Last week I had long face-to-face conversations with three Chelsea dealers, all of them A-list with, collectively, 90 years in the art business. Dealer X just added a project space, is a fitness buff and has a sterling family art pedigree. Dealer Y has a middle-aged stable, an international clientele and a long-term lease. Dealer Z is a rigorous intellectual with auction house connections who commands the respect of the art-world elite.
All three agreed that since last fall not sales out of the front room and their institutional (museum) market dried up, but that the lack of a back-room secondary market has prevented them from even talking to each other. In short Dealerland is as frozen as the mortgage market.
Dealer X has cash; Dealer Y has a reservoir of good will; Dealer Z has debts and nothing coming in. If I told you who they were, however, you would think they were essentially equal with regards to the market and their potential staying power. But past is not prologue. Dealer X is poised to gobble up more Chelsea space; Dealer Y is contemplating moving out of Chelsea when the lease runs out; Dealer Z will probably close and is scouting for one rich client to sponsor a world art-buying tour.
What underscores their different prospects is an ugly prospect which nobody talks about even as you see ground floor "For Rent" signs, more appropriate to bodega or boutique spaces than elite galleries, accumulating around Chelsea. This is that the High Line project, whose publicity brochures tout real estate and fashion boutiques but nary an art gallery, is set to destroy the Chelsea gallery scene as we know it. Just as SoHo quickly transformed itself ten years ago into Fashionista Central, so the High Line will become the enemy of high art and the locus of the frivolous.
This corner says that the Chelsea gallery scene will be gone within a year with the exception of half a dozen megaspaces, feeder galleriess for Fashionland and ClubLand. It is weird right now to see vast swathes of Chelsea territory which resemble the bad parts of Staten Island dotted by visually claustrophobic Frank Gehry buildings and their spawn. When everyone who still has cash is dancing in the High Line sky and staring into each other's wealthy windows, then the junkies and whores can seize the streets below. As for art galleries, a free experience, a civilizing calm, the formerly stable tiller of the Chelsea boat, they are fast becoming a memory, and a vague one at that.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).