Why Tribeca is NY’s Hottest New Art Gallery District

On an early evening this spring, as the city stuttered back to life, a mix of dealers, artists and adjacent types streamed into Cortlandt Alley and up to a new rooftop bar for a party marking the return of Frieze Art Fair’s New York edition. Though the fair was 30-something blocks away in Midtown, there was a sense that it was happening here, in TriBeCa, in deference to the neighborhood’s compounding centripetal force. Lately, a flush of art galleries, both new enterprises and transplants from elsewhere around the city, have moved in — at first in a trickle and then all at once — and now each announcement of an opening in the neighborhood feels less like speculation than like Manifest Destiny. As with most stories in New York, this shift of the art world’s center of gravity, which for decades has been firmly nestled in far west Chelsea, is mostly about real estate.

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In March, Alexander Shulan relocated Lomex, the gallery he opened in 2015 in a top-floor apartment on the Lower East Side, to a floor-through space on Walker Street. When he started the gallery, Shulan’s idea was not just to make space for his friends, recently out of art school, but to respond to the changing shape of the city, which was fully in its luxury commodity period, its rougher edges being smoothed into glassy condos and fast-casual salad stores. In a turn of sardonic reclamation, he named it after the Lower Manhattan Expressway, Robert Moses’s defeated plan to cleave a highway between TriBeCa and SoHo, which would have decimated much of downtown.

In many ways, Shulan was working in the continuum of the downtown art scene, which, since the 1950s, when artists began occupying abandoned industrial lofts there, has existed in the collective imagination as a redoubt of experimentation and permissiveness. (In Lomex’s case, this impression was at least as literal as conceptual; the gallery’s former location on the Lower East Side is where the artist Eva Hesse, known for her adventurous sculptures, kept her studio in the 1960s.) Now he was joining a growing gallery district encouraged by the Covid-19-era exodus of the neighborhood’s ultrawealthy that has once again opened up breathing room and returned rents to if not exactly 1960s levels, at least ones within the realm of human understanding.

His was not exactly a pioneering spirit. For the past couple of years, established dealers like Andrew Kreps and James Cohan, seizing upon the neighborhood’s glut of cast-iron storefronts and dwindling retail viability, have been moving their operations to TriBeCa. But the pandemic has accelerated these movements, allowing midtier and small independent galleries that would otherwise have found the neighborhood’s rents prohibitive to open up shop there, too, making TriBeCa — in the very recent past a Gold Coast of million-dollar condo development and not much else — flush with a new sort of creative capital, as if the neighborhood had gentrified itself to the point of quiet correction.

“I didn’t look anywhere else,” said Jordan Barse, who in April opened Theta, a whitewashed space in the basement of a Franklin Street co-op, which you enter, as if it were a secret, through a sidewalk cellar. Until recently, Barse was a co-director of the artist-run gallery Kimberly-Klark in Ridgewood, Queens, which, though well regarded, was located on the fringes of the city’s art scene, the only place it could afford to exist.

Earlier this year, a friend alerted her to an advertisement displayed in the co-op’s ground-floor window, painted on canvas by the artist and writer Jill Hoffman, who also serves as Theta’s landlord and has lived in the building since the 1980s — as close to kismet for someone searching for gallery space in New York as it gets. “I had idealized it, but I didn’t even think it would be possible,” Barse said of TriBeCa. “My mother’s cousin is a banker, and lives up the street in the same building as Mariah Carey.” But, she added, her new gallery “is hardly more expensive than my Ridgewood space. My landlord is so happy this is a gallery, that’s been her dream.”

Part of the appeal, Barse said, was joining the neighborhood’s continuum, rather than contributing to its gentrification. Since the late ’80s, the space has been used for creative purposes, including, for a time, as a work space for Hoffman’s journal, Mudfish. “It was great to feel like nobody’s toes were stepped on by my being here.”

“TriBeCa” sounds like a real estate term, but it came from residents of an artist’s cooperative, who occupied live-work spaces on Lispenard Street, and devised the name to file a 1973 zoning dispute. That ethos — insistent, practical — colors much of the neighborhood’s art historical past, and its capacity to incubate creativity. Much of TriBeCa, with its rows of 19th-century merchant buildings with palazzo-style facades that were once referred to, semi-ironically, as “commercial palaces,” can feel out of time. In the ’60s and ’70s, TriBeCa was mostly wholesalers who emptied out at quitting time, leaving its cobbled streets a barren no man’s land at night. That suited artists fine. It was likely the only neighborhood in New York where James Nares could have strung a copper wrecking ball from a footbridge and filmed it slicing through the air, as he did, unbothered, on Staple Street in 1976, or where Gordon Matta-Clark could have been filmed shaving while standing on the face of the clock dial at the top of the old New York Life Insurance building on Broadway. Equally unlikely is the thought of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “Dream House” — a conceptual sound and light environment that transforms the otherwise private spaces of New York urban life into a transcendental shared experience, and that since 1966 has existed in various forms around the neighborhood, including in a mercantile warehouse on Harrison Street and the couple’s own Church Street loft — being situated anywhere else in Manhattan. Around the same time these artistic experiments were taking off, locals like Richard Serra and John Chamberlain were frequenting the Towers Cafeteria on West Broadway and Thomas Street, where artists would routinely exchange paintings for breakfast.

In New York, dramatic changes in neighborhoods are often precipitated by tragedy, or restaurants. By 1980, when the Odeon took over the Towers space — its “cafeteria” signage remains today — and became, along with the Mudd Club on Cortlandt Alley, an art world watering hole (Serra was, maybe more than once, banned from the Odeon for being belligerent), the neighborhood was well on its way to trendiness, the death knell for affordable rents. Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill followed in 1990, lending the neighborhood celebrity shine. The last seismic shift in TriBeCa was 9/11, and then its wake, when De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival encouraged the area’s redevelopment, and its change into a wealthy enclave mostly untouchable to striving artists. (There’s perhaps no better illustration of this irony than in 2007, when a Keith Haring painting was unearthed in the American Thread Building, the former site of the School of Visual Arts gallery, as it was being converted into luxury condos.)

TriBeCa’s location is paradoxical, remote enough to have spared it from the luxury retail creep that overwhelmed SoHo, but more accessible than west Chelsea. And that, along with its stock of capacious warehouses with the clearance for big art and floors sturdy enough to support it, made the neighborhood attractive again to galleries. (There were earlier defectors like Postmasters, which has been mounting some of the most challenging and reliably weird shows from the eastern limit of Franklin Street since 2013.) Cohan and Kreps, redoubts of Chelsea for decades, alighted on Walker Street and Cortlandt Alley in 2019, joining the galleries Bortolami and Kaufmann Repetto. PPOW, which had set up in Chelsea in 2002, moved around the corner on Broadway in January. “Chelsea just got to be too corporate,” Wendy Olsoff, the gallery’s co-founder, told ArtNews. In October, Pascal Spengemann, a former vice president at Marlborough Gallery, opened Broadway gallery across the street. David Zwirner, one of the highest profile dealers of blue-chip art, has plans to open up a beachhead on Walker Street.

It’s not just Chelsea drain, though. In addition to Lomex, galleries like Denny Dimin and Canada, which had helped define the Lower East Side’s scrappy scene for years, have also moved west. Nicelle Beauchene, who ran her namesake gallery on Broome Street for eight years, signed a lease on her new Franklin Alley space in May, something she said simply wasn’t feasible before. “I had been looking for about a year and a half before the pandemic, and it afforded kind of a perfect moment to move,” she said. “There was not a single person competing with me for this space.” She’s paying more in rent, but has more space to show for it. Her landlord agreed to divide the space, which previously extended through to Broadway. (Spengemann took the other side, and the two share the basement.) In November of last year, Grimm left the Bowery and, in March, opened at 54 White Street in a space that had been vacated by the Archive of Contemporary Music, whose 20-year tenure there came to an end in early 2020 after its landlord raised its rent, reportedly to more than $20,000 a month. A year into the pandemic, Grimm managed to secure a more preferential arrangement. “The opportunity presented itself, mid-Covid, to lock in a good rent,” said Grimm’s New York director, Polina Berlin, calling it “a moment of opportunity in a stressful time.”

Berlin, who joined Grimm in October after working for a number of years at Chelsea galleries, said the atmosphere downtown is noticeably different, meaning more pleasant. Much of that comes from the fact that TriBeCa is a neighborhood where people live, as opposed to west Chelsea, which was effectively purpose-built by galleries, and which in recent years, with the High Line funneling rubberneckers through a sterile canyon of glass starchitecture, has come to feel cold and dispossessed, a polished concrete sales floor stretching out forever. TriBeCa’s elegant cast-iron and Corinthian-columned storefronts, by contrast, feel more humane, conjuring the downtown scene of the ’70s. And because much of the area is landmarked, it promises to stay that way.

“It just feels very New York in a way that Chelsea never quite did, because it wasn’t a neighborhood,” Berlin said. “Our neighbors come in with their kids to see what we’re installing.” Beauchene put it more succinctly: “Chelsea feels like bland land.”

That sense of community spills over to the daily business of running a gallery, too. Where Chelsea’s galleries could give off a feeling of icy froideur, their walled-off exteriors more like battlements, TriBeCa has fostered a collegiality, even a generosity. “All the gallerists know each other, bring their collectors over,” Berlin said. “We have a shared email. There’s a concerted effort to work together, and that was never really happening in Chelsea. I feel like it’s still experimental and people are taking risks. And that’s exciting to me.”

Still, the unlikelihood of TriBeCa, consistently among the country’s most expensive ZIP codes, becoming the latest frontier of affordable commercial real estate can seem like a mirage — the scene may evoke SoHo in the ’70s, but it helps to squint. Already, some of the wealthier people who made TriBeCa inaccessible to begin with are starting to return, and other businesses are opening to welcome them back, reminders that the center never holds for long. Next door to Theta, a purveyor of roses set into hat boxes, the kind popular among social media influencers, has set up a pushcart stall. They are going for upward of $400.

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