THE NEW YORK STORY may seem to be one of money, but even so, it is a tale encompassing many turns. Certainly, the celestial auction prices of an overheated art market dominated headlines in 2007, to say nothing of griping kaffeeklatsches of collectors, curators, and gallerists. Yet underdiscussed, perhaps, is how the long-bullish economy has affected sectors of the New York art scene that ostensibly linger on its fringes, enabling small galleries and alternative, nonprofit arts spaces to flourish. Indeed, the ever-expanding popularity of contemporary art--underwritten by the city's many investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, real estate developers, and entrepreneurs, whose pockets have for years been overflowing--has meant that even those galleries cultivating a more renegade, anticommercial stance have sold enough to keep the doors open and, on top of that, turn a tidy profit.
Geographically speaking, this dynamic is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the continued burgeoning of the Lower East Side arts scene. While spaces like Participant Inc., Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Orchard, Canada, Rivington Arms, and Miguel Abreu Gallery are still mainstays of the area--to name only a few of the first- and second-wave pioneers to arrive in the neighborhood since 2001 (when it was considered a strange aftershock of the '80s East Village)--a whole additional slew of modestly scaled commercial venues emerged in the past twelve months, integrating almost invisibly into the still-eclectic grit of Chinatown or else the quickly gentrifying blocks just north of it. There are, for example, new upstart enterprises like RENTAL--which, as the name suggests, hosts rotating shows by out-of-town galleries--as well as Sunday NYC, Smith-Stewart, and the relocated Luxe Gallery. All of them exude a spunky determination, using every square inch of their barely-bigger-than-a-bread-box spaces to showcase emerging figures; and in an LES context where art venues seem embedded in the comings and goings of ordinary life, it's an approach that gives welcome relief from the too often monotonous grandeur of that Art Mall to its west. But, of course, one cannot help but wonder how long this environment will last: While existing architectural structures and zoning regulations will forestall any immediate replication of Chelsea in the area, satellite branches of more established enterprises, including Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Salon 94 Freemans, and Eleven Rivington (an outpost of midtown's Greenberg Van Doren Gallery), are already beginning to appear alongside these galleries' fledgling efforts. And with the opening of the New Museum on the Bowery this month, the Lower East Side is sure to be fully consecrated as a necessary, no-longer-underground part of the circuit.
This very dynamic, of course, inevitably leads one to consider whether the same economic forces that allowed for such a blossoming of activity have also made it ever more difficult for artists themselves to live and work in the city. For while the Lower East Side is booming not only in art but in real estate--as was, and continues to be, the case in the transformation of both Williamsburg and Chelsea--the same is true, in a sense, of Bushwick. And there's the rub: With each passing year, more visual and performing artists are unable to find affordable studio and rehearsal space, regularly getting kicked out of their longtime rentals throughout Brooklyn (to say nothing of Manhattan), clearing the way for upscale condos. In other words, if 2007 was a banner year for the economics of art in New York, it was, unfortunately, a banner year for a kind of exodus as well, with artists no longer just decamping to the next few stops on the L train but, more dramatically, picking up shop and moving upstate, or to Berlin, or to that out-of-town teaching job, or (the best option, in my opinion) to the affordable loft spaces of Philadelphia. …