New York City’s Non-Profit Art Spaces

A New Common Ground

Jill Conner. September 15, 2017.

New York City’s art community continues to change as fast as social media. It seems like only yesterday when everyone, with an interest in art, had boarded a plane several times a year to follow the art fair spectacle as it rotated through cities such as Miami, Hong Kong, Cologne, Berlin, London and Paris. These short-lived moments of total immersion convincingly re-directed any concerns from the fact that in-person foot traffic to New York City galleries had dropped off significantly since the stock market crash of 2008. The non-stop presentations, panel discussions, tours, receptions and after-parties appeared promising.

As the art market found continued vitality there was a renewed focus on emerging artists who also received recognition through exhibitions at Artists Space, the Bronx Museum, Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs, the Drawing Center, the New Museum, White Columns and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Such a flowering led to the proliferation of small, mid-tier galleries as well as artist membership galleries like Ceres Gallery and The Painting Center. In addition the mid-tier galleries’ visibility at art fairs signified success that looked likeNew York City was making a return to its 1970s roots, when celebrities and artists collaborated and mingled with art collectors and producers.

However in 2015 Artists Space announced that the landlord of its Greene Street location in SoHo had decided not to renew the gallery’s lease. This was indeed remarkable, and sent shock waves throughout the community. Since Artists Space was founded in 1972, it has since become one of the most renowned nonprofits that has given early, if not first, visibility to emerging artists. In 2016 White Columns, the city’s oldest alternative art space that was founded in 1970, made a similar loss-of-lease announcement from its current location on West 13th Street, in Manhattan’s West Village. For nearly five decades, these two organizations have introduced the artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Robert Longo, Jack Smith, Joan Jonas, Fred Wilson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Kiki Smith, Sarah Sze, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson — to name a few. Just like Printed Matter, Art in General and The Kitchen, these institutions have become the irreplaceable core of New York’s cultural identity.

Suddenly the steady wave of gallery closures that started in 2010 deserved a serious reconsideration. Max Protetch Gallery, Cynthia Reeves Gallery, Schroder Romero and Shredder and Deitch Projects shuttered while legendary art critic Dave Hickey had announced his retirement from the art world. Adding further to the feeling of uncertainty, the original online Artnet Magazine closed unexpectedly due to financial woes, and quite an odd place to be for an online publication. In fact it sounds ironic now to learn that the shared mantra among artists nearly 50 years ago was not to sell art. However it was this conviction that paved the way for nonprofit art spaces to develop, while mapping out a format for long-term sustainability.

Ultimately these organizations became the lasting monuments of New York’s Postwar era that continue to resonate through art schools, studios, museums and auction houses. In 1971 the SoHo district located between Houston and Canal Streets had been rezoned as an enclave for affordable artist housing where creativity flourished until the 1980s when the emerging art community moved above Houston to the East Village. Unlike the past decade, artists were able to live and work in the city throughout the 60s and 70s since the daily cost of living was so low. On the other hand, urban planning initiatives had not yet been set into motion which left the city streets and subway with very little sanitation and high rates of crime.

Artists Space first opened at 155 Wooster Street and then relocated to 105 Hudson Street in 1977. From 1984 to the early 1990s Artists Space found its address at 223 West Broadway before settling at 38 Greene Street. In 2012 it opened another space at 55 Walker Street titled Artists Space Books & Talks. In 2018 Artists Space will open at its sixth location. White Columns also had two previous addresses at 112 Greene Street, followed by 154 Christopher Street. It’s upcoming move to 91 Horatio Street will be its fourth location.

Matthew Higgs, Director and Chief Curator of White Columns, is looking forward to the move after a two year search since it will put them within a block of the Whitney Museum of American Art: “At 91 Horatio Street we secured a 15-year lease on terms that make sense for us.” The size of White Columns new exhibition space will be a close match to the 2,500 square feet that they currently have at 320 West 13th Street. Although it looks like the process of relocation is inherent to the nonprofits of New York, the recent slowdown in both the national economy and increased competition for in-kind donations has provided no assurances.

“The key challenge we face remains the cost of operating as a small-scale not-for-profit organization in New York City.” Higgs further stresses, “As the city becomes increasingly expensive — for individuals and small-scale arts organizations alike — its clear that the range and diversity of organizations that exist will, over time, change. Some will close, others will have to relocate — often to neighborhoods where they have no history or roots, and others will have to restructure or reorganize.”

In light of recent, almost drastic, urban developments, many wonder how this influential, international art community has been holding up. Once Hurricane Sandy left its mark in 2012, leaving damage and shock in its wake, gallery moves and closures were only imminent but not immediate. The paper stock and archives of non-profit art publications were directly affected by the storm.

The Brooklyn Rail’s offices in Greenpoint, for instance, were considered a complete loss and the magazine was forced to relocate its operations to Sunset Park. Printed Matter’s bookstore of rare artists books and publications that had been located along 10th Avenue, between West 21st and 22nd Streets, received over 6-feet of flooding that had damaged over 9,000 books, works of art and supplies. Following a consistent flow of donations, the bookstore relocated in 2015 to a new space in Chelsea with two floors above ground level at 231 11th Avenue, preserving a venture that was initially founded in 1976 by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard.

Alongside this accumulation of headlining events, dozens of gallery owners had presaged the announcements made by Artists Space and White Columns. The loss-of-lease had become a general harbinger since it was followed by statements that reflected an interest in resuming operations somewhere within New York City from a new, affordable location. But most of these spaces ended up fading away from view entirely like Exit Art, that first opened in 1982 but closed in 2012, and the ISE Cultural Foundation that closed in 2016 but first opened in 1984.

While speaking with Kathleen Gilrain, the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Smack Mellon, the ability to maintain a non-profit gallery space is not an arbitrary endeavor since the success of Smack Mellon has occurred over time. “A key reason Smack Mellon is able to thrive,” states Gilrain, “is the amazing support we receive in space subsidy from Two Trees Management.” Although Matthew Higgs calls attention to the cost-prohibitive nature of New York’s real estate for small non-profit organizations, Gilrain recommends that developers reconsider the application of high rents: “What we need in all five boroughs of New York City is more developers and landowners to make a long-term commitment to supporting the arts through rent subsidies for artists and non-profit arts organizations.” Gilrain considers this the only solution to successfully preserving the vibrant nature of the city’s art community.

In 2014 when many galleries started to reel from an increase in operating costs, neighborhood fatigue and expansions into the online sphere, the concern became less about the market’s past boom and current slowdown, and then more about the basics of sustainability within a city that has been replacing low-rise warehouses with condominium towers, rent increases and essentially pushing both artists and their studios to environs that are less inside New York and more within the Greater Metropolitan Area.

The strong emphasis on art fairs since 2008 ushered in the pop-up exhibition model, wherein art exhibitions are put up for durations ranging from one day to two weeks. Online communication platforms have supplanted viewing art in-person. Today viewers can see hundreds of shows each month, but virtually. Moreover the speed of social media has shortened attention spans of art observers such that exhibitions longer than three weeks are quickly forgotten.

The exhibition and viewing of contemporary art is no longer directly about sales and collecting, but instead it’s more about experiencing. The non-profit spaces and programs that are long-term throughout New York City remain successful due to their assiduous work to locate and preserve strategic partnerships.

Jill Conner, New York