This essay should have been written several years ago. We should have seen it coming. But when a paradigm shifts, it's the people closest to the system who find it hardest to recognize the paradigm shift happening right under their noses.
Chelsea art galleries are going to be extinct soon, at least the mid-tier galleries.
When the venerated Betty Cunningham Gallery closed its space at a premier address on 25th Street, shock waves went through the Chelsea air. This was the staple of gallery tours, exhibiting the likes of Philip Pearlstein, Rackstraw Downes and Bill Traylor. Of course, the Sonnabend Gallery across the street shut its doors about a year ago, fighting off the estate tax (estimated at $471 million) which hit the family after the famed Romanian-born gallerist Ileana Sonnabend passed away in 2007. That store front sat empty, waiting for the next generation of gallerists to come to snap it up.
But no one came to take on the $50,000 a month lease.
Store front galleries in Chelsea now sit empty. With a new subway station occupying the store spaces next to the Tesla showroom. Gagosian, Pace and Paula Cooper will survive, selling pieces by Picasso and hot contemporary artists, but it is a near impossibility for a mid-tier gallery to keep a store front location.
When I was on the National Council on the Arts (2001–2009), we noticed a curious trend. Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, who was on the council with me, started to review theatre outside of New York City—the first major New York critic ever to do so. We noticed that grant proposals submitted by groups by “regional” cities were gaining strength in quality and quantity. We were delighted to see precious funds distributed to local entities; it made the National Endowment for the Arts a more effective agency for all Americans, and not just for a few selected cities. Eventually, I found myself counseling young artists not to move to New York City, but to create a community in another “regional” city, such as Philadelphia or Baltimore where the rents are still manageable, and the creation of a gift economy (a confluence of creative, social and material capitals) can be realized..
When our then chair, poet Dana Gioia, released the "Reading at Risk" studies, the steep decline in the reading involvement of Americans was evident, as were the resultant decline in book sales that may herald the demise of the publishing industry. What is happening now in the visual arts world of Chelsea happened in the publishing industry much earlier: unless you are J. K. Rowling (who seemed to singlehandedly reverse the reading involvement trend among teens) or Donna Tart (of The Goldfinch fame), a publisher is not going to be interested in your writing. Good, even excellent, writers with mid-tier sales will be ignored. On the other hand, grassroots, entry-level publishing will flourish (at least for a while) with internet distribution, and, of course, in our new cultural territory called Amazonia.
The galleries in the East Village and BedStuy will provide alternative venues for visual arts. The rents are low, and quality considerations can be given higher priority. A young gallerist I know recently gave an exhibit to a photographer in his 60s—the artist's first exhibit in New York City. Such a generous gesture can still happen there.
So the days of free art—cutting edge contemporary art available to all— Thursday evening openings that turned into free-for-all block parties with students and wealthy patrons lined up to see art—are over.
After Hurricane Sandy devastated many of the ground floor galleries, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote a lament about what she witnessed of the post-Sandy Chelsea. You can read the piece online; here is an excerpt:
I had left Chelsea, as I often do, feeling a little high at the sight of different kinds of art made at different points in artists’ lives: starting out, continuing, approaching the end. Whatever you think of the actual art on any given day in Chelsea, regulars to the neighborhood are privy to a lot of human endeavor on the part of artists and art dealers. It is a gift.
That point was brought home with special intensity when I returned on Wednesday and then again on Thursday, witnessing devastation everywhere, and also the purposeful reaction to it. On Wednesday, to the thunderous clatter of water pumps and generators, ashen-faced, sometimes teary-eyed art dealers, along with their staff members and often their artists, were pulling sodden furniture, computers and irreplaceable archival documentation and artworks from their dark, water-blasted galleries.
Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice also wrote of the marked changes underway in neighborhoods once home to many galleries:
The clustering of hundreds of galleries in several neighborhoods has meant that a huge swath of the art world is continually being presented at our doorstep. That is changing, and changing fast. These days, the art world is large and spread out, happening everywhere at once. A shrinking fraction of galleries’ business is done when collectors come to a show. Selling happens year-round, at art fairs, auctions, biennials, and big exhibitions, as well as online via JPEG files and even via collector apps. Gallery shows are now just another cog in the global wheel. Many dealers admit that some of their collectors never set foot in their actual physical spaces.
The beloved linchpin of my viewing life is playing a diminished role in the life of art. And I fear that my knowledge of art—and along with it the self-knowledge that comes from looking at art—is shrinking.
Several years ago, it became clear to the owners of most galleries that their clients were no longer coming to see the art work, but wanted the galleries to come to them. Art fairs became the main path to sell art. It was a mad rush to sign up to a slew of art fairs that popped up everywhere. Gallerists became the Willy Lomans of the art world, traveling afar to beg for attention. And artists, too, increasingly create work that will shout and receive attention in the crowded, cramped quarters of multitudes of art fairs.
I do not know of too many artists who like art fairs. For an artist who seeks contemplative experience, like myself, it was a death knell. There are a few exceptions— recent exhibit at The Armory was a pleasant experience for me, as being in the same room with 17th century Japanese art or a Byzantine crucifix was a delightful thing — but for the most part we are uneasy with a market that is driven to be an entertainment, rather than an opportunity to seeing art for its worth. Events like Grand Rapids' ArtPrize have become an entrepreneurial phenomenon, good for the local economy, but not exactly a nurturing environment for artists.
And then people stopped coming to see art fairs, too. Clients instead sent emails to the gallerists, and gallerists sell over the internet, before the art fair opens. Art fairs became a fraternity (or a sorority) of gallerists travel to spend time with each other, an an expensive trip to check their emails. Or it became a fashion show/party scene, with celebrities leading the way. Very few people came to explore art that they have not seen, or to stop to behold an art work. Artists have to create multiples of the same popular work to survive; they do not have a place for experimentation, or the important, perhaps essential, experience of a creating a work that may not sell.
In the "Reading at Risk" study, we could have predicted this trend (see my previous Refractions here). Associated with the decline in reading is a declining interest in activities like hiking, or going to baseball games; in essence, our habit of contemplation, of developing an interior life, has diminished, and that leads to disengagement from the world. Civic engagement, the study shows, is connected with reading habits. To see an artwork requires an extra dose of our desire to move outside of the self. What is alarming about what is happening is not just that artists are becoming extinct, but also that people are losing their ability to contemplate, to love deeply, to move toward beauty.
I am fortunate: I have an established career, and can focus on my Asian market through a new representation at Artrue International, as well as continue to work with the good people at Dillon Gallery (also on 25th, for now) in New York City. I can be entrepreneurial, and create a support system surrounding my art. I've always believed that every challenge is an opportunity to create a new wineskin. But when an ecosystem is decimated, it's harder to find ways to encourage the next generation.
I have been able to focus on developing my "inner eye" in my farmhouse, and to write as well as to paint. My new book, Culture Care, will outline some strategies for the next horizon, and perhaps new opportunities for culture. (The book release is at the next "Art, Love and Beauty" gathering on 12/11th at 7 pm at IAM, 38 West 39th St., 3rd Floor, NYC). IAM will be a place to attempt to create a microcosm that makes art sustainable and generative.
To me, to paint is to practice the "Presence of God" in the process of creating. Whether I have a market for my work is secondary to the practice of the "art of seeing" that is fundamental to my being. I urge you to do the same: whether your "art" be painting, writing, theatre, dance, music—or being a first responder, or a nurse, or an engineer—develop your "inner eye" and create with faith.