The Mood of the Market, as Measured in the Galleries
“No one is doing well,” snapped the New York dealer Michele Maccarone over the phone. “And anyone who says they are is lying.” Ms. Maccarone, who has had a gallery for eight years, first on the Lower East Side and now on Greenwich Street in the West Village, is known for showing challenging new art as well as for dramatic overstatements. But she had just been asked the question art dealers probably dislike most these days: “How are things going?” Which is code for “Are you selling art? Are you staying open?”
“I didn’t take a day off all summer,” Ms. Maccarone continued. “I’m even doing resale. Me, Michele Maccarone.”
Despite reports from the auction world that a recovery is under way, Manhattan’s gallery scene feels all pins and needles as it heads into fall. Things aren’t as bad as many expected them to be, but they could get worse.
Fragile is the word Knight Landesman, publisher of Artforum magazine, used to describe the current gallery mood: “Fragile and hoping for business.” Ad pages in Artforum’s September issue are down to 206 from 363 a year ago, a decline of more than 40 percent.
An art gallery is like a single-cell organism: it is the crudest but also the most essential life form in the art-world food chain. It is among the easiest of public forums to start up, and therefore the most efficient means of introducing new blood into the system. All it takes is one person with the single-minded determination to get the work of an artist or two seen and a reasonably clean, well-lighted space of almost any size — something that is becoming a more affordable option as rents soften and storefronts, even in some of Chelsea’s chic new condos, sit vacant.
At the same time keeping a gallery going is usually fairly hard, and can seem impossibly daunting when sales slump. As small operations, galleries are highly vulnerable to changes in the economic climate — canaries in the coal mine, as they have often been called. So it made sense, as the bottom fell out of the art market last winter, that many people predicted galleries would start closing fast and furiously.
As it turned out, it is hard to know if this summer has brought much more than the usual in the way of closings, along with relocations, expansions, contractions, splits and alliances. So far the list of galleries that have closed is barely two dozen long, and only if you include galleries that closed several months before the crash; galleries that, to be blunt, will not be missed; neophyte galleries that had yet to establish either a financial or critical foothold; and galleries that closed for reasons only partly related to the market, or not at all.
The much lamented Guild & Greyshkul in SoHo, for example, was run by three artists who say they had always intended to return full time to their own work. Rivington Arms, in the East Village, closed because the interests of its two partners diverged. And several galleries have closed in order to regroup and reopen, at least according to their owners, including Cristinerose, Smith-Stewart, the Proposition and Feature. Bose Pacia, the South Asian art gallery lately of Chelsea but now of Dumbo, relocated to regroup and has plans to reopen in a larger space in Manhattan in a year or two, said Rebecca Davis, its director.
Meanwhile there have been expansions, big and small, and a few newcomers, the most significant of which is probably Hauser & Wirth, a deep-pocket gallery with high-profile spaces in Zurich and London. Although Iwan Wirth, a Swiss dealer, was until this June half of Zwirner & Wirth with the American David Zwirner in a town house on East 69th Street, his heftier European brand is arriving in New York — and in the same town house — with a bang. Its first show will be a restaging of Allan Kaprow’s famous 1961 happening-installation “Yard,” with the transgressive performance artist William Pope.L offering an interpretation that may or may not take too many liberties with the original. (The piece, which consisted of over 1,000 discarded car tires, was first exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery — located in the same town house.)
The tea leaves on this move, as on much of the current situation, are ambiguous. Is it an omen of the rebounding health of the New York gallery scene, or merely evidence that Hauser & Wirth saw an opportunity to swoop in while the competition was feeling less invincible than usual? Mr. Wirth said the gallery had “been thinking about coming to New York for a decade,” and made clear that the softened real estate market had made the move easier.
He sounded enthusiastic, in any case. “It is a completely different thing to be at the center of the universe than on the periphery,” he said. (Asked what he thought about going up against other ultra-high-end galleries, he said only, “Ask me again a year from now.”)
Down in Chelsea, the David Zwirner Gallery will add a fourth gallery space to the three Mr. Zwirner already has on West 19th Street. This one is on the ground floor of the building called the Metal Shutter Houses, designed by Shigeru Ban, which is going up across the street. It will be used primarily for older and secondary-market material.
On a smaller scale, the outsider-art dealer Andrew Edlin, located in the gallery multiplex of 529 West 20th Street, will get much more visibility for his mix of outsider and insider art when he takes over the street-level space on 10th Avenue near 19th Street that was occupied until last July by Bellwether. And Sean Horton, who opened a tiny storefront gallery called Sunday L.E.S. on the Lower East Side three years ago, has extended his initial short-term rental of the parlor floor of the federal-style house on West 22nd Street. (He has also taken on a partner, Frank Liu, identified in a news release as a practicing artist with a very successful career in advertising, and changed the name from Horton & Company to Horton & Liu.)
Mr. Horton, whose taste runs to unknown artists who make quirky paintings, said he had “the best summer ever” in terms of sales. He explained that Sunday would now function as a project space for showing artists the gallery does not represent, while the Chelsea space would concentrate on the 11 it does — a number he and his new partner hope to almost double. Mr. Horton said Chelsea “has a need for young art dealers and young artists,” adding that lower rents in the area were a big help: “This wouldn’t have been possible at all a year ago.”
Even for those who can’t hope to afford any Chelsea rent, the less stratified, increasingly porous quality of the postboom art world seems to have made setting up shop in some form easier. Last spring the young artist Margaret Lee began staging exhibitions in her Chinatown loft, and she will continue to do so for at least one more year.
Fabienne Stephan, who works as the director of Salon 94 Freemans on the Lower East Side, has opened a minuscule space around the corner on Chrystie Street with her husband, Paul-Aymar Mourgue d’Algue, and a friend, Hanne Mugaas. Measuring 6 by 16 feet, the gallery, called Art Since the Summer of ’69, is described by Ms. Stephan as having “the same square footage of a large painting that could be hanging in a big Chelsea gallery.” The next exhibition, opening Sept. 21, will be “The Bichon Frise in Art,” an archive of reproductions of paintings with small white dogs and some contemporary works made in response to them.
“It’s too easy to go around and see exhibitions you don’t like and criticize things,” Ms. Stephan said. “We decided do something that we like.”
Becky Smith, who closed Bellwether, her Chelsea gallery, in July, is considering organizing a series of nomadic shows in vacant spaces around town (although she is also thinking about returning to her own painting). Amy Smith-Stewart, who closed her gallery on the Lower East Side in May, already has some projects in the works. Ms. Smith-Stewart, too, invoked the softened real estate market. “I want to take advantage of the fact that there is so much commercial space,” she said, “and do something less static and more elastic and artist-driven.”
On the other hand, what might be called the graying, or perhaps the squaring, of Chelsea is still happening, too, with the relocation there of two more 57th Street galleries. Ameringer McEnery Yohe, which represents some living artists like Judy Pfaff but is especially active in the resale market for Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painting, will open on Sept. 17 in the West 22nd Street space vacated by 303 Gallery (which moved to larger, spiffier quarters on West 21st Street).
Lori Bookstein Fine Art, the other 57th Street refugee, is more idiosyncratic, concentrating on underknown older artists, including Garth Evans, Irving Kriesberg and Louise Kruger, and the estates of Louis Finkelstein and Aristodimos Kaldis. After 12 years in business and five on 57th Street, Ms. Bookstein is taking over the former Cohan & Leslie space (next to the former Bellwether) on 10th Avenue. The move was prompted, Ms. Bookstein said, by a raise in her rent uptown. She found she could get 1,000 more feet and a ground-floor space in Chelsea for a bit more than what she used to pay.
Ultimately, of course, how things are going depends on whom you talk to. Ms. Maccarone, at her most optimistic, foresees “an O.K. September until the auctions,” which she predicts will once more confirm a downward trend. To be followed, she says, “by a dry winter and a lousy spring,” with things approaching normal by fall 2010.
“I’m doing everything I can think of” to get by, she said. She cut staff and eliminated art fairs even before the market crashes of 2008. She is going to younger artists whose work can be priced less expensively (maybe not the first reason an artist wants to be given a show, but never mind). And three benefits will be held in her gallery this season. Will she be paid for the use of her space? No, she said, “but they might bring people into the gallery who have not been exposed to contemporary art before.”
Several blocks north in Chelsea, meanwhile, the characteristic ebullience of Friedrich Petzel, a German-born dealer with an eponymous gallery on West 22nd Street, seemed barely dimmed. “We’ve had an actually O.K. six months,” Mr. Petzel said, noting nonetheless that he had cut back certain expenses, stretching exhibition runs and ceasing to cover artists’ fabrication costs. Yet “things felt a lot grimmer in the early ’90s,” he said, referring to the last art-market slump.
“Sure, it’s gotten harder” to sell, he added, “but you have to do better, do more. I’m looking at this as an opportunity and also as temporary.”
“We will certainly succeed,” he said expansively. “I have no doubt.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 9, 2009
An article on Friday about the economic status of Manhattan art galleries, using information from a news release on the Web site of the Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery, misstated the date the gallery will open on West 22nd Street after moving from West 57th Street. It is Sept. 17, not late October.