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How are start-up commercial galleries faring in the age of the mega-gallery?

The Lower East Side houses New York’s more avant-garde spaces, but can it compete with Gagosian et al?

A century ago, the Lower East Side was the spiritual abode of New York’s first avant-gardists—artists and radicals such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day. In the 1980s, a new generation of interlopers, among them 303 Gallery and the collective ABC No Rio, settled into a neighbourhood authorities then routinely condemned as a “war zone”. Several decades on, the area has undergone a shiny transformation: it is now home to the New Museum and more than 60 galleries of contemporary art.

There’s an undeniable energy about the place, a laboratory-like quality shared by garage inventors and storefront skate shops—and not a few collectors—that makes the often humble, esoteric art inside the area’s best spaces feel genuinely novel, if not exactly new. Call it the upstart factor.

The gallery patch loosely referred to as LES overflows the Lower East Side’s geographical limits, with galleries spilling into Chinatown and the area called Nolita (north of Little Italy). Led by a small group of art pioneers that included the now defunct Orchard Gallery and the scrappy not-for-profit Participant Inc, commercial galleries began arriving on the scene in 2002. Key dealers trooped in before the New Museum touched down in 2007. That building’s construction then attracted several outposts of established Chelsea galleries and a flood of younger newcomers to the area.

The neighbourhood’s gallery landscape is constantly growing. New spaces open every few months, and several prominent dealers, such as Eleven Rivington, Miguel Abreu and Sue Scott, have announced expansions. Today, a consensus exists that LES galleries constitute ground zero for artistic experimentation in Manhattan—albeit without big glossy photographs and giant sculpture. But does the area, encompassed by Houston Street, Canal Street, the Bowery and the East River, contain future greats to one day rival Chelsea power players such as Barbara Gladstone and David Zwirner? In a mixed-up art age, flush with recession-era spending and putatively anti-commercial art, simple answers prove unsurprisingly elusive.

The art adviser Lisa Jacobs’s early memories of the area are rosy enough for her to consider herself “a full-blown LES enthusiast”—she was “on to the scene” five years ago, visiting the first LES galleries, such as Canada and Reena Spaulings, and watching as a second wave including Simon Preston and Eleven Rivington arrived. “It was like the Wild West: galleries were on their own hours and located in the strangest places,” she says. Jacobs characterises the current LES scene as made up of “a core of very talented, serious, intellectual dealers”. Asked if any of the galleries she regularly visits might prove to be the next art-world powerhouse, Jacobs demurred. “I can’t think of one young dealer who could dethrone Gagosian, Pace, Zwirner or Marian Goodman. LES exists more as a parallel universe.”

For the curator Omar Lopez-Chahoud, Jacobs’s characterisation rings true. Together with the artist Franklin Evans, he organised the 2010 exhibition “Lush Life”, collaborating with nine LES galleries on a multi-venue exhibition that The New York Times declared to be “beyond eye candy for the investing classes”. Lopez-Chahoud says that much of the work in LES galleries “often seems to be working itself out” and that “there’s a more risk-taking, experimental approach” than elsewhere in Manhattan. “I honestly think part of the intellectual component of LES galleries comes from the fact that they have to negotiate with other ethnic and business communities in the neighbourhood.”

For Candice Madey, founder of On Stellar Rays—she represents the recent PS1 solo exhibitor Clifford Owens—the spatial and conceptual dimensions of the current gallery scene match “the history of small and family-owned businesses dating back to the beginnings of the Lower East Side”. The scene, by her account, may have also developed its home-laboratory feel during the art-world plunge after the 2008 Wall Street market crash—several galleries, among them Simon Preston and Laurel Gitlen, opened that year alongside the established spaces. “A dialogue developed, along with a shared commitment and resourcefulness,” she says. “Personally, I decided that the best strategy was to do more performance and video, and take risks with the programme.”

The gallery owner Simon Preston echoes Madey’s sentiments about that pivotal moment for LES galleries. “There was a sweet spot historically between 2008 and 2010. The crisis produced a shift of focus,” he says. “If you weren’t going to sell anything, you made decisions according to absolute belief. There was no question of putting on a commercial show then.” Like most smart businesses—but few fledgling enterprises—galleries like Preston’s and Madey’s took the recession as a time to innovate and restructure. According to Preston, “that period established the foundation of what my gallery is today”. He is now eyeing the clear sky above his gallery rooftop for a possible expansion.

Canada’s Phil Grauer’s original Tribeca space closed due to the collapse of the World Trade Center, so he “worked with a small group of artists to transform a sweatshop in Chinatown into Canada’s current location”. He readily admits the effect of the migration of galleries on the neighbourhood. “The area has gentrified, for better or worse,” he says. “New York City reinvents itself daily—history is laid to waste in favour of anyone who can pay more rent.” Despite showing artists such as the current Whitney Biennial sculptor Joanna Malinowska and the rocker Devendra Banhart, Grauer admits to having “little faith” that any gallery model, however successful, can remain intact. His outlook, less pessimism than pragmatism, is largely shared by his gallery neighbours.

Take a smart, savvy young dealer like James Fuentes. An ex-director at Lombard-Freid and Deitch Projects, Fuentes—who represents the young art stars Lizzi Bougatsos and Brian DeGraw—is capable of brightly describing his ten-year goal as “simply remain[ing] in business”. This attitude speaks volumes about this generation’s sober ambition (compare Fuentes’s dealer dreams with Mary Boone’s bubble-smasher: “I had reservations about making art a business, but I got over it”). “When I walk down 2nd Street near First Avenue I am cognisant of the fact that Claes Oldenburg’s Store was there,” Fuentes says. “If, in 50 years, someone walks by my old gallery and talks about what happened there, then I might say, yes, I am part of that history.”

Miguel Abreu agrees. Impressively erudite, he has hosted the philosophers Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou at his gallery and published books, alongside other activities that he says have “values that are not tied to the market”. He rejects comparisons with Chelsea dealers like Larry Gagosian. “Gagosian is exactly what we’re not trying to do,” he says. “We’re trying to build things from the ground up, not the other way around.” Asked to elaborate, he quotes the director of Art Basel. “As Marc Spiegler told me, my gallery is programme-driven. Most galleries have a ten-year life. They have ideas, but eventually they run out of them, and then they become managers. For me, it’s not necessarily always about finding a new artist—it’s about reinventing yourself and believing in every one of those reinventions.”

The newcomer Kristen Dodge of Dodge Gallery concurs. “It’s worth reconsidering what a gallery should aspire to become,” she says. “Bigger gallery, bigger space, bigger budget, bigger art is not a formula that necessarily inspires better work. The best galleries in LES have a healthy dose of scepticism and subscribe to the notion that art comes first.” Sue Scott, who opened her gallery in 2008, describes the LES scene as a “place that’s freer”, where “there’s less pressure to develop”. Scott is confident that LES artists can become future stars. “LES is the breeding ground for a new generation of New York artists. I hear over and over again how artists are daunted by the cavernous spaces of Chelsea galleries. They like the human scale of LES spaces.”

The question remains, though, whether all this dealer modesty itself begets what Abreu and Lopez-Chahoud separately describe as work that avoids “grand statements”. Speaking about the often wilfully eccentric, collage- and process-inspired art that dominates the neighbourhood—and populates this year’s offbeat Whitney Biennial—the Village Voice’s R.C. Baker is less sanguine. “Some of the work I see in LES is completely off the wall, and some is terrific. Still, I haven’t seen anything, no matter how weird, that genuinely breaks away from the norm. That problem is not just particular to the Lower East Side—these days, I don’t see breakthroughs anywhere in New York.” Artistic breakthrough or not, modesty of scale and concept hasn’t hindered the LES dealer Augusto Arbizo, of Eleven Rivington, from finding a booming market for the artist Jacob Kassay—one metallic monochrome sold at auction last year for $290,500.

For the art adviser Lisa Schiff, it doesn’t make sense to talk about galleries or artists according to geographical location. “I have my intelligentsia in New York,” she says, “and I watch them.” Listing spaces as far afield as Brooklyn, Queens and the Upper East Side, Schiff adds: “Some of these spaces are upstarts, but I find that they’re all connected, idea-wise.”

And yet the comparisons stick. According to Abreu, “everyone is asking who the next Matthew Marks is going to be”, but this is entirely the wrong puzzler, he says. “The question should be what comes after Matthew Marks.” Fair enough. But it bears mentioning that in 1992 Marks was showing Brice Marden and Nan Goldin. For New York in 2012, the consciously modest, quirkily experimental LES gallery scene is as game-changing as it gets.

Many LES galleries are due to open late on Sunday 6 May for Downtown Night. For details, see www.friezenewyork.com

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The upstart factor'