Tuesday, 5 August 2014

New York: Art City (Part 1 - Follow the Art)

Garageland writer Debbie Ainscoe visits New York. On the first leg of her trip she searches for the city's creative edge, following the art through Central Manhattan to Chelsea and then North to Harlem.

From Chelsea High Line

I visited New York.

And I specifically visited New York for its art. A visit, that on reflection confirmed to me that this is indeed one hell of a place to see it. And yes, people will disagree about the relevance of some, stacked up amongst all the art business hype. Which I get too. But from where I stood, I was pretty much blown away, and not least with the attitude of the artists and gallerists I met. 

Having landed relatively clueless in deciphering between districts, I found it was the art that led me rather than the area's reputation. And I did see some amazingly good art.  But what struck me most was the abundance of the stuff.

The 'bare bones' of art in New York is fairly well defined by area. And the different areas are key in showing the city's preoccupation with real estate, rents and gentrification.

For those who haven’t encountered art in Manhattan before, it has a rich population of public museums and galleries clustered around Central Park, all in pleasant (and extremely well-heeled) walking distance of each other. 

Places like the old, established and massive Metropolitan. The all-American Whitney. The Guggenheim with its 'no photos' policy, not to mention the astonishing building itself. And the sometimes lamented new gallery space of MoMA, which I found pretty airy and impressive until a more attuned New Yorker pointed out that the art suffered a little with all the drama of the museum's large atrium, which somewhat overpowers the smaller galley like rooms. That, and far too many gift shops. The sculpture garden en-route to the coffee shop, and if you missed those, there was always the MoMA design store on the street opposite. Yes I got that.

But there it was, all the art from an American perspective that you could ever possibly want to see, and in outstandingly gobsmacking spaces. An overwhelming experience, with or without the art. I wasn’t complaining. 

Cheek by jowl – apartments next door to The Guggenheim

Caravaggio, Matisse, Monet, Pollock, Van Gogh, Picasso, Hopper, even Cezanne’s The Bather – the foundation stone of MoMA, brought over for the opening in uncertain times between the wars, during depression, mass immigration and an American identity crisis. And just look at the museum now, everything I've ever heard about New York is epitomised here in the way honour is endowed on its art. MoMA has even officially set aside new space for time-based and performance works. A bold museum. Some would say not bold enough, pandering to the mass spectacle, popular footfall and of course those value-added sales.

This is not about cynicism though, I am trying to understand it – the absolute abundance of quality art in Manhattan and its outlying areas – and to get it into some kind of perspective. And I think I have. It isn’t rocket science. It is, however, very much about New York’s historic attitude toward the arts, which is at odds with its penchant for premium real estate.

The view from The Met

New York City has a law that requires no less than 1% of the first twenty million dollars of a building project, plus no less than 0.5% of the amount exceeding twenty million dollars be allocated for art work in any public building that is owned by the city.

However, in tandem with this, the New York art market today has fewer artists receiving a larger share of attention. Less buyers are willing or able to collect for passion over asset. At the top of the high-priced art bubble (and this is the bracket of art that receives the majority of public commissions) there is too much focus on asset mentality and flipping for profit.

If you believe what is being written by respected gallerists and art commentators alike, the talent being looked at or bought by most high-end collectors at this point has nothing to do with desire for art and a lot to do with the latest hot ticket and following a speculative hedge. Not healthy. Not creative.

To understand this current trend in art buying you also have to look at the movement of businesses and inhabitants in New York over a few decades.

Last year Postmasters Gallery, who show the cream of New York's current artistic talent, moved from this Chelsea area down to Franklin Street because of imminent hikes. Postmasters has been in New York since the 1980s and is run by Polish born Magda Sawon. The space has had three locations in that time, four years in East Village, ten in SoHo and fifteen in Chelsea. They moved back down to SoHo/Tribeca last year. This was poignantly posted on their imminent move:

We want to afford ourselves the opportunity to show art that the market is not yet swallowing whole. We want to continue championing work with challenging but relevant content that may take time to be loved, appreciated, and acquired. We want to look for art by artists – old and young – that confounds us, that we don't know or understand. We don't want to anticipate the market and try to deliver on its demands. We want to challenge the market and perhaps teach it. We have, after all, sold some impossible things in the past. We want to search deep and wide for collectors who share this vision.

Aside from the 'Museum Mile' nestled in comfortable Upper Manhattan, one area is synonymous with creativity; the meatpacking district on the Lower West Side, which at the start of the 70s found its buildings in disrepair. 

The district's abandoned warehouses started to house clubs and also racketeers quick to prey on a fledgling neighbourhood (the Mafia gained a strong hold). The subsequent chaotic and creative style of the area spawned the advent of disco and the high energy music scene that eventually saw clubs and art studios littered all along Bleeker Street to Bowery and the Lower East Side. 


This area of West Village, Nolita (north of Little Italy) and East Village were the original settling grounds for the Italian and Chinese communities and lower rents gave rise to this episode in New York’s creative appeal. The list of notables to emerge from all this was significant and spanned decades, including: Warhol, Basquiat, Dylan, Lou Reed, Talking Heads. 

This creative vibrancy though, ran side by side with the negatives of new neighbourhoods and the drug-fuelled culture of the time. This reached its peak in the mid 80s at the height of the Aids epidemic with the council closing some of the more salubrious sex clubs for health (as well as racketeering) reasons.


And so the clean up began. What you see today in Chelsea is evidence of this: a nice market and equally nice galleries like David Zwirner and Andrea Rosen, the latter of which recently housed Mika Rottenburg's Bowls Balls Souls Holes, sprawling mix of revolving doors and artefacts, giving minimal nods to her film. A frying pan on a small camper-like stove in the lobby complete with an exceptional amount of white wall surround. The work definitely has room to breathe in these galleries.

Bowls Balls Souls Holes

The artists, either new or remaining, who do live around Chelsea, West Village or Nolita will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Bowie, who apparently has an apartment down on the corner of Lafayette and Houston. This lower side of Manhattan does have a life other than expensive artisan shops, Louis Vuitton and extensions of high end 5th Ave stores though.

Nolita houses Marcia Tucker's innovative New Museum, founded in 1977 on Bowery off Prince Street, which most recently held Me, My Mother, My Father, and I by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. This exhibition was typical of their global and innovative vision. Kjartan Sveinsson, composer and former member of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, transformed the scene’s dialogue into a ten-part polyphony played by ten musicians, who sang and played guitar in the tradition of the troubadour to accompany a projection of film by Kjartansson. 

Ragnar Kjartansson at New Museum

The New Museum

The area around the reclaimed and pleasant to walk High Line in Chelsea steeped in this recent creativeness, is now facing more change. In 2013 Barneys luxury department store made moves to open another in Chelsea for a 'new and pleasant go-to destination for its clients' prompting real talk of rent hikes. 

Now, Chelsea may only be within the realms of less hands-on, major city chain galleries like David Zwirner or Hauser & Wirth, which typify the shift. Leo Koenig took over the Postmasters Gallery space.

John Powers at Postmasters Gallery

New Postmasters Gallery space

And so the type of art being made and the galleries that are able to show it is in flux. Another established and innovative gallery, Winkleman Gallery is on the move from Chelsea. Having had their lease expire this March, they too are looking for a new home.

They have also been active in setting up Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair, which is in its fourth year, holding regular bi-yearly events for moving image art during New York’s Armoury and London’s Frieze. With work coming in from all over the world and from various galleries in London and New York. They are soon to be hosting an event during Istanbul’s Art Internatinal .

Certainly there is no air of plaintive hurt in these gallery owner's decisions. Their gallery is currently less concerned in permanent street presence and more in temporal events. Where their gallery space emerges in the future remains to be seen, but the idea of having to move and move quickly is obviously not new. 

A storage advert overlooking Chelsea

Historically this is a city of migration; of Gershwin, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, also of the 'American Bloomsbury Group' and Ayn Rand's thinking, the Beat poets, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Hip Hop. The maths of art and rent has always been paramount.

Manhattan is very, very wealthy. No more are the gritty and violent streets of 70s and 80s cop dramas. Always amazing, it is now a relatively safe and enjoyably amazing place, but still with its brownstone streets, iconic and tv-familiar buildings and gritty backdrop of seeming chaos and street mess – it looks the same. 

In modern day New York you may work in a restaurant and live quite comfortably off your tips. Live the life, for as many years, in your tiny downtown apartment. Available square meters are snapped up and turned into living space from penthouse to small kitchenette studio apartments. There are no empty buildings for long.

But some resident artists have been saying that more and more this city is without the creative edge that defined so much of the collective memory of those inspired but dangerous times 30-odd years ago. Whilst a decrease in crime is definitively a positive, the logic behind this seems to be that things can only improve with gentrification, or rather, rent hikes.

This story isn’t new and it is happening all over the globe with vengeance at the moment, but here it seems far more pronounced, and is occurring with frightening speed. Space is a premium, an asset, and increasingly a realm only of the wealthy.

I ventured a little north of Manhattan  to West 155th Street and the not too frequented, wonderfully dusty museum of The Hispanic Society in Harlem, housing Goya, Velázquez, El Greco and much more. 

I took the bus, the difference between Harlem and its nearby neighbourhood, the comfortably cultural zone of Upper West Side, was palpable. The shops are peppered with mobile gadgetry, convenience corner shops, Western Unions and local DIY stores, except the shop signs and billboards are in Spanish as well as American.

The bus had school kids and parents doing the school run, along a route that had cafes spilling out onto the street, local people sat outside on benches. 

Around the same time I noticed an article describing this same area of Harlem as being the “bare bones” for investment, a new place to be discovered within easy distance of all that art and edge that ever was Manhattan. The human analogy of “bare bones” seems relevant, and these are not the desolate buildings of Chelsea’s abandoned meatpacking district or the 70s gun toting, crime ridden streets. There may be crime, but the bus I took seemed pretty normal to me. 

Communities take time to grow and this one has been here for over 100 years, not transplanted by upward economic trend. And, just like these Harlem residents, for many art galleries and artists the cheaper rent will always be a defining factor. Reinventing areas with prime rent coffee shops does not creativity make.

The Hispanic Society Museum

Debbie Ainscoe

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