The New York dealer Elizabeth Dee cofounded the Independent art fair in 2010 as a kind of scrappy alternative to the much larger Armory Show. From its fairly humble roots running out of the old home of the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea, Independent now holds two fairs in New York—one during Armory Week and, as of 2014, another during the November auctions—and is preparing to open a new fair in Brussels this April.
The Dia building was sold in 2014 and will be the future site of—big surprise—a luxury condo development. This week, on Thursday, Independent will hold its sixth edition at a new headquarters at the much roomier Spring Studios in Tribeca with some 40 exhibitors.
Dee, who ran her eponymous gallery in Chelsea for the last 15 years, has also moved her business uptown to Harlem, where she lives. She’ll be joined by gallery transplants from other neighborhoods—Gavin Brown, who used to operate out of the West Village, and Broadway 1602, which formerly had a space in the Flower District. After a tour of Spring Studios earlier in February—at the time, a large crew was busy dismantling equipment used during New York Fashion Week—we sat down with Dee to discuss Independent’s new digs, Harlem, and leaving Chelsea.
Tell me about holding Independent in this new space.
We started this project in the beginning of a recession. And it was through a generation of galleries that all started at the same time. I think of a gallery having different chapters. There’s a seven-year cycle. During the recession, all of us were in this transition phase. We were all much younger. What I found is that a lot of the core galleries that started with Independent, they’re not young anymore. A lot of these galleries were saying that they wanted to take what they’ve done in the last seven years at Independent and get more ambitious. Because they’re more mature, they’re at a different stage, and their artists are at a more mature stage. So we wanted to make the spaces larger and we wanted to keep the sense of democracy. We have galleries from different generations who are occupying the space at the same scale.
What were your priorities when you started Independent?
We had no priorities. We had zero expectations. I think that was the best thing. It was really just about having the same conversations with people over and over and over again at every single fair. Why can’t it be like this? The artists really want it to go in this direction and it’s not. Why? I just kind of thought, with Darren [Flook], my cofounder, if I can get a space in New York, why don’t we just try to do something that’s going to work for us, that will put our presentations first? That might be of interest. And I did find a space. Dia had been sold to someone I knew. We had a lot of people behind the idea. So to me it was just: let’s see what happens and if people find it’s valuable, maybe it will continue, but it doesn’t have to. There was no expectation or ambition to make the fair into a business. That wasn’t on the agenda, and it’s still not on the agenda. This is the kind of project that should not exist if it’s not warranted. It has been very successful, but only because it keeps growing and changing with the needs of galleries. And also respecting artists and what they need to protect the integrity of their work.
Independent is also now expanding to Brussels. How did that come about?
Well, that again is just about listening to the galleries. The majority of the galleries that show at Independent have been European, and they’ve taken financial and curatorial risks to bring programs here that haven’t shown here before. So without them we wouldn’t have had the success that we’ve had. We wanted to be able to provide the same value in their backyard.
We were in a process of transition here. The market was growing in the real-estate sector just at the time that we were losing Dia. We weren’t sure where we were going to go for a while. It was a lot easier for us to find our building in Brussels than it was here, and it was a lot more pleasurable of an experience. All these things clicked there, right around the time when we were starting to think about where we would go if we weren’t in New York. Finding this space was fortuitous. We looked all over the city. I looked for two years. It was very daunting. But to find a space that would inspire artists and dealers to leave their own galleries is very difficult. There are a lot of event spaces, but nothing that inspires you. But this was really unbelievable. It’s been a long time coming.
Are you fully moved out of the Chelsea gallery now?
Yes, we left on February 1st.
When will you be opening in Harlem?
We’ll be open in May, if everything goes according to plan.
I’m curious what you think about the future of Harlem as a kind of gallery district, and also what you think about the future of Chelsea.
Chelsea’s not going away. It’s going to be there, just in a slightly different form. Harlem is going to be interesting. I think people know the art world needs a re-ignition in New York. And people have been searching for what that is. These neighborhoods that we consider the gallery districts are now 10 and 20 years old. So we’re due for a new neighborhood to arise, and Harlem seems to be the logical place.
And you live up in Harlem?
I’ve lived up there for four years. I’m a homeowner up there. I’ve gotten involved with my building and the neighborhood as much as I can. And because I’ve been searching for a space for the new gallery there for the last year, I’ve gotten to know a lot more about the neighborhood than I would if I were just simply residing there. I’ve met people who own car parks and garages—people who have owned property since the ’80s, and really had a vision for Harlem 20 or 30 years ago. That’s been really inspiring. I feel like the sky has opened up really in terms of what I can do now.
Some of those people you’ve talked to that have been in Harlem for a long time, what do they think about these new galleries opening up there?
There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction for the neighborhood. Because culture is considered a safe space, and this is a neighborhood that was not considered safe for a long time. But Harlem is huge. It’s almost as if you took Gramercy and Stuyvesant Town and Chelsea and West Chelsea and maybe even Koreatown and said that’s one neighborhood. It’s a big territory, and it’s not going to just get saturated in five years’ time. I think it will be more organic.
Well, you know, three or four galleries all said they were opening there over a short period of time. I’ve already noticed a kind of backlash—that this is just the art world gentrifying another neighborhood.
But Harlem has been gentrifying since the ’90s! This happened 25 years ago.
I think a lot of people have a sour taste in their mouths from the amount of development that took place in Chelsea over the last three years. There’s this fear that once a few galleries start moving into a neighborhood, the development won’t stop until everyone is priced out again.
But that would never happen in Harlem. A significant amount of that area is taken up by public housing, which isn’t going to change. You’re always going to have economic diversity in that neighborhood. West Chelsea had nothing. It was ripe for that kind of development. That can’t happen in Harlem on the same level. Harlem has too much history and it represents different things to different people.