As far as a local art nexus goes, we've got Chelsea, then we've got everywhere else. In other cities everybody goes everywhere to see art. Not here. Unlike our art-going counterparts in London, Los Angeles and Berlin, New Yorkers have a herd instinct: we don't go far off the beaten path for our local art experiences. We go in droves to Venice, Basel or even Santa Fe, but when it comes to Brooklyn, Tribeca or the Lower East Side, it's a different story. As Christian Haye, owner of the Project on West 126th Street, ruefully put it, "I see more New Yorkers in Berlin than in my gallery in Harlem."
Repetitive architecture, slickness and commercialization aside, I like Chelsea. There's room to move, be alone, see people, avoid them, hear yourself think and get a lot seen; the traffic is light, the parking is good. And let's not forget, the first gallerists who moved there did so to escape the glutted streets and inflated rents of Soho. The problem with Chelsea is that only the well-off can afford to settle there now (although interesting shoestring spaces have been carved out of buildings in the teens and 20s). Additionally, in the next few years the dealers who are renting will have to renegotiate their leases. Bad karma or bad luck, many of these galleries won't be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood they helped popularize. (Allegedly, one of the area's edgier galleries, was forced out of its space by escalating rents and has moved to Los Angeles.) New York real estate has always been brutal, only now -- and this is a key factor in any metropolis' ability to sustain an art scene -- this city is getting harder and harder to be poor in.
Chelsea was settled fast. Some say too fast. Think about the 20-plus years it took Soho to become saturated; now think about Chelsea. Dealer Gavin Brown asserts, "Things got reduced to a stale state of affairs pretty quickly. It's preserved in amber. I hate it." Haye is just as adamant: "Chelsea is like Soho on crack -- little more than a ghost of an idea of an art neighborhood." The words are strong, but both dealers express a widely held sentiment. Nearly seven years and who knows how many galleries into this quarter's incarnation as an art district, few who go to Chelsea actually profess to like it. People call it an art mall and say it's a neighborhood apart. They complain it's overly professional and architecturally unimaginative (perhaps there should be a moratorium on Richard Gluckman-designed or Gluckman-esque chaste, minimalist spaces). Even gallery owners confide they find the place "gloomy." English artist and art critic Matthew Higgs wrote that the sector is headed for "inevitable collapse."
Rumors of Chelsea's demise are premature. The gold rush to the area has turned almost all blue-chip (except for maverick Anton Kern's relocation this week to a ground-floor space on West 20th Street). This fall the venerable Sperone is moving into 15,000 square feet in the Meatpacking District; Pace is good to go on 25th Street; and Galerie Lelong is leaving 57th Street for shiny new digs on 26th Street. Trendy shops and restaurants are sure to follow. Still, dispersion is in the air. Here and there, a number of dealers -- and institutions -- are looking for other locales. Interestingly, several of them are about to try something, if not bold, then at least intriguing -- something that could break the psychological logjam we find ourselves in.
A scattering is already under way. First there's MoMA's Queens branch next season. The New Museum is thinking about relocating in the East Village, a prominent dealer and several gallerists are close to buying a building in Hell's Kitchen and the former director of Luhring-Augustine, Michele Maccarone, is about to settle into 2,000 square feet on the outskirts of Chinatown. But there's more. If that avatar of the new and often glitzy, Jeffrey Deitch, does what he says he's going to do this September, and he's been talking about it for a year, a branch of Deitch Projects -- our own mini Barnum and Bailey meets Peggy Guggenheim -- will open in a rented 4,000-square-foot ground floor on North 11th Street in the heart of Williamsburg, not far from several of this neighborhood's, and some of New York's, coolest galleries. Depending on what lens you look at it through, this move is either good news, folly or business as usual.
Williamsburg already boasts more than 30 galleries, many of them good and getting better, including Roebling Hall, Pierogi and Momenta. Legions of artists live there, the architecture is diverse, commercial space comparatively affordable. Several years ago a Manhattanite of a certain age, like me, wouldn't recognize anyone on the street -- only a sea of young faces. Now, when I get out of the subway, I see people I know. The arrival of Deitch doesn't put the area on the map or say Brooklyn is the next big thing. It alters the map, and curtails the somewhat insular, college-campus feel of the place. It opens a space in the imagination and suggests that New York is more porous than we think. On the downside, Deitch Projects' move represents another step in Williamsburg's gentrification, which has already seen artists displaced.
Nevertheless, the local artists and dealers I spoke to are pleased. The coming of Deitch is like the arrival of a rhinoceros: he's big, there's not much you can do about it, but he could attract a lot of would-be dealer-birds who don't have enough money to open spaces elsewhere, as well as more collector-birds that could keep the place viable.
Deitch Projects in Williamsburg may be an infection or the beginning of a mutually beneficial parasitical relationship. Either way it seems clear that Chelsea as the only center is not holding. Sooner or later, other dealers will open in other neighborhoods -- alone or in groups. When they do, it won't be about being pioneers, it will be about the art. I love the art neighborhoods we have -- but there are also such things as neighborhoods of one. If you show good art, people will come. If they don't come, it's their loss. I say bring it on. Who knows, someday when people say they live five stops out on the L train, they might mean they live on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.