Market

’Round 57th Street: New York’s First Gallery District Continues (for Now) to Weather Endless Changes in the Art World

PHOTO BY KATHERINE MCMAHON

The New York Gallery Building has been the area’s main hub of galleries since the 1960s.

KATHERINE MCMAHON

Once described as “the street of Carnegie Hall debuts and Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” 57th Street exudes an old New York kind of charm. It has been home to Theodore Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Béla Bartók, and Holly Golightly, but perhaps the most notable title this street can lay claim to is as the site of New York’s first major cluster of galleries. Art neighborhoods tend to come and go fast in this city, all following a familiar pattern: galleries move into a fledgling (or maybe derelict) neighborhood, rent goes up, development kicks in, then the galleries are priced out, left to find other accommodations.

But 57th Street began in October 1892, when the Art Students League of New York moved to 215 West 57th Street. Rosina Florio, the league’s director at the time, had a grand vision for her institution’s new home. Picturing 57th Street as a grand arts boulevard, Florio had the League’s newly constructed headquarters built in the style of French Renaissance architecture and named it the American Fine Arts Building (which became a city landmark in 1968). Although Florio’s dream for the area never came to fruition, in the years that followed the Art Student League’s international reputation grew considerably alongside an interest in 57th Street. Knoedler & Co, the oldest gallery in New York at the time, cemented that interest by moving to 57th Street and Madison Avenue in 1925, and in 1929 the newly founded Museum of Modern Art opened up in temporary quarters a block away, on Fifth Avenue. The city’s second oldest gallery, Babcock Galleries (today, Driscoll Babcock), followed suit in the 1930s, confirming 57th Street’s status as the city’s new center for art dealers. In the 1960s, the Fuller Building on the corner of 57th and Madison established itself as the street’s main gallery building, housing at that time André Emmerich, Charles Egan, David McKee, Zabriskie, Andrew Crispo, and the Pierre Matisse Gallery. Several decades later this title transferred to a building located further down the block at 24 West 57th Street. To avoid any confusion, in the 1990s the property was renamed “The New York Gallery Building.”

Over the last few decades, the art world’s center of gravity in New York has shifted away from the neighborhood, as SoHo, then Chelsea, and finally the Lower East Side have grown in stature, but the street has hung in there, for better and worse, for more than a century. New York galleries have been priced out of so many neighborhoods by now that in 2016, dealers are starting to look back to where the art business more or less began.

“I can tell you a story, I’m a fixture on this street,” said the 95-year-old co-director of Galerie St. Etienne, Hildegard Bachert, sitting beside me on a couch one recent afternoon in her gallery. Calling Bachert a fixture is an understatement. She joined Galerie St. Etienne in 1940, back when they were still renting the third floor of a five-story brownstone located at 46 West 57th Street. “This was the art place,” said Bachert, whose diminutive frame belies her boisterous demeanor. “Fifty-Seventh was the best, West was not as good as East. East of Fifth Avenue was Knoedler, the most venerable, fantastic gallery.” In reference to Knoedler’s closing in 2011 after a major forgery scandal, she added, “If they were crooks we didn’t know it then. They were very elegant.”

For a decade Galerie St. Etienne remained in that brownstone, wedged “between a dance studio and a tailor,” until the building came down to build a skyscraper at 40 West 57th, where Marlborough Gallery is today. In that time, under the leadership of founder Otto Kallir, Galerie St. Etienne introduced Gustav Klimt, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Egon Schiele, among other notable German and Austrian expressionists, to the United States.

Galerie St. Etienne in 1960.COURTESY GALERIE ST> ETIENNE

Galerie St. Etienne in 1960.

COURTESY GALERIE ST. ETIENNE

The gallery moved to its current location at 24 West 57th Street in June 1960. By that point, recalled Bachert, many of the galleries that had been on 57th Street had begun migrating north toward Madison Avenue to be near the Parke-Bernet auction house (which was later absorbed by Sotheby’s). “The newer galleries all went up there, the rent was less expensive,” said Bachert. “Then it got to be extremely expensive.” This was around 1970, when many of these galleries returned to 57th Street, joined at the time by a couple newer ones.

Joan Washburn was one such gallerist. Washburn opened her gallery on Madison Avenue in 1971, later relocating to 42 E 57th Street. “Rents were cheaper on 57th than Madison at that stage,” said Washburn over the phone. “There was also such a wide variety, that’s the one thing that was so marvelous about 57th street,” Washburn continued, in reference to the mix of both historical and contemporary galleries in the area. She cited this as a characteristic that continues to define 57th Street. “It’s a very rich, full-course meal.”

Fifty-Seventh Street retains a considerable amount of clout through the presence of one gallery alone–Marian Goodman, the dealer of John Baldessari, Steve McQueen, and Gerhard Richter, among others. Goodman established her gallery on the street in 1980, at a time when contemporary dealers of her generation were already migrating downtown. She funded the business in its beginnings by selling artists’ editions through a business called Multiples. “We found a very good space in a neighborhood that was close to the Metropolitan Museum, so to speak,” Goodman said in a phone conversation. “I don’t think that SoHo—how should I say—was the epicenter of the art world at that time.”

Beginning in the late ’70s and continuing through the ’80s, SoHo was, however, where artists worked and lived (or in some cases squatted). It emerged first as the rough-edged alternative to 57th Street before overtaking the neighborhood as the city’s main gallery district, anchored by Castelli and Mary Boone, who were ratcheting up the prices for contemporary artists like Julian Schnabel (the pair jointly represented him). Still, 57th Street remained synonymous with a kind of uptown class that eluded SoHo, even as it became increasingly commercial. When Schnabel left Boone in 1984, he decamped for Pace, located on—where else?—57th Street. (Pace announced in 2015 that it would be shifting focus away from 57th Street by building a new space in Chelsea, where it currently has three galleries.) Boone herself eventually made the move up there in the mid-’90s. “The atmosphere in SoHo has become unbearable,” she told the New York Times back then. “It’s no longer art-oriented. Galleries first came to SoHo with the understanding that collectors like to see art in the context of where artists work, but artists haven’t worked here for over 20 years. Now SoHo has become mostly low-end retail stores.”

This fate has not exactly consumed 57th Street, but a similar transformation is taking place in the two neighborhoods that have been the art world’s primary headquarters for the last decade: Chelsea and the Lower East Side. One dealer who made the move out of SoHo and then Chelsea is Peter Blum. Blum opened in SoHo in 1993, where he remained until 2012, long after a lot of galleries had already decamped from the neighborhood. He also ran an additional space in Chelsea but closed that and moved to 57th Street in 2013. Blum’s decision to opt for uptown was a pragmatic one. “Our lease for the Chelsea space was running out and we received word that the building had sold and the new owners were planning to demolish the gallery and replace it with an apartment building,” Blum said via email. Echoing Washburn and Kallir, Blum’s interest in the area was also rooted in its historical cultural fare and collector base. “It’s near institutions like MoMA, the Whitney (now the Met Breuer), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a number of collectors who either live or stay close by during a visit to New York.”

Over the years Goodman has also “thought about moving down to Chelsea” but decided to stay on 57th Street for a number of reasons. “We have a lot of European artists we represent and I don’t think they were in love with Chelsea,” she said. “You see so many galleries in a row that you have to question the interest level [of visitors] after a while when they go to Chelsea. Very often they start to forget what gallery they’re in and what art they show.” Around 57th Street, she said, “The artists like it a lot, so we stay.”

There are, of course, disadvantages to the area. Blum lists “expensive parking,” “less storage options,” and the travails of not having a ground-floor gallery space. “It can be tricky organizing larger works to go through our second-floor window sometimes,” he said.

(Speaking of which, Salvador Dalí once famously had one of his paintings hoisted from the sidewalk of 57th Street up the side of the building and into a window for a show at Pace Gallery. Quite a stunt.)

To these, Goodman added the issues of gallery variety and attendance. “I’m sorry there isn’t more of a variety of galleries up here. I think most galleries went to Chelsea for understandable reasons: better to be in a cluster with a lot of galleries than be on your own,” she said, speculating that “more collectors” may choose to visit Chelsea over 57th Street. But Goodman was quick to counter that, for her, quality still outweighs quantity. “A number of different, shall we say, populations, flood into Chelsea,” she said. “Instead here we find people tend to come for specific shows.”

For Washburn the most obvious factor that continues to keep her on 57th Street and draw other galleries back is the area’s affordability. “I think 57th Street is generally less expensive than the ground floor in Chelsea,” she said, listing Anton Kern as another gallerist who’d recently decided to move uptown from Chelsea.

To put the financial decisions that dealers have to make into perspective, a 2007 Times article on the rapidly increasing rental price in Chelsea reported that a warehouse rental cost around $8 per square foot in 1995. Today, according to figures obtained from Square Foot, an online broker site, average rental goes for $61 per square foot in the area, slightly under the city’s overall average of $72. But, as listings on property site City Feet show, commercial spaces in Chelsea can go for up to $300 per square foot.

“It has been an interesting time in the New York gallery landscape,” said Blum, trying to make sense of this trend. “There is less of a center like Chelsea had been in recent years. Galleries are moving all over–to Harlem, the L.E.S., below Canal Street, and Midtown, among other places.”

Washburn also noted the rise in art fairs and “concentration” of traffic they bring to galleries as having a profound effect on the gallery scene. “The art fairs may have eaten into gallery traffic because people go to them and think they’ve seen everything, which is hardly the case. But as a gallery there’s no comparison between the number of people who walk by your space in a month versus the amount who come into your booth at an art fair.”

Both Blum and Kallir have witnessed an “influx of galleries moving to Midtown” more recently. Today, a pack of galleries—including Goodman, Marc Jancou, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art (and for some time the vanity gallery, Ana Tzarev)—occupy space at Galerie St Etienne’s address, the New York Gallery Building. Beyond the title being a convenient real-estate label “coined by some landlord,” in Bachert’s words, given the building’s current occupants, it also carries some weight. “It’s an obvious nexus since the Upper East Side is a place, if not the place, where a lot of collectors live,” said Jane Kallir, granddaughter to founder of Galerie St. Etienne, and co-director alongside Bachert since 1977.

But, as history shows, this critical mass is unlikely to last forever. “One of the things that is a little irksome for me is this constant reference to ‘Billionaire’s Row,’ ” said Kallir, referring to the recent real-estate trend of building “mega skyscrapers” in the area, like 432 Park Avenue South. “I can’t predict what that means for the future. It’s certainly something that, from a real-estate point of view, we need to contend with.”

For Washburn this is a reality her gallery is already potentially facing. “This building is going to come down,” she said, noting that Sheldon Solow, the owner had already purchased the neighboring empty building and one behind it on 56th Street. “So we will eventually have to move.”

It’s a problem plaguing much of the creative industry in New York right now. “I’ve never met a landlord who didn’t want to do anything other than raise rents,” said Goodman. “One of the saddest things I think in terms of the quality of New York is this business of raising rentals on small stores that often have a great value in the city. The city used to have so much diversity, and now you have a bank on every corner and it’s all due to the real-estate market, I think. I think the city’s paying dearly for it, it’s becoming more bland.”

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