There are more than 70 art galleries and exhibition spaces in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. On Orchard Street alone, there are 16 galleries, including six that have opened since 2008 on the block between Hester and Canal. Several of these galleries preserve the Chinese names of the previous business above the storefront, the ghost remains of a printer or a video store.
It’s an old story in the neighborhood. Nearly thirty years ago, when the name “East Village” was coined to replace “Lower East Side” from Houston to 14th Street, artists began opening dozens of galleries and organizing shows in a vast landscape of cheap storefronts and abandoned buildings. Within six years, many of these galleries had closed. But they had created a template for neighborhood change. Start with an area with relatively cheap rents, small storefront spaces, a neighborhood feeling different from the established gallery districts. Add small armies of art school graduates and investors seeking the latest new thing. Wait 2-3 years. Repeat.
The notes below, pieced together from news articles from the 1980s and other accounts of that era, describe the sudden rise and fall of a new arts district, and the efforts of some artists to question and challenge those changes.
The East Village Art scene began when Patti Astor and Bill Sterling opened a gallery in Sterling’s painting studio on East 11th Street, in July 1981. Small and funky—you could stretch your arms out and practically touch both side walls—the gallery didn’t even have a name until its second month, when painter Kenny Scharf christened it “Fun.”…The storefront cost just $175 a month to rent. “We were working other jobs to support the gallery,” says Sterling, “which was a complete indulgence at that point. The idea of selling something was a fabulous perk. But the amazing thing was that things did start selling.”
- Amy Virshup, “The Fun’s Over,” New York Magazine, June 22, 1987
A handful of other spaces – some “alternative,” or not for profit – are part of a growing East Village gallery scene that threatens to erupt into Manhattan’s third art district, after Uptown and SoHo. Its principals are apt to be young and mainly artists themselves, the neighborhoods they’re in are still hairy enough for the word “dealer” to have a double meaning, and the art they show – which includes some very prettied-up graffiti – tends to be flashier, more “political” and quicker in its appeal to a broader public than frequents Manhattan’s more rarefied art zones.
- Grace Glueck, “A Gallery Scene that Pioneers in New Territories,” New York Times, June 26, 1983
New York’s Lower East Side is valuable property for today’s art and real estate markets, and speculators have every reason to feel optimistic.
-Rosalyn Deutsche, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” 1984
Are you sick of hearing art market hype about Lower East Side art, artists and galleries…skyrocketing rents, seeing stores and restaurants close because they can’t swing new rents; seeing the Lower East Side become SoHoized?
- call for artists’ submittals for an anti-gentrification exhibit titled “Not For Sale,” 1984
The starkly rendered silhouette of a hydra-headed, real estate speculator is glued obliquely to the red brick wall on the corner of First Avenue and 9th Street. A few feet away a wheat paste flyer announces “Reagonomic Gallieries”…It was the spring of 1984. The wall belonged to PS 122, a former public school turned not-for-profit venue best known for showcasing the emerging genre of performance art. Unbeknownst to its staff, P.S. 122’s façade was transformed overnight into the Discount Salon, one of four “guerilla art” galleries christened with Krylon spray paint monikers that lampooned the flood of commercial dealers opening shop across The Lower East Side.
The other three pseudo-galleries included The Leona Helmsley Gallery at the base off the then derelict Christadora Building, Another Gallery at 5th and 2nd Ave, and most prophetically the Guggenheim Downtown at the northwest corner of Tompkins Square Park. These galleries were temporarily commandeered by a group of interventionist artists seeking to provoke a public debate about gentrification and the political economy of the 1980s art world.
- Gregory Sholette, “Political Art, Reloaded.” Sholette was a member of the arts activist collective Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PADD) describing the PADD exhibit “Art for the Evicted.”
Today, contemporary art is evolving under the avid scrutiny of the public and an ever-increasing pool of collectors in the United States, Europe and Japan; and it is heavily publicized in the mass media. Barely disturbed by occasional dips in the economy, the art market has been booming steadily.
- Cathleen McGuigan, “New Art, New Money,” New York Times, Feb 10, 1985
At its acme, during the 1984-1985 season, the East Village had more than 70 galleries. Since then, about twenty have closed, including three of the very first—Fun Gallery, New Math, and Civilian Warfare…As always in New York, this is also a tale of real estate…by 1984, landlords would sign only one-or two-year leases, doubling or tripling the rent at the end of the lease…“At one point,” says [journalist] Walter Robinson, “we joked that we would do an East Village R.I.P. thing that would be a list of all the galleries and when their leases were up. And that would indicate when it was going to end.”
- Amy Virshup, “The Fun’s Over”