Chelsea has become the eye of a coming storm. Within the last several months, a seeming exodus has taken place, with galleries hoping for fairer climates in other, less pricey Manhattan districts. It started last year, with Postmasters leaving for Tribeca, then, earlier this year, shakeups were heard all along 27th Street. The latest long-standing gallery to make the leap out of Chelsea is the thirteen-year-old new media space, bitforms.
Steven Sacks, the gallery’s founding director, was in a hurry, yet cool when I spoke with him on the phone yesterday. “I’m actually at the new space,” he said, confidently, “meeting with the contractor right now.” That new storefront space should be a step up for the gallery, currently located away from street-level, on the second floor of 529 West 20th Street. At 131 Allen Street, Sacks will be taking over the former Feature Inc., which closed this June following the passing of its founder Hudson.
For Sacks, the move was rushed: The gallery’s lease is not up for another two years, and he made the decision to head out for the Lower East Side less than two months ago. “ I didn’t want to wait two years,” he told me, mentioning exponential rent increases currently seen in Chelsea. “The High Line was a trigger…there must’ve been a billion dollars increase in building that year [after it opened].”
Sacks is looking into the future, and will spend more for his new space than his old one, taking the risk: “Chelsea is more expensive, but the Lower East Side is not cheap.” As Paddy Johnson reported last winter, Lower East Side galleries are feeling the rent squeeze as much as anybody else—and the arrival of larger galleries could spell the beginning of the end for the emerging scene there. “It’s at a juncture where expansion [on the LES] is becoming less possible or maybe getting harder,” dealer James Fuentes had said then. “I think it’s a good conversation with real issues. After all, bigger galleries are bound to absorb artists who could be showing somewhere else.”
As for Brooklyn? Sacks noted that while collectors are more comfortable with the character of the Lower East Side, with its bustling nightlife and historic charm, they still “were not quite ready to be going out to Brooklyn. It’s still a distance and still a little rough.” (So far, no collector-related muggings have been reported at Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick space, but then again, they still don’t hold many exhibitions there.)
Secondary market dealer Bill Hodges, currently located on the Upper East Side, will sublet the remaining two years on the bitforms lease.
“Get out while you can” seems to be the motto of many dealers, and before Chelsea becomes too expensive for most dealers to keep running a space there. Betty Cunningham and Casey Kaplan were both interviewed earlier this month by Rozalia Jovanovic at artnet News; she originally broke the story of this new wave of departures. Casey Kaplan will not be moving too far, just north to the Flower District, while Betty Cunningham has already moved to the Lower East Side, just off of Rivington.
Kaplan told AFC reporter Andrew Wagner that his move is by no means “anti-Chelsea.” The gallery has been in Chelsea for nearly 10 years, and thought rent has increased, it might pay off to do something different. “The art world has changed,” Kaplan said, regarding his time on the west side.” Chelsea offers something that very few places offer in that theres 300 galleries here, theres so much art that one can see.”
But in the Flower District, Kaplan will be greeted with a seeming plethora of space: 5,000 square feet on street level and another 5,000 on the level below. “I wasn’t able to find spaces that I liked that had that much square footage on the street,” Kaplan added. “In Manhattan there’s only so much space; [Chelsea] is never going to happen again. You’re not going to find an area that can be colonized by 300 galleries.”
Dealer Betty Cunningham, who just swapped out her 25th Street space for the former Dodge Gallery in the Lower East Side, clearly admits the initial motive for relocating: “It was an economic reason.” Not just due to skyrocketing rents, but triple net leases that require tenants to pay the building’s taxes—much to the delight of her landlord, we imagine.
Now that she has made the transition to the Lower East Side, she’s more than happy about the transition. “It’s a really pretty space,” she said, casually. “The owner of the building was an architect; he basically designed the space and I was able to buy fixtures as opposed to do a lot of renovations.” Within 24 hours, she managed to move her previous show, of paintings by Phillip Pearlstein, and hang it in the new space.
But there’s no way of escaping thoughts turning to Chelsea of old: “I miss my friends that are over there. But, probably, if I stayed, some of the people that I worked with over there would have moved before me.”
Additional reporting contributed by Andrew Wagner.