Why Mid-Tier Galleries Leave New York

by Hannah Cole on July 10, 2017 · 4 comments You Got This

Monya Rowe

Monya Rowe in St. Augustine Florida

As an artist who moved out of New York City, I’m not alone in finding new energy, inspiration and freedom. My move was from Brooklyn to Asheville, North Carolina. But when I noticed multiple long-established New York galleries also making such moves, it surprised me. Don’t galleries have to stay close to collectors?

According to four dealers I spoke to who had moved out of the city, the cost of operating a gallery in New York City was a major factor for everyone, though lifestyle was also a factor. Says Monya Rowe, of Monya Rowe Gallery “Sadly, NYC is killing itself with all the rent hikes.” Rowe ran a gallery in Williamsburg, Chelsea and the Lower East Side for 12 years before she relocated to St. Augustine Florida in 2015.

If there’s a meta-message here, it’s that the cost of rent for galleries and artists alike is at a crisis level. According to Kristen Dodge, who ran Dodge Gallery in the Lower East Side from 2010 to 2014, and now runs September, in Hudson, New York, this trend may be shifting the kinds of work that can be made in New York, “I don’t know how anyone affords to live in the city. I’m seeing a lot of artists struggling to have studio space – those who are staying in the city are prioritizing networking over art. With the economics of art, and the city where you need to be to network, I’m curious whether art is getting more digital, less materially-based.”

You might expect a New York-griping to follow. But not one gallerist moved because of a dislike of New York. Mostly, they commented on the economic trends of the art world.

Dodge said, “I have no interest in bashing the city [or the people choosing to keep their galleries there] – I respect the people who are making it work. But there is this trend, that as soon as a small gallery becomes successful, they get a bigger space, hire an architect, in order to satisfy the artists whose careers they’ve helped build. I tell you, though, those artists leave anyway. And clients? I don’t know if it changes their collector base. But I’ve seen it [these expansions] at least three times in the last few years, these galleries close.  It sucks.”

Jimi Dams, who has run Envoy Enterprises in the Lower East Side since 2005, is one gallerist who has chosen to close his gallery instead of moving. His feelings on the economic trends in the art world are more dire. “I was director of Feature in ‘97, and we barely broke even. But that wasn’t the goal. Hudson [the deceased owner] wanted to show what he wanted to show, and if it didn’t sell, so be it. It was supposed to do what art should do – broaden people’s perspectives. The others now are showing what everyone else is showing in every museum in the whole world – you go to Paris, Ai Wei Wei, you go to London, Ai Wei Wei. There’s no interest in looking at something else. During the art crash of the 90s, people went and bought a bunch of art for really cheap.” And this, says Dams, was great support for the artists in a hard time, but also great for the collectors – because those artworks appreciated in value and accrued prestige to those collections.

“But in 2008, the collectors all went for the highest – the things that are supposedly ‘certain.’ They are doing what brokers say not to do — buying things at their highest value. They’re not interested in buying things at $300. Now, they just want what everyone else wants, only bigger. It’s the ugliest side of capitalism. It destroys everything creative on every level.”

Tracy Morgan Gallery, An Hoang: Forest for Trees May 5 - July 2, 2017

Tracy Morgan Gallery, An Hoang: Forest for Trees

Tracey Morgan—who worked for Yancey Richardson Gallery, and as an independent art advisor and is now opening a gallery in Asheville—made her move in part to fulfill a dream of opening a traditional brick and mortar space. “I would never even have attempted to open a gallery in NYC. We wouldn’t have had the security, without putting our entire financial future at risk. I’m having to figure out new ways to get an audience. Maybe this is what other galleries in New York are doing. The gallery model isn’t working anymore. Others are doing other stuff – Sasha Wolfe, Andrea Rosen. They’re doing pop ups and art fairs. They still promote their artists, but using a different model. But here I am, with a standard gallery model.”

“I think galleries are adapting to the obstacles that real estate presents,” says Monya Rowe. “I don’t think galleries care as much about being on the ground floor anymore, or having huge spaces, and I don’t think artists are as concerned with this anymore either. People—both dealers and artists—want to collaborate with someone whom they can trust, who puts on good shows and has a good following.”

Clearly, having a good following is key to the success of these galleries. Most of them feel that keeping, growing and expanding their audience is their primary challenge.

For Jeff Bailey, who ran a gallery in Chelsea for 11 years and is now located in Hudson, and Kristen Dodge, the proximity of Hudson to New York City means they can maintain most of their existing ties. And for Monya Rowe and Tracey Morgan, their New York ties are still important.

“I don’t think I would have opened the gallery in Hudson if I hadn’t had the gallery in New York City,” says Jeff Bailey. “Foot traffic alone here is not enough. Building up the audience, expanding on that audience—that is really important.”

All of the dealers moved in part for their own lifestyle, and all chose places with an existing creative community. Says Bailey, “One thing about Hudson, the restaurants make it an interesting place, there’s a music scene here, a lifestyle choice. There’s a creative economy creating opportunities. People come to a place, do the work they do, then more people like them come, allowing galleries with a big city bent to come and have an audience.”

Asheville has an outsized cultural influence for its size – with a music scene, a craft brewery scene, a culinary scene and a longstanding Appalachian maker/DIY/craft culture, which attracted the cutting-edge Black Mountain College in the early 20th century.

And St. Augustine has always been seen as an artsy place in Florida. Says Rowe, “ St. Augustine really embraces its’ “oldest town in the U.S.” charm and many people pass through on vacation or have second homes here. There are a lot of New Yorkers that come into town too.”

Being in a smaller city means, in part, speaking to the location itself – whether by showing local artists, or engaging in local causes. Says Kristen Dodge, “It’s much more community-oriented. Right now I’m co-organizing a Planned Parenthood benefit show with Dawn Breeze of Instar Lodge, and I had a post-election show to benefit Planned Parenthood and the Stanley Keith Social Justice Center. I’m also doing yoga classes.”

This emphasis on sense of place was, ironically, something that gallerist Photios Giovanis hoped to move away from. Giovanis – whose Callicoon Gallery is named for the town in upstate New York where it began in 2009 – chose to move his gallery into New York City in order to step out of a dialog about place. “Ultimately, I couldn’t be part of the whole dynamic conversation happening in New York City. I wanted to be more directly linked to the international world of art, which I ended up participating in. In New York, you’re not expected to talk about the locality. I mean, you can. It’s definitely a place. But there’s a way where major art centers get away with it not having to be about the location.”

For all of the gallerists who relocated, the move is fostering new thinking, new opportunities, new flexibility and the ability to take more risks. “A new location has made me be more open with my gallery choices. Change usually facilitates new thinking, for better or worse,” says Monya Rowe.

Says Bailey, “I think it’s exciting for artists, dealers, art enthusiasts, these days because there can be a really interesting gallery in a different town. There is real community up here. Everything doesn’t happen in NYC, even though it’s where a lot happens.”
Bio: Hannah Cole is an artist and Enrolled Agent. She is the founder of Sunlight Tax.

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