Open City: Blogging Urban Change
The New City
By Jerome Chou

 

If it’s possible to open a museum that has no exhibition space to show work and no work to show, then it’s accurate to say: Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in January, 1977. One week earlier, Tucker had been forced to resign from her position as curator at the Whitney Museum. She set up an office in Tribeca with two former interns, salvaged furniture, and no AC or heat. In its first six months, the fledgling museum held three shows in off-site locations, producing Xeroxed, hand-stapled catalogues.

1977 was also the year of the citywide blackouts, and the year that sportscasters on a nationally televised Yankees game spotted arson fires burning in the Bronx. A few years earlier, the city had essentially declared bankruptcy. Whole blocks of the Lower East Side lay in ruins.

In her autobiography, Tucker makes no mention of these events, but the trajectories of the humbled city and the upstart museum seem intertwined from that low moment in the late `70s. Today, New York draws record numbers of visitors in its Luxury City incarnation, and the museum, too, has become a magnet for wealth and tourists. It was only fitting, then, to see the Festival of Ideas spilling out onto the Bowery in early May, very publicly signaling the New Museum’s interest in shaping the city’s future. And what better way to visualize the ongoing project that the museum, more than any other single entity, has helped create: the art world’s spread throughout Chinatown and the Lower East Side.


“Making art in the early twenty-first century is just the same as making art in any other century, except for the money that coats everything like ash.”
- Richard Flood, New Museum curator, from the catalogue for the museum’s first show in its new building, 2007.

To understand the growth of the art market in the last two decades, it’s helpful to look at 583 Broadway and 235 Bowery—the New Museum’s previous and current buildings. The museum’s first capital campaign, launched in 1996, netted $4 million for an expansion and renovation of its old space in SoHo.  Ten years later, the price tag for its new building on the Bowery was estimated at $64 million. A 2007 New York Times article reported that board members were required to make annual contributions of $25,000, as well as a six-figure donation for the building campaign—modest sums compared to what from the MOMA or the Met commands, but still a clear sign of a boom.

By some accounts, the dollar value of the art market today is twenty times what it was in 1990, as a growing pool of wealthy global investors joins the game, even bundling investments in art objects like investment bankers divvying up mortgages. Statements about this trend manage to sound simultaneously overblown and matter-of-fact, as in this quote from gallerist Paula Cooper: “It’s a huge world now. The art world is enormous. It’s completely intertwined—there are shows all over the world of everybody.”

But it’s not just the jet set crowd that’s expanding. According to the College Art Association, the number of MFA programs in the visual arts in the U.S. and Canada has grown from 168 schools in 1992 to 350 last year. Each year more twenty-somethings emerge from these programs self-identifying as artists. Each year, there are more people producing and consuming art, more people attending gallery openings and starting galleries themselves.


Kevin Berlin, "Steamed Buns #2," oil on canvas. Mark Miller Gallery (92 Orchard St), 2010

“For most of our lives, and for the 100 years preceding, [the Bowery] was an eyesore, it was a place that people avoided; they didn’t want to spend time there. But it was always a place that attracted artists.”
- Lisa Phillips, director, New Museum

In a research room on the New Museum’s fifth floor is a timeline showing some of the artists who have occupied former factory and warehouse spaces on or around the Bowery over the past half-century: Rothko, Rauschenberg, Goldin, Acconci, Basquiat. In the 21st century, the neighborhood is notable not for its artists’ studios but as the city’s newest gallery district.

Prior to the museum’s opening in 2007, a handful of private art galleries were scattered around Chinatown and the Lower East Side; today there are more than 60, drawn by the area’s new cachet and commercial rents that are half the going rate in Chelsea. Among these ranks are blue chip Chelsea establishments like Lehmann Maupin that have opened a downtown outpost; idealistic art school graduates showing the work of their friends and contemporaries; and an owner-operator of palm reading businesses who now uses his Orchard Street storefront to host exhibition openings instead of fortune tellers.

graphic by Manuel Miranda

Many of the new gallery owners and staff I talked to said they preferred the Lower East Side’s diversity—new bars and restaurants opening next to decades-old printers and undergarment stores—to Chelsea’s gallery monoculture. Of course, this particular mash-up rarely lasts. Savvy property owners see galleries as an advertisement, luring high-rent tenants that price out both older businesses and the galleries themselves. (The 1980s East Village boom-and-bust gallery district offers a recent example.) If, as the New Museum’s director Lisa Phillips said in 2007, the Bowery was “languishing” behind NoLita and SoHo in attracting more upscale businesses, shoppers, and residents, it is now quickly catching up.

Kevin Berlin, "Steamed Buns," oil on canvas

“To harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore ideas that will shape it.”
- from the mission statement for the Festival of Ideas for the New City

In the weeks leading up to the festival, I’d heard local community groups saying that the New Museum was trying to make up in one weekend for years of minimal outreach. Friends who were participating in the festival complained that they were doing weeks of unpaid work, though the museum had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars overall for the event. By late April, staff at certain nonprofits or design firms were saying yes, they’d gotten your e-mail or voicemail, but they’d have to get back to you after May 8.

In the New City, perhaps street fairs will be unrecognizable to us, but this one felt familiar. It was crowded. It was hard to move. I lasted an hour before breaking down and buying a $4 organic soda. Groups and projects tended to flow into each other. At one point, I stumbled into the Bowery Mission and was whisked away on an official tour of the pantry and kitchen, which serves over 800 meals a day. I visited the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, whose “Save the Bowery!” campaign tells you where they stand on development in the Lower East Side. A man stopped by to say he was thrilled with all the changes in the neighborhood, prompting a spontaneous debate over rent control. In Sara D. Roosevelt Park, a young man who was born and raised in Chinatown lingered over a scale model of East River waterfront made by the Hester Street Collaborative, a local nonprofit that is organizing workshops for local residents to weigh in on the future of Pier 35. If one goal of the Festival was to concentrate and heighten the exchange of ideas that the city makes possible, it had succeeded.

The groups themselves claimed the attention; even with banners and branding on every street corner, the New Museum itself receded. But so too, strangely, did the neighborhood. After wandering by dozens of organizations and food vendors and colorful canopies and posters and sculptures, I passed a restaurant supply store, the first one I’d noticed all afternoon. Hadn’t I just spent two hours walking up and down the Bowery, the mecca for restaurant supplies? Somehow this showcase for the new city had unwittingly managed to erase parts of the city we have now.

Later, I started to imagine a slightly different festival, one more rooted in the specific streets and buildings being occupied, and at the same time more faithful to the New Museum’s original intent: to be, despite its own institutional standing, a kind of irreverent rebuke or irritant to the traditional art world. In this version, the museum commissions artists to work with local nonprofits to mark and lead tours of stalled construction sites and vacant condominiums in the area, and discuss solutions for populating these buildings. A group of graphic designers and urban planners interviews real estate agents and local businesses, mapping rent increases throughout the area since 2007, and creating a diagram showing how, despite the Bowery’s reputation as an eyesore to be avoided, its cluster of restaurant supply stores is a vital part of the larger Chinatown food industry, connecting hundreds of food wholesalers and distributors, printers and restaurants. A theater company goes to crowded local parks to re-enact—in Spanish and Chinese—recent community board hearings and debates about new development projects and affordable housing guidelines.

In other words, rather than assume that its presence and actions in the city are neutral, the New Museum acknowledges that it accelerates a particular kind of neighborhood change, and tries to make it less smooth, less seamless. To make these kinds of ideas more public would be a real contribution to the new city.

5 Responses to The New City

  1. Bowery Boy says:

    The Bowery was a vibrant scene before the elevated train went up, and it is still recovering from those darkened days. But the NuMu and its festival only attracts the attention of outsider developers (who couldn’t care less about the neighborhood) and gives property owners big money ideas, which is driving out the very local artists that the museum pretends to care about. You would think that a museum would be more sensitive to the detrimental effects that it is having on a community that was here long before it arrived. sad.

  2. Bowerygals says:

    We weary of the arrogance of this museum and it’s high-end Board. The Bowery was an “eyesore” or “languishing” only if you are looking for white upper middle class culture and its norms. “People” didn’t “avoid” it. We raised families here, as did many other working class parents.

    The neighborhood was jumping, exciting, wild and unique. It had heart and it was gritty. And it is slowly being paved over by this bland and pretentious crowd.

    Wrap the “festival” in eco-speak as they tried, it’s still exploitation of whatever is percieved as a “raw” material – whether it’s a pristine forest or the gritty old Bowery – it has to be comodified and sold as “new” (oh, and “improved”).

    It’s fine that artists and community groups tried to make the “festival” interesting, but honestly, if Goldman Sachs is sponsoring the event, how is the whole thing not going to wind up as one long advertisement for that world view?

  3. Katie says:

    Thanks for writing this piece. As someone who lives in Chinatown/LES, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Festival of Ideas. It was nice to see so much activity and artistic exchange within the neighborhood, but the crowds felt like they were full of people visiting from other parts of the city.

    I wish that there were tours of vacant lots and empty buildings in the LES–there are quite a few and it would be nice to see neglected plots of land reclaimed and fixed up for the community to make use of.

  4. Boweryartist says:

    So the New Museum is all about sales and galleries and rich tourists. And the working artists be-damned!! Suddenly the Bowery, historically home for all kinds of artists, is no longer available as a place for artist to live and work. Should we thank the New Museum?

  5. rob says:

    The Festival was, of course, a promotional carnival for the Museum. I’m not sure that a festival is the optimal means of engaging the public with difficult issues of envisioning the urban future, which can’t be just optimistic inventions and design candy. There are troubling, even contradictory, trade-offs in urban planning, and the New Museum has already traded on several: the building itself, with its rectilinear hard edge and color in the mode of high-art gallery-style (whether it contains simulacra of pop culture or not, in this context, it’s all high and chic) towering over a neighborhood that had always been anything but high or pristine or chic, immediately presents the Museum’s relationship with the community as a challenging problematic to concerned and aware artists and curators, a worry to be resolved.

    So I’m not sure what was accomplished by the Festival towards our urban future, except the assurance that the NM will not only remain there, but will cover the neighborhood and appropriate it, until the relationship between the NM and the neighborhood will one of self and mirror, at which point any issue of relationship will be resolved entirely.

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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