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The mass gallery exodus from SoHo continues despite rumblings of a recession

Chelsea becomes the new home of many even as it becomes ever more expensive

Chelsea is New York’s contemporary arts commercial mecca. Expansive space in the West 20s has the requisite cachet and many dealers are relocating to Chelsea. Real estate prices have, however, skyrocketed since the first leases were signed and, with the vague threat of a recession on the horizon, this presents a problem to gallery owners.

At the centre

24th Street is undoubtedly the hottest block in central Chelsea, its northern side lined with blue-chip contemporary dealers Luhring Augustine, Andrea Rosen, Metro Pictures, Matthew Marks, Barbara Gladstone, and Mary Boone, who moved from 57th Street last year. The Charles Cowles Gallery moved from SoHo to a large, ground floor space on 24th Street in January.

Over the next six months, no less than eight galleries will relocate to Chelsea:

This month, Sandra Gering opens her 600 square-foot gallery at 534 West 22nd Street, next to behemoth Sonnabend.

Sean Kelly sprouts up in a 7,000 square-foot space on 29th Street. Kelly has rented 12,500 square-feet, and will be joined there later by Peter Blum Gallery, which will sublet a portion of Kelly’s space.

Anton Kern opens 5,000 square-feet on West 20th Street on 31 May.

In September, PaceWildenstein opens a vast, 10,000 square-foot space at 534 West 25th.

Galerie Lelong inaugurates approximately 5,500 square-feet, at 526 West 26th Street, between Robert Miller and Gorney, Bravin & Lee.

Sperone Westwater has purchased a whopping 15,000 square-feet on West 13th Street, with a provisional opening date in November.

Lehman Maupin Gallery is moving to Chelsea in the autumn, but have not yet settled on a space.

All of this seems to confirm the view of Anne-Brigitte Sirois, one of the real estate agents who have been responsible for brokering gallery deals here. She cites an "overwhelming demand" for ground floor spaces, mainly from established SoHo and uptown galleries as another reason for the move to Chelsea.

Conformity

These days, galleries, like museums, build their reputations, in large part, on their design.

PaceWildenstein has enlisted gallery artist Robert Irwin to design their space. Irwin, a California artist famous for his design of the Getty Museum gardens, has planned a delicately balanced tripartite interior, based on the golden mean, with innovative skylights that dip down into the space. He is also designing the office furniture.

Sandra Gering has hired innovative young Slovenian architect Dana Cupkova, who is collaborating with artist Martin Myers to create the illusion of expansive space in Gering’s versatile, yet tightly organised small-scale gallery.

Anton Kern’s space on West 20th Street will eventually benefit from design by PH Architects.

PH also designed Friedrich Petzel’s elegant space around the corner, at West 22nd Street.

PH have worked with Richard Gluckman, famous in Chelsea for the design of Gagosian’s vast 24th Street Gallery.

Lelong has hired McBride & Associates, who are responsible for the boxy, minimal Alexander and Bonin Gallery on 10th Avenue.

The costs

According to Ms Sirois, the asking price for a ground level Chelsea space varies from $35 to $90 per square-foot, depending on its size. The average lease length is 10 years at 3.5% yearly escalation.

While Sperone Westwater is buying its space, most of the galleries mentioned in this article are leasing, and taking the average 10 year lease. Most galleries hesitate to divulge what they are paying per square-foot.

Michael Sweney, director of Charles Cowles Gallery, says only that "we got a good deal".

Sandra Gering has said that she will pay $120 per square-foot for her space, but she has only 600 square-feet, and is on an excellent block.

Room for expansion

The blocks to watch are those on the northern and southern tips of the neighbourhood. A number of galleries and arts organisations have been exploring the area.

The Bohen Foundation, a prominent, private charitable foundation involved in the arts, has purchased the ground floor space in Angela Westwater’s building.

American art dealer Gary Snyder is supposedly following close on Kelly’s heels with a space across the street at 601 West 29th.

Word has it that Jeff Koons will take a studio in the same building. According to Ms Sirois, the logical next blocks to develop will be 27th and 28th streets.

Dissenters

Nevertheless, Jack Tilton of Jack Tilton/Anna Kustera Gallery, is remaining in SoHo, and remarked that, for him "Chelsea is the least interesting place." Mr Tilton voiced concern that, should a recession hit, as many as 30% of Chelsea galleries, especially those with five-year leases coming up for renewal, could close their doors in the next year.

Dealer Curt Marcus expressed concerns about moving during what could be the onset of a recession. He said, "We still do business and have cheap rent where we are. It’s a tough time to be making a major move."

Ronald Feldman has a long lease in SoHo, and doesn’t plan to move. "The question becomes: do you want to go somewhere where a recession would cause it to become a ghostown?"

Another dealer not especially keen on Chelsea is David Zwirner. With his uptown space, Zwirner & Wirth (a partnership with Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth), on 69th Street, and his well established SoHo location, Zwirner is content to rest on his laurels for the moment, and likes to think of his galleries as destinations: "People come [to my SoHo gallery] and they are very focussed. People should make the trip. It should be about wanting to see a show. I’ve always thought it should be less about real estate and more about art! A lot of people seem to forget that."

Elsewhere

Chelsea and SoHo do not, however, hold the monopoly on contemporary art areas in New York. Williamsburg in Brooklyn is emerging as an alternative.

Just one train stop from Manhattan there are the galleries Pierogi, Arena@Feed and Roebling Hall, as well as the non-profit Momenta.

There are rumours of Jeffrey Deitch opening up a vast exhibition space over there, but Deitch isn’t talking.

Energetic artist and gallerist Rebecca Smith, of the promising Bellwether Gallery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is busy planning a move…to central Williamsburg. "Chelsea has such high overheads!" she gasps, then adds, confidently, "Williamsburg will be THE place to find emerging artists."

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Chelsea: ever more expensive'