalism. Early shows and projects by the likes of Klara Lidén, Josh Smith, Seth Price and K8 Hardy, and a notoriously informal approach to running a business, gave the space a kind of cutting-edge credibility and cosmopolitanism that began to extend to the neighbourhood itself.
If the old-school Lower East Side spaces were hamstrung by their history as ‘alternative’ and anticommercial, Reena Spaulings, though still critical of affirmative culture, showed that one need not be so conflicted about getting involved in the money game (especially when there was very little money in that game to begin with). Orchard possessed similar motivations, but it approached the neighbourhood, and the gallery concern in a less elliptical if still somewhat experimental fashion. That Orchard operated as a profitmaking limited liability company with 12 members is equally as important as the kinds of exhibitions and events it put on as a gallery.
Those members came from various different artworld backgrounds (critic, curator, historian, artist, etc), and the programme, as stated on its still-live website, ‘eschewed solo exhibitions in favor of thematically, conceptually and politically driven group exhibitions and projects’, such as its inaugural outing, modestly named Part One, which featured Andrea Fraser’s May I Help You? (first presented in 1991) in the context of works by greats such as Luis Camnitzer and Martha Rosler and a new generation of academically inclined artists such as Nic Guagnini, Gareth James and R.H. Quaytman (who served as the gallery’s director). If Orchard ‘represented a commitment to historically-based artistic criteria, as opposed to market criteria’ then this was all but guaranteed by its three-year expiration date. And as with all such ‘discursive’ projects, Orchard- as-gallery may now be gone, but Orchard-as- archive, or Orchard-as-work, still survives, ‘discursively’, which is what it might mean to have ‘made a mark’.
Reena Spaulings and Orchard are the programmes that inaugurated the Lower East Side we have today, from the louche to the earnestly academic. If they can be credited with any offspring, one guesses those would look very much like Miguel Abreu’s gallery, which, with regular exhibitions by Scott Lyall, Jimmy Raskin and the formerly-of-Orchard R.H. Quaytman, easily runs the most intellectual programme in the neighbourhood. And Abreu’s gallery, which is also on Orchard Street, has formed the hub around which a number of other storefronts have ‘gone gallery’. Across the street is Stephan Stoyanov, whose gallery has a healthy new media, video and film programme with artists such as Shannon Plumb and Heather Bennett. Just to the north, Steve Pulimood recently opened a two- storey jewel-box of a space named Room East (after Ettore Sottsass’s journal), which has just begun formally representing Dan Shaw-Town, G. William Webb and Robin Cameron. While next door is Rachel Uffner, who shows Sam Moyer and Sarah Greenberger Rafferty, among other notables.
Pulimood, Uffner and Abreu’s spaces are quintessential Lower East Side – small, idiosyncratic, alive. Other galleries have begun to move into the newer, gentrifying construction that has been cropping up in the area over the past five years. After three years of operating Rental Gallery on the sixth floor of a fairly dingy commercial building on East Broadway, Joel Mesler opened Untitled in the ground-floor space of 30 Orchard, one of the first luxury condo buildings on the street (the penthouse is listed for a couple of million dollars). This gives the gallery a bit of a Chelsea feel, but only a bit. With artists such as Brendan Fowler and David Adamo, the gallery maintains more than enough “punk-rock integrity” (Mesler’s words) to distinguish it from uptown. Not so much with Lisa Cooley (Andy Coolquitt, Erin Shirreff ), who was once next door in a tiny strip of a storefront. Her shop has since moved to a very sleek, very Chelsea showroom – high ceilings, exposed roof beams, polished concrete floors – on Norfolk Street, where one can also find Thierry Goldberg (Ben Grasso, Dave McDermott), who moved there from a shoebox space on Rivington.
There is of course nothing wrong with these moves and expansions, especially when they benefit the artists and their work. If anything, they free up those original and already-proven gallery spaces for newcomers who bring more energy and, according to Stoyanov (who has survived two recessions), an always-needed “optimism”.
The question is: optimism about what? ABC No Rio began not out of optimism but from a feeling of urgency and an act of reclamation that required not just artistic and curatorial agency but old-fashioned civil disobedience (the disobedience one finds on the Lower East Side today is less civil and more of the misdemeanour sort, the kind that happens outside unbearably hip watering holes after one too many drinks). If there is an optimism here then it remains aspirational, but for something more than just commercial success and social status. It’s a bid for relevance, and the Lower East Side is the last place in New York where the galleries, and the art, do remain relevant to the life of the neighbourhood. How they figure in the relevance of art more generally – its value, its purpose, its promise – remains an open question.