Leonard Quart | Letter from New York: The rise of mega-galleries in NYC

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NEW YORK — Expansion today seems to be rule in the art world, from the Museum of Modern Art to major galleries in Chelsea, the world center of contemporary art.

MoMA has just completed a $450 million expansion, adding 40,000 square feet of gallery space to the existing museum. Its purpose is to give the museum the opportunity to display significantly more art in new and reimagined ways by revamping galleries, including a radical "remix" of its permanent collection. This will allow famous works to be exhibited alongside those of lesser-known artists in the name of inclusion.

According to MoMA, "[the new spaces] will offer a deeper experience of art through all mediums and by artists from more diverse geographies and backgrounds than ever before."

In addition, for the first time, an entire floor of the museum — including the sculpture garden and ground-floor galleries — will be free, opening up access to those who cannot afford the inflated $25 entry fee.

Since its inception, MoMA has maintained an immense gender gap in its exhibitions, but its aim now is to highlight women's artistic achievements, as well as those of African American, Asian and Latino artists who have been neglected by the collection. It's a belated and imperative move by MoMA, but in the self-conscious rush to achieve equity and compensate for past failures there is always a danger that artistic standards are forgotten and second-rate works are elevated.

In an essay about the new MoMA, The New Yorker's fine art critic, Peter Schieldahl, sees the juxtaposition of Picasso and works by contemporary minority painters as a positive: "The best time to visit the revamped MoMA is your first, punctuated with reintroductions to old artistic companions. Masterpieces dulled by overfamiliarity in an account that had become as rote as a college textbook spring to second lives by being repositioned."

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The Chelsea art scene is also going through great changes. Small- and mid-tier galleries in Chelsea have had to deal with skyrocketing rents, as more and more luxury residential buildings are going up on every parking lot, garage and warehouse that once existed there. These small galleries are also dealing with competition from galleries opening in Tribeca, where spaces are more intimate. But meanwhile the mega-galleries that have the money to stay in Chelsea are building up. For example, David Zwirner, who already owns a group of galleries in Chelsea, is completing a five-story gallery designed by Renzo Piano in a vacant lot on West 21st Street. The new eight-story, 75,000-square-foot Pace global headquarters building opened on West 25th Street in the fall. Hauser & Wirth is still readying its first purpose-built gallery complex at 542 W 22nd St. And the mega-huge Gagosian Gallery "franchise" would be expanding in the Chelsea neighborhood by leasing a 7,900-square-foot space on West 24th Street — a space that was formerly occupied by the once-famous and infamous Mary Boone, who is now serving a prison term.

All these galleries are competing with each other to make a splash. They have the money to raid other galleries. For example, Hauser and Wirth is signing star artist Nicole Eisenman. However, it seems that selling and exhibiting art isn't sufficient to attract moneyed clients. As a result, The New York Times suggests that the mega-galleries are "shifting their emphasis from selling and showing art to a more full-service visitor experience that offers food, performance spaces, research libraries and open storage."

Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, told The Times that the future of art galleries lies into making them into places of ecstatic congregation, "like church."

Despite this expansion, dealers say they don't view galleries as the main site for sales and networking. Instead they see art fairs and the internet as the primary way to meet new clients. Magdalena Sawon, who owns Postmasters Gallery, sees galleries as competing with the vastness of visual data online. And nearly a third of dealers expect to do even fewer sales at galleries in the future. Even if there are more places to look at a painting — I sometimes Google images of very different painters like Clyfford Still and William Glackens that I find striking — they are no substitute for what galleries provide: The texture and detail of paintings where you can clearly see the brushstrokes, the use of light and shadow, and the general application of paint. Moreover, galleries are places where you can often discuss the paintings with knowledgeable young people who work there. I am far from an art critic, but much of my art education and ability to make untutored judgments has come from going regularly to galleries.

I am curious what smaller Chelsea galleries like the director of George Adams feel about the mega-galleries. George Adams Gallery (525-531 W 26th St.) was founded in 1952 and it specializes according to the director in "figurative narrative" by painters like Jack Beal and Joan Brown, and is now exhibiting the striking cityscapes of Andrew Lenaghan. He sees the mega galleries becoming "destination galleries" that undermine the democratic spirit of gallery hopping. People who go to Hauser & Wirth or Pace are then less likely to explore the smaller galleries that abound in Chelsea. Obviously, it hurts business. The mega-galleries are like the big real estate developers swallowing up all that stands in their way, driven more by money than art.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com.


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