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.
“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.
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.
“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.