Chelsea Art Galleries: A District in Flux - Aesthetics Week


By Emma Nolan

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes

There are practically as many art galleries in the Chelsea district of New York City — between 10th and 11th avenues and run from 18th to 29th street on the west side of Manhattan – as there are delis and food outlets. The concentration of so many in one area is the result of a movement from Soho in the ‘90s due to soaring rent prices as the area became more commercially popular for luxury and high end retailers, a recurring fate for many New Yorkers.

As artists seek new areas to work and live, they bring with them a desirable ambience, creating an area which brings in both tourists and big businesses to facilitate the area’s new tourism industry. The recurring cycle unfortunately leads to the original founders of the scene being forced to find a new area in which to live and work.

Chelsea is in the middle of such a change currently. Andrew Edellin, a gallery owner located on 10th avenue explains the reason for these changes is simply; “Money rules the roost and the people who got the ball rolling initially are history.”

“It’s a model prevalent in a lot of cities, artistic communities move to down and out areas and make it a cool place to live and over twenty years or so, the rent becomes too high as the commercial scene grows,” says Edellin.

Edellin explains that the increasing rent prices are exactly why the gallery owners fled Soho initially. The galleries in Chelsea are beginning to experience this migration again, but this time to the Lower East Side and Tribeca. “Many of the smaller galleries are moving to there when their leases expire, it’s happening already.”

Not only were the prices in Chelsea perfect for artists and gallery owners in the ‘90s, the real estate and architecture are conducive to accommodating galleries. These large, industrial spaces with their high, lofty ceilings provided the perfect space for exhibitions and installations.

The Chelsea Highline is a perfect example of the industrial remnants being utilized for artistic purposes. Once perceived as an eyesore, it is now a major tourist attraction which has drawn much business and increased the rent prices in the area. The Highline itself acts as a metaphor for Chelsea’s metamorphosis from industrial centre to oasis of innovative creativity.

The galleries of Chelsea helped to transform the once grittier end of town into a mecca for artists and art lovers. There is a creative vibe which underpins the atmosphere on the streets which themselves are rooted in an iconic place in the New Yorker’s shared consciousness.

The famous Chelsea Hotel, synonymous with the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin is only a few blocks away from the gallery streets, and though a different form of art, the musical background contributes to the overflow of artistic expression which resonates from gallery to gallery. The former cultural hub revered for its hedonism and eccentricity permeates the district, overflowing with an abundance of spaces to display it.

“This is no revelation to New Yorkers.” Edellin continues; “Things have a run of thirty years or so.” He outlines a fact ubiquitous with the city. The rapid gentrification of the Brooklyn neighbourhoods is commensurate to the timeframe that certain scenes and artistic communities have here, with the rent in Williamsburg at an all-time high, the hipsters and artists there are on the move to Bushwick, the next area to be made cool.

The Postmasters Gallery previously of West 19th street and 10th avenue has been uprooted in this way more than once. It first opened in the East Village in 1984, then moved to Soho in in 1989 and then eventually to Chelsea with many others in 1998. It is currently in the process of relocating to a premise in Tribeca.

“I am very pleased with the new, exquisite space.” Magdalena Sawon, co-owner and director of the Postmasters says of her new gallery location.

Despite her positive attitude, her weariness on having to uproot again is evident. Having previously been quoted as saying she is “…unwilling to pay $30,000 a month”, Sawon and the Postmasters are adaptable.

She has expressed concern for the midsize art galleries though, anxious that “anything radical or experimental” will be dismissed as the big galleries focus on more commercially viable exhibitions.

Is the ever-changing lifestyle and demographic of New York City more of a thing to celebrate than mourn though? The endless cycle and constant renewal is a part of life here and nothing new. The galleries will still exist, they will just be shuffled around somewhat.

The fact that they are mostly free of charge to patrons indicates that their aim is to provide a space for the public to immerse themselves in art and meaning and a great way to spend an afternoon, actively engaging with culture and not just for commercial and financial purposes.

According to David Zwirner; “It’s the craziest freebie in the world.”

Although money is the force driving these smaller gallerists to cheaper areas, New York’s love of art and expression is what is keeping the scene from simply dying out. They are most importantly, remaining open and adjusting to their situation as they have done before.

As James Yohe of Ameringer McEnry Yohe on 22nd street put it, “We are here because we are believers.”