The New York Art Scene - West Chelsea
by Leon Schwarzbaum
In Western literature, artists are usually described as "struggling." Not always financially successful, artists look for large open areas to live and work, with the lowest possible rents. Old factories, warehouses and garages situated in neighborhoods generally not desirable for any other uses become art studios and workshops. Art galleries usually follow, using ground level space visible to collectors and others who come to see the artists' work.
But along with the galleries come restaurants and shops, hoping to serve the people, many with money to spend, drawn to the artists' dwellings. And then, as the neighborhood becomes more stylish and wealthy shoppers are attracted to the exciting "art scene," many buildings are converted into more expensive living quarters. This process, called gentrification (creating a neighborhood of more elegant people), has occurred in most major cities of the world and most recently in Manhattan, the center of New York City.
Following the decline in factory production in the 1950s and '60s, NYC artists discovered large open areas in multi-storied factories in an area they designated SoHo - SOuth of HOuston Street. The Fire Department had, for a long time, called it "Hell's Hundred Acres," because most of the buildings were built with brick-bearing walls and cast iron columns, but the floor beams and floors were constructed of lumber. When a fire started, it spread with frightening speed, causing loss of life as well as destruction of property. In order to re-rent the premises, most owners installed sprinkler and fire detection systems and other life-saving modifications.
When landlords, eager to rent the vacant space, were approached by artists looking for studio/living lofts, they pressured the city government to pass laws permitting "artists in residence" (AIR) to work and live in these buildings with high ceilings and huge windows. And as the artists moved in, modernizing the buildings and creating nighttime activity in the streets, art galleries began flooding from "uptown" to SoHo. With increased foot traffic and upscale visitors making the area more attractive to more affluent shoppers, restaurants and boutique-type shops soon followed.
Eventually, rents began to rise and wealthy tenants took over buildings from the artists who could not afford the higher rents. On the street level, small spaces were joined to make room for larger fashionable shops. While this pattern is a familiar one in many of the cities around the world, New York City has seen the cycle repeated many times in the last century.
Several years ago, art galleries - most in leased space - found themselves competing with these shops for street locations. As leases expired, some gallery owners moved to a nearby neighborhood where truck garages and industrial buildings had been vacated as manufacturing technology made them inefficient or New York's labor costs made manufacturing too expensive. The area, between 9th and 11th Avenues and from West 14th to West 27th Street, was dubbed West Chelsea by these gallery owners in their advertisements, adopting the name of an established neighborhood called Chelsea, several blocks east.
Moving from SoHo and other areas, where rents have risen, more than 50 galleries have created a new "art scene." Some of the most famous sellers of contemporary art have moved into West Chelsea. Some even came from the elegant 57th Street where famous works have been on display.
In choosing that neighborhood, the galleries became neighbors of Dia Center for the Arts, which opened in the early 1970s at 11th Avenue and West 22nd Street. Well known in the art world, the Dia Center has supported art in almost every medium and draws interest from the entire art world. Visitors to Dia during the shows and exhibits brought visitors from everywhere to the streets.
A block away, the Empire Diner has become an institution at 10th Avenue and West 22nd Street. The roadside restaurant became popular in the U.S. in the 1930s. Built to resemble a railroad dining car and prefabricated at a factory, the diner was delivered fully assembled and ready to serve fast food. Although the Empire is not as elegant as the newer restaurants in the area, it has become a popular meeting place, especially in the summer when outdoor tables increase number of seats available.
Many of the gallery owners, finding one- and two-story buildings moderately priced when they first moved to the area, bought their buildings. "We think buying our gallery will make it possible for us to stay here longer than we stayed in SoHo," said one gallery owner, quoted in a local newspaper. The lease on his gallery expired two years ago and the landlord wanted to double the rent.
Already, stores with world-famous names like Banana Republic, The Gap and the expensive French store, Comme des Garcons, have opened in West Chelsea. European retailers are negotiating with building owners for space not yet converted to a gallery or store.
Investors, too, see an opportunity in the area, where real estate prices are still relatively low and large numbers of wealthy customers visit. Located near the riverfront Chelsea Piers complex of skating rinks, golf driving range, gymnastics center, and within easy walking distance from public transportation, the area is also of great interest to developers. One of the major real estate brokers, quoted in The New York Times, says, "The neighborhood is not a frontier anymore."
Visitors staying in midtown hotels can take a taxi downtown, but most New Yorkers and sophisticated visitors know the fastest way to get around is via subway. The C or E downtown trains (8th Avenue) stop at West 23 Street. The 1 or 9 trains (7th Avenue) stop at West 23 or West 18 Street. From there, a short walk west takes you to the galleries. Some visitors (and some New Yorkers, too) prefer riding on the surface. The M11 bus (downtown on 9th Avenue and uptown on 10th Avenue) can be boarded at alternate corners, indicated by a bus stop sign. Any of the main cross-town buses issue free transfers on request, so if you're too far east to walk to 9th Avenue, or want to save your energy for Chelsea, you can save your shoe leather. The ride takes longer than the subway, but you will be able to ogle and stare without feeling conspicuous.
Start your tour of West Chelsea at 529 West 20 Street, where a number of galleries occupy the building. Pick up a free Gallery Guide at any of them, and crisscross the neighborhood to take in the Chelsea art scene. Stop for lunch or a refreshment break at one of the neighborhood eateries or coffee shops, walk through the Chelsea Piers and exchange glances with the neighborhood residents, many of who are artists with part-time jobs that permit them to stroll the streets while "uptowners" are tied to their desks.
Remember, people laughed at Renoir and Van Gogh, so reserve your comments about the art on view. After all, it's hanging on the walls of a gallery so it must be art. If the avant garde is not your preference, your Gallery Guide will tell you where other genres are being exhibited and sold.