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WHITHER WILLIAMSBURG?
by Stephen Maine
 
Call it the "revolving door syndrome." As soon as a Williamsburg gallery finds a modicum of success, it moves across the East River to Manhattan, or so it sometimes seems. Most recently, both Plus Ultra and Schroeder Romero galleries announced plans to move to the new gallery row on the ground floor of the Terminal Warehouse at 637 West 27th Street in Chelsea. Black & White Gallery is opening a second space in Chelsea in the spring, said dealer Tatyana Okshteyn, while continuing to operate its current Driggs Avenue location as a "project" space. In the last year or two, Bellwether, Jessica Murray Projects, Priska C. Juschka, Monya Rowe and Sixtyseven galleries have similarly made the move to Manhattan’s burgeoning Chelsea art district.

What’s going on? Is this the end of the Williamsburg Gallery scene? Fueling the speculation are two additional factors: recent zoning changes are encouraging development of the Brooklyn waterfront, which means increasing rents for the storefronts and garage spaces that Williamsburg galleries typically inhabit; and ongoing work on the L subway route, the neighborhood's transit lifeline, has cut down on gallery attendance, as Manhattanites are hampered from making that quick jaunt to the neighborhood.

On the other hand, the continuing migration of top-tier Williamsburg galleries to Chelsea's better-traveled boulevards is a sign of economic expansion. Despite the undeniable appeal of the Williamsburg art scene, Manhattan is where the art market is.

Lisa Schroeder looks forward to bringing Schroeder Romero's sociopolitical art to Chelsea’s corporate setting, and anticipates an increase in foot traffic to the gallery. "We want people to see our program, we want to give our artists a wider audience." Some of the gallery’s collectors visit the gallery booth at the NADA Fair in Miami, Schroeder said, but won't travel to Brooklyn.

Plus Ultra director Ed Winkleman echoed those concerns. "Some shows that we really believed in had pitiful attendance. That begins to break your heart after a while." Given the near-certainty of better audiences, paying a moderately higher Chelsea rent seems worth it.

Pierogi and Sideshow, two veterans of the neighborhood, happily find themselves above the fray. Housed in buildings they own, neither gallery has to worry about landlords or leases. Pierogi founder Joe Amrhein declared that his gallery has no plans to move, as "our identity is too wrapped up in where we are. Besides, we are as busy as we want to be." Big fish in a small pond? Amrhein bridled at the suggestion, averring, inarguably, that the neighborhood's other galleries benefit from the presence of his "destination" venue.

Sideshow’s Rich Timperio draws parallels to the gallery scene of the East Village, which, coming of age in the early 1980s, looked to then-prominent SoHo for validation and new markets. He is concerned that artists, who provide much of what makes the neighborhood fun and interesting, are being pushed out by rising rents. That, of course, is a familiar story.

Joel Beck of Roebling Hall tells us that his gallery is "eyeing things, like everyone else." He and his partner, Christian Viveros-Faune, recently established a Chelsea space. With venues in both districts, Beck feels he can have the "best of both worlds," which for him means showing younger artists in Williamsburg and more established artists in Chelsea. This paradigm -- Williamsburg as farm league, Manhattan as the big time -- is almost too obvious to mention. In this market, a gallery without a Chelsea address is liable to lose its most successful artists to bigger players. "One constituency that never gave a damn about the Williamsburg art scene was the artists," Beck said.

Perhaps no presenter in Williamsburg diverges farther from Chelsea's smooth showrooms than Don Carroll, who has been active in Williamsburg since 1995 and now operates Jack the Pelican Presents. "The idea of a move to Chelsea is anathema," he said. "What fun would that be? There are so many other wonderful malls in the world to choose from." He betrays no nostalgia for the old days. "Williamsburg will for the foreseeable future be New York’s creative mecca. I love the fact that our little art ghetto has grown to encompass a wider population. It makes for an exciting audience."

Still, the neighborhood is in flux, thanks in large part to rising rents. Morsel, which is run by Elizabeth Cooper and Jan Mollet, has lost its Olive Street space and is looking to relocate. Eric Heist, whose Momenta Art is one of the neighborhood's oldest galleries and its preeminent nonprofit space, said, "We will try our best to stay here, one way or another." But Momenta has been weighing the options available further east, and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

Larry Walczak, the force behind Eyewash, which organizes exhibitions in a variety of spaces, agreed that mushrooming development is at odds with the conditions required for an artists' community -- namely, cheap space. "The future of the Williamsburg art scene very well may be on the other side of the BQE," he said. "Near the Morgan Avenue stop on the L train there is a sizable community of younger artists willing to brave the instability of that neighborhood in favor of more space at lower rent."

Despite the notable defections, Williamsburg still boasts a formidable gallery lineup. Daniel Aycock runs the Front Room, and publishes the very helpful WAGMAG, or "Williamsburg and Greenpoint Monthly Art Guide." Greenpoint, a distinct neighborhood adjoining Williamsburg to its north, is home to two or three galleries. The December issue lists 48 galleries in all, a notable increase from the 35 listed 18 months ago. Aycock excludes from his count, moreover, galleries that also sell furniture or fashions.

As long as new blood keeps flowing into the neighborhood, the Williamsburg gallery scene will thrive. Among the most interesting of the new arrivals is Klaus Von Nichtssagend, an artist-run gallery on Union Street. The venue has presented an uncommonly strong string of shows, and appears to have an independent, if communal, curatorial eye. "We started our gallery because we thought it would be fun, interesting and rewarding to put on shows we would like to see," said KVN's Ingrid Bromberg. "If you believe in your project, as we do, you just strive to put on a good show, and hopefully the rest will follow. If new Williamsburg galleries can keep the quality of our shows at the same caliber as those of our predecessors, I think the area will still be a destination."

Klein Blue Productions opened last summer in the South 1st Street space that Plus Ultra had vacated. Director Sarah Stanley spent some years working for galleries in Berlin and has a strong interest in formalist and abstract photography. Passing up an opportunity to establish her gallery in Chelsea, she opted for Brooklyn. "Galleries tend to develop very unique profiles and programs in the less commercial environment of Williamsburg," she said. "The level of cooperation among galleries is one good reason to locate here."

Brooke Bartlett established Outrageous Look on Broadway in part because she recognized in the distinctive storefront space the physical conditions under which she could present art the way she thought it should be seen. Indeed, the compact, high-ceilinged venue, with its ample light washing in from deep display windows on Broadway, is loaded with personality -- a trait that is arguably scarce in Chelsea.

Another newcomer is Minusspace, an online gallery that directors Matthew Deleget and Rosanna Martinez hope to move into the real world. Clearly, Brooklyn remains an alluring entry point for young dealers who want to open shop.

Heather Stephens, co-owner of 31 Grand, touted the district's esthetic diversity. "There's a niche for every kind of art out here," said this presenter of slightly naughty, illustration-inflected figuration. She detects no diminution of the district's buzz, citing consistent sales, interest on the part of visiting artists in the gallery's program and heavy attendance at openings. At the gallery's latest premiere, she said, "the keg was gone in an hour and a half." 

Brooklyn Rail critic and long-time Williamsburg-watcher James Kalm is keenly interested in the market as a force in shaping what gallery-goers are given to look at. If someone is serious about "running a gallery, not a social program for struggling artists," he said, they will naturally pursue the market. He sees the migration of galleries to Chelsea as positive, allowing mid-level venues in Williamsburg an opportunity "to move up the food chain" and become the district's heavy-hitters. Collectors, he noted, are motivated by various factors. An investment-oriented collector will shop for work by a known earner, a vastly different behavior from one who seeks a "trophy" of a fundamentally unknown, outsider culture. It is in the interest of Williamsburg galleries to cling to this outsider mythology.

The last word goes to Leah Stuhltrager of Dam, Stuhltrager, one of a handful of area galleries that have lately been on a roll. Stuhltager cited the neighborhood's diversity, as well as a sense of collegiality and mutual support among all the art spaces. She pointed out that the current L train interruptions will translate eventually improved mass transit for the neighborhood. Dam, Stuhltrager did very well at Art Basel Miami Beach, and outside investors have expressed interest. By her reckoning, her latest opening (of a show by the well-connected sculptor Gae Savannah, and Michael Schall) drew a crowd of 500 people, including media and museum players. Stuhltrager insisted that her gallery’s "alternative" sensibility contrasts with slick, commercial Chelsea. But that position is in itself a brand -- just ask Joe Amrhein.

The consensus among Williamsburg dealers is that Chelsea audiences are a powerful draw, but that a move across the river to Manhattan reflects on the values of the gallery making the move, not on the viability of the Williamsburg art scene itself. Though undeniably in transition, the district still seems to provide the conditions necessary for proving ground, launch pad and green room -- and no shortage of that all-important commodity, ambition.


STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn.



 



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