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History of New York's Gallery Districts

"...larger, cheaper and in a better location." - Lisa Spellman, NYT January 6, 1989.

► 1800 - 1900

► 1900 - 1930

► 1930 - 1960

► 1960 - 1990

► 1990 - 2010

► 2011: What's Next?

The following maps illustrate the history of New York's gallery districts, their evolution from the first galleries (M. Knoedler & Co. 1848, Babcock Galleries 1852 and John Graham & Sons 1857, all still operating), through 150 years to the recent Lower East Side and West Chelsea Districts.

galleries emerged in the small commercial district around the Commons at City Hall, opened in 1812. At early mid-century, as immigration picked up and poorer families moved into 5-Points and the areas to the north, wealthy families who were the sole fine art collectors of that time moved into Greenwich Village and the areas along Broadway up to Union Square, followed by a small but growing number of galleries. These salons exhibited select paintings for a select few, not the open, public art venues we know now. Most specialized in European painting, except Babcock Galleries, the oldest gallery in the world representing exclusively American artists.

During the last half of the 19th century, New-York Society was pushed farther north, first to Union Square, then the Gramercy area, then around Madison Square Park and into the 50s, always trying to outpace the commercial development which was never far behind. Galleries at the time were still patronized by the small wealthy class and so, just ahead of the grand department stores along Ladies Mile (Broadway & 4th Avenue), they followed their benefactors right up Fifth Avenue. Cheaper rents were also found after the rich moved farther north, especially in the gallery area flanking 5th Avenue on the eastern border of New York's Tenderloin District ("Satan's Circus" from West 20th to 40th, and 5th to 7th Avenues, in the closing decades of the 19th century).

There were around 50 galleries in New York at the time the Flatiron Building (then called the Fuller Building) was erected in 1902, and the commercial districts, along with the galleries, moved steadily north with the expanding city limits.

The Gallery Districts of the 19th Century were City Hall, Washington Square and Greenwich Village, although they faded in the 1880s as galleries moved to Gramercy-Madison Square Park.

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1900-1930: Exploding Up Fifth Avenue.

Eventually, the fleeing ranks of the rich held their ground in the Upper East Side, both because they ran out of room to run, and that the standards of luxury-living had changed. Galleries settled nearby. The first third of the 20th-century also saw more galleries that catered not only to the old-society rich, but also to the nouveau-riche and a growing upper-middle class, especially during the 1920s. As the rich built palatial mansions along 5th Avenue in the 50s and 60s into the 90s on the Upper East Side along Central Park, galleries began to occupy areas just below. Some of these mansions would become institutions housing vast private collections acquired by these families.

By February 1911, The New York Times had announced a "New Art Centre" along 5th Avenue from 38th Street to 50th Street.

Greenwich Village (Washington Square) grew again as a center for small galleries, and artist studios and co-ops. In 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio Gallery at 8 East 8th Street. By 1931, it would evolve into her greatest legacy, The Whitney Museum of American Art, genesis in The Village.

During the 1920s, midtown buildings that house galleries today were just being built. The Heckscher Building (now the Crown Building, 730 Fifth Avenue) is where MoMA got it's start November 7, 1929, as a popup show in a borrowed apartment organized by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) and two of her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. Today there are a half-dozen galleries there. This show was somewhat an "experiment"; bringing Modern Art (Gaugin, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Seurat) into a private venue that was open to the general public. It was an overwhelming success with over 47,000 visitors in one month, even with only eight prints and one drawing exhibited.

Galleries until this period were for the most part exclusive salons and private residences showing work by appointment only to select clientele, not the unwashed masses. There were exceptions: the Intimate Gallery of Steiglitz's co-op, The American Art Association galleries, ACA galleries, Gertrude Whitney's gallery, Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery and the many societies, institutions and academies of the time. The idea of open public galleries caught on slowly and wouldn't have broad appeal until the 1940s, during the prosperous post-War boom.

The Fuller Building, a major gallery building during the 1960s through 1990s on the northeast corner of Madison and 57th Street, was still on the drawing board.

There were around 140 galleries by 1929 and the primary Districts of this period were fairly diverse: Greenwich Village (Washington Square) again, along 5th Avenue at Gramercy-Madison Square Park, the New Art Centre and the 57th Street Corridor, which became an art destination after Edward Brandes began dealing at James P. Silo Auction Houses in 1905 and the Milch Galleries moved into 108 West 57th Street in 1912, surrounded by wealthy patrons. The Upper East Side began attracting galleries around the Metropolitan Museum of Art (construction began in 1890), with the Julius Haas galleries in 1906, Anderson Galleries in 1916 and the DeMotte Galleries in 1921.

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1930-1960: Contraction and Depression.

By 1932, only 30 galleries had survived the first few years of The Great Depression. They were huddled in two distinct areas: The Village and 57th Street/Upper East Side, with the more "avant-guarde" galleries in the Village (perhaps because many artists that participated in the 1913 Armory Show or were fleeing Europe were working and living where rents were cheaper and space plentiful). The more wealthy and established galleries clustered Uptown, dealing in newly-accepted Modern Art, masterworks or supporting the better-known emerging artists of their day. Battered by economic depression and World War, they stayed close to their wealthy buyers. This Uptown-Downtown gallery polarization began a trend that defines the NY Art World to this day.

This was also the period when large residential and commercial office buildings began sprouting up in midtown. Galleries found the older buildings around them perfectly suited to their needs, with cheap rents yet within relatively close proximity to their patrons. The Stable Gallery (1953-1970) which represented Franz Kline, Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and others who, at the time, were early-career emerging artists, took it's name from the old horse stable it occupied on West 58th Street and Seventh Avenue, typical for the area.

The New York Art World was nearly flat for almost 20 years and didn't begin to reinflate until the early 1950s.

"You have to recall that during the fifties the climate of the art world was just becoming alive again and it was just beginning to stir... "

- Michael St. Clair, Oral History Interview conducted by Gail Stavitsky, Archives of American Art.

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1960-1990: Post-War Diversification And The Downtown Scene.

With the post-WWII influx of artists from Europe and the global economic boom, the growth of the NY Art World accelerated and diversified, with the two Depression Era nuclei incubating this growth and division. Like cells in a Petri dish, the number of galleries increased from around 90 in 1945 to 406 in 1960, and then to 761 galleries by 1975, both uptown and downtown.

The slow early expansion of 1940-1960 occurred among the Uptown Galleries. Later, starting in the late 1950s, the growth nexus was downtown, first by the co-ops known as the 10th Street Galleries in the East Village (which evolved into the co-op galleries clustered today at 530 West 25th Street in Chelsea). Soon after, Fluxus artists Alison Knowles (the first resident artist in SoHo) and George Maciunas discovered the low rents in the obsolete manufacturing buildings of SoHo.

The lofts in the cast-iron buildings in the triangle below Canal Street (later TriBeCa) had been working studios. As SoHo became more popular, alternative galleries found these spaces, and many to the far west of SoHo, more suitably raw.

By 1965 the TriBeCa-based Park Place Group had opened The Gallery of Art Research in SoHo, followed by Richard Feigen later that year. Paula Cooper, John Gibson and Brooke Alexander opened in 1968. Virginia Dawn and The Kitchen soon followed. In 1970, Sonnabend, Andre Emmerich, John Weber and Leo Castelli moved into 420 West Broadway, the epicenter of the SoHo Art World. Across the street Mary Boone, Nancy Hoffman, OK Harris (HQ of the "Mayor of SoHo", Ivan Karp) opened. By 1971, First Street Gallery and 55 Mercer had opened, as had the first of the new artists-run galleries like Lucian Day's Green Mountain, Bowery Gallery and Prince Street Gallery. Storefront rents in SoHo at the time were $750 per month. By the 1980s, there were over 200 galleries in SoHo. Many were new galleries, but just as many were established galleries moving down from uptown.

SoHo was special because of it's topography. Surrounded by four major arteries (West Houston and Canal Streets, Sixth Avenue and Broadway), with a central "Main Street" (West Broadway), only one bisecting vehicular corridor (Broome Street), and full of abandoned buildings known for their frequent fires, SoHo was like an isolated frontier outpost... with four subway lines. Side-by-side spaces on narrow streets made SoHo easy to navigate, it's art easy to see. It's lofts were cheap, large and illegal. It's intimacy facilitated experimentation, discussion, consensus. Artists lived and worked alongside galleries. It was as easily accessed by the public as by buyers. This closeness and easiness attracted hundreds of galleries, low rents encouraged their growth. The Art World changed with SoHo's fame.

Fame that became it's undoing. The exclusivity of the scene, the aesthetic leading-edge, the hype and hip-factor, all became diluted by gradual mainstream infiltration, followed by all-out retail invasion. The edge became less cutting, the rents began to climb, international art-buyers morphed into international window-shoppers. Development in the form of multi-million dollar loft conversion of one-time major gallery buildings accelerated. SoHo grew up.

Beyond SoHo, galleries were popping up all over town below 34th Street between 1970 and 1990.

While there may have been social and cultural factors behind the gallery diaspora that started in the 1980s, rapidly rising rents coupled with a sudden though brief crash in art prices scattered the herd, a crash caused mainly by reckless speculation and unvetted marketing (similar to the bubble of 2006-2008). After the 1979 Real Estate Show when ABC No Rio and Colab artists occupied abandoned buildings in the East Village, some SoHo galleries moved there.

In July of 1981, Patti Astor and Bill Stelling opened a gallery in his studio, Kenny Scharf gave it a name: FUN. By 1984 there were 7, by the next year, 25. By 1985 there were almost 70. Galleries like New Math, Nature Morte, Civilian Warfare, Postmasters and P.P.O.W. re-established the turf abandoned by the 10th-Street Galleries two decades earlier. The East Village scene was powered in the beginning by rents around $175 per month, battalions of newly graduated B.F.A.s, and the willingness to take large risks on unknown artists. Several new galleries were opening every month between 1983 and 1985. Sadly, in fewer than six years, almost all of the 77 East Village galleries were gone, closed by short-term leases, rents that increased by six times in as many months, fickle buyers, loss to AIDS or, more to the EV point, by the cool but ultimately unsustainable business model of "gallery-as-performance-art". The small galleries with young outsider-chic succumbed to their own success. The survivors dispersed to the office buildings along Broadway, or to Brooklyn, a few to the L.E.S. in the early 1980s, or to nascent West Chelsea in the 1990s, in search of bigger space at better prices.

Christopher Pusey and Luis Accorsi opened "Dorian Grey Gallery" at 437 East 9th in November 2010, a sublet from Giant Robot, germinating a possible resurrection.

"I din't think I was opening a gallery. I thought I was making a statement about art - a performance in the form of a gallery."

                                                         - Gracie Mansion, New York Magazine, June 22, 1987.

Gallery Districts during this energetic period were SoHo, NoHo, Greenwich Village, TriBeCa, The East Village, The Upper East Side, The 57th Street Corridor, and a large section of Central Chelsea (Midtown South).

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1990-2010: Dispersion and Marginalization.

NOTE: the map pins denote new or relocated galleries, not necessarily total galleries.

Though factors other than high rents influenced the dispersion of galleries in the 1980s and especially the 1990s, - the need for newness, security, comfort, ever-more hipness, a more exclusive "scene" - once FCUK opened on West Broadway in 1984, high-end international retail-brands began to push against the SoHo Art World. Seeking to elevate their brands by association, these companies were better equipped to pay higher rents. So, the CRE market rose.

This was a new variation on the familiar theme of commerce following art. The highly mediated advertising culture of the late 20th-century made more cash available to general retail than could be matched by individual galleries (though the Art Industry as a whole generates more annual revenue than televison, radio and movies combined). Galleries are dependent on the price of a single commodity. A drop in demand for that commodity, concurrent with a rise in rents, can tip the balance against their ability to compete with non-art uses, where prices for multiple commodities have remained more stable. The conditions were ripe for displacement.

The Recession of 1987, the DotCom Bust and Post-911 Recessions and the subsequent crash in art prices all contributed to the urgency among galleries to find lower rents. SoHo's epicenter shifted east, from ground floor West Broadway to upper floor Broadway, or to cheaper ground space south of Broome Street. The East Village seemed to vanish overnight. Some galleries migrated to the streets of Williamsburg, Greenpoint and of industrial Long Island City (home of PS 1 MoMA), and to the wholly invented area of D.U.M.B.O. Some went to West Chelsea.

The Lower East Side began to fill, with Piezo Electric in 1979 on Clinton Street, ABC No Rio and Fusion Arts in the early 1980s. In 2001, Cuchifritos, Participant, CANADA, Reena Spaulings and DCKT Contemporary opened, starting a slow trickle that turned to a steady flow by 2008. The Upper East Side and 57th Street, always more stable, held their own.

A period of dispersion and the marginalization of gallery districts had begun, as compared with the prior 150 years, when galleries were well-integrated into the central transportation networks and commercial districts, easily-accessed by buyers and the public.

West Chelsea was the most celebrated of these new areas. Starting in 1987, DIA moved to far West 22nd, The Kitchen to West 19th, and Gagosian opened on West 23rd and 24th. The rush picked up in 1994, after Matthew Marks, Pat Hearns, Morris Healy, Annina Nosei, Jessica Fredericks, Linda Kirkland, Greene Nafatali, Gladstone and Metro Pictures moved in, when the Kalimian Brothers and the Lerner Group converted a large warehouse building on West 20th to gallery use, and after 303 Gallery jumped in 1996. By 2000, the "critical mass" needed to create mass movement was reached: galleries large and small began to pack the inexpensive warehouses and garages of West Chelsea to capacity, so that by 2007, there was almost no inventory available to lease.

But back in 1995, with a glut of large, cheap space that could accommodate hundreds of galleries in a dark and seedy 9-block corridor, Chelsea was "Blade Runner On The Hudson", quipped wags back in the day. The vibe was perfect and the prices, quality and quantity of space available for so many, mostly smaller galleries, were unprecedented. The opportunities to exhibit more early-to-mid-career emerging artists, right next to large international galleries with their major buyers and strong press coverage, were a boon for the undiscovered. (This "dark side" didn't agree with everyone: as early as 1997, one major gallery owner was already driving around the Meatpacking District looking for the next "West Chelsea").

Virtually unfettered growth continued right up until the Post-Lehman Recession, when West Chelsea experienced it's first declines in the number of galleries starting in 2009: from the 2008 peak of 361, to about 340 in 2009, to around 290 in 2010, to just over 250 at the start of 2011.

These declines can be attributed both to economic downturn and to the widespread high-end development that has polished Chelsea's rough edge. Chelsea grew up.

The Lower East Side has seen a doubling of galleries, to 71 at the start of 2011 from 34 in 2010-2009, after a drop from 41 in 2008. Brooklyn and D.U.M.B.O. have grown; all three areas have picked up recent exiles from Chelsea. Still, other districts in addition to Chelsea have experienced net-losses in numbers of galleries over 2009 as well.

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2011: What's Next?

Of the nearly 3,000 galleries that ever existed in New York, about 793 are operating today (slightly more than existed in 1975), in eight principle areas.

In the morphology of New York's Gallery Districts, a few points stand out:
•  from 1842 until 1980, the majority of galleries have operated for many decades, most spanning beyond the lifetimes of their owners, quite a few for well over fifty years, three for more than a century. Over the past 30 years, small galleries representing about a quarter of the total have survived fewer than five, while about half have made the twenty year mark before closing;
•  unlike Europe, which for 200 years prior was known for it's "Bohemian Quarters" where artists worked close to their patron salons and sponsors near the city centers, New York had no analogous model until the middle of the 1960s;
•  while the City was developing and expanding, art galleries elevated newly built areas. After the 1920s, when the City shifted into cycles of redevelopment, art galleries revitalized neglected ones;
•  the presence of galleries encourages commercial development, development then displaces the art galleries, and, as Ellsworth Kelly said, "Art always moves on."

What does the future hold? As continued high-end residential development, rising commercial rents and rezoning plans squeeze West Chelsea (and Williamsburg), and the same problems that plagued the East Village in the 1980s wait to ambush the "new" Lower East Side (though there are important differences), where would galleries in search of "larger and cheaper" go from here? Where is the next "better location"?

The VIP ART FAIR (January 22-30 2011, the first online art fair, founded by James and Jane Cohan and Jonas and Alessandra Almgren), along with the Spring 2011 launch of Art.sy (the online Art Genome Project), the decade-old Artnet online gallery directory, and a multitude of small "artist-member websites" (digital co-ops) suggest that a "larger, cheaper and better location" may be on the internet.

Digital space projects like these haven't replaced the physical gallery, yet. But they could prove to be valuable new distribution channels that augment gallery profits, enhancing their ability to compete against general retail, ensuring their long-term durability within cohesive communities. Still, the buzz is: if the only things art dealers need are an online digital inventory and a private place to show buyers the real work, are physical galleries even necessary?

Ironically, this is not a new idea in the evolution of New York galleries. Still, we believe they are necessary. Today, there are cheaper rents for large space available in vacated gallery districts of the past. Looking forward, it may be worthwhile to glance back from time to time.

An analysis of current CRE rents, trends, art prices and gallery revenue will be posted in Spring 2011. For a complete picture of these districts as they exist today, please see About NY Gallery Districts.

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