On a cold Friday night, the last week of February, Rebecca Morris’ opening was the place to be. Suddenly— and yet not surprising to anyone following the area— northeast Tribeca felt like the center of the art world, or at the very least, worlds away from New York’s traditional gallery hub. In short order, the arts district below Canal Street has become the antithesis of Chelsea, where bigger is de facto better and luxury glass towers steadily replace West Side warehouses. As Jerry Saltz wrote after Labor Day, “something wonderful is happening in the once and future art neighborhood of Tribeca.”
Indeed, the first solo exhibition for the artist at Bortolami (on view through July 31) showcases Morris at her finest, presenting new landscapes in her signature cacophony—organic shapes, metallic spray paint, jagged borders and seemingly disassociated gestures. I experienced Morris’ practice during a Los Angeles studio visit eighteen months prior, as she prepared her 2019 solo exhibition, Rebecca Morris: The Ache of Bright with the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. Using a custom scaffold, Morris hovers and glides above the floor to direct pigment more precisely in her large-scale work. She also spends a good deal of time on the ground, stretching canvas tarps with accumulated paint drips and shoeprints, into their own off-kilter compositions.
Packed when I arrived, the gallery exuded an offbeat buzz that was the Tribeca norm this winter: metal buckets of Budweiser; laidback art goers spilling onto the sidewalk; and most of all, Morris, a veteran of the Whitney Biennial and the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A., who radiates a rare, unassuming warmth. In the candlelit backroom of Bubby’s Tribeca, after-party guests enjoyed grain bowls, braised short ribs and Meyer lemon meringue. Stefania Bortolami gave a raucous toast: “The truth is, Rebecca is very good at painting very large paintings, and I love very large paintings, especially made by women.” Within two weeks, of course, everything stopped. Museums and galleries shuttered; artists and collectors sheltered in place. In a blink, the pandemic disrupted nearly every facet of daily life. As I write this, crowded openings, shared beverage pails, and celebratory dinners recede further into nether reality.
And yet, Tribeca’s ascendance proceeds unabated. P.P.O.W, Jane Lombard Gallery and Luhring Augustine all plan to launch new spaces there this fall. Additional galleries are looking in the area, though as of publication, declined to go on the record. But while Tribeca has historically been home to artists (who could afford it), the fresh cadre of established and lower key dealers, along with thrumming street energy, appears to have sprung up overnight. So just how did this stretch between Church and Broadway, a gritty, retail no-man’s land, become such a concentrated art stop?
It’s as much a real estate story— a sector not often credited for bona-fide renaissance— as it is a contemporary art one; the brainchild of real estate broker and collector Jonathan Travis, who not only presaged a growing Chelsea fatigue, but began talking to galleries about the potential of a new neighborhood, corralling them below Canal Street . With a passion for emerging artists and figurative painters— favorites include Sasha Gordon and Lenz Geerk— Travis owns over 100 pieces that he displays throughout his Brooklyn apartment on a rotating basis he ruefully calls “overhung”. As an art insider, he grasps how important it is for dealers to think beyond the pristine white box, securing over 15 of the estimated 18 galleries in the area, with more to come. By comparison, he’s placed 7 on the Lower East Side and Chelsea over the past five years. “Jonathan really made it a project to shape this Tribeca area, getting friendly with landlords and investing a lot of time here,” says Andrew Kreps, who represents artists such as Andrea Bowers and Roe Ethridge. Kreps opened his eponymous gallery’s Cortlandt Alley space in 2019, relocating from west Chelsea like many of his peers. “The Lower East Side has been its own thing for a decade. Chelsea was good for a twenty-year run, but it’s been losing a bit of steam as a destination,” he explains of his vision for the corridor. “All that real estate development really physically changed that area. Tribeca reminds people of the Soho days of the art world.”
“When our lease was up, the spaces we were being offered in Chelsea were largely new construction and lacked intrinsic personality,” Cohan recalls. Ultimately, Tribeca’s authenticity and Jonathan’s conviction won him over. Like Soho, the area is landmarked, with a cohesive street view of almost exclusively cast-iron architecture. “People really seem to gravitate to a block of cast-iron buildings from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s,” Travis tells me. “For the most part, aside from a few notable condo projects, what’s happened in Chelsea isn’t allowed to happen in Tribeca.” Classically high ceilings, Corinthian columns, nineteenth-century wood flooring and skylights conjure the halcyon, pre-corporate days of downtown Manhattan—or even Edith Wharton’s before that. At the same time, numerous subway lines converge at Canal Street, making West Chelsea seem positively remote by comparison. Getting to Tribeca for a night of openings from Brooklyn is far easier, Travis notes, which may help account for the sidewalk vibe on winter evenings. Though at first, Cohan admits to pangs of trepidation about the flow of business traffic. “Before, we moved, I generally was worried about FOMO and being left out of the conversation in Chelsea,” he says with a slight laugh. “But people travel to spaces because of artists and they buy art from people not places. Neighbors have become clients too. People who live in Tribeca are much more of a community than Chelsea.” For Jane Lombard (also a client)— who represents artists such as Jane Bustin and Nina Yuen— the dense area feels friendlier than her previous location on 19th street. “Artists would ask us, what is happening to your neighborhood? We had a beautiful terrace where we grew our own vegetables,” she recounts. “And now, we have a huge structure overshadowing us. There goes the sun. Chelsea has really grown beyond anything anyone would have ever imagined, from auto repair shops to big gigantic buildings.”
“Maybe it’s because the neighborhood is still a mix of different types of businesses and communities, it still has dive bars, French bakeries, synagogues, preschools, and just across Broadway is Chinatown.” —David Kratz
“We were hoping to start construction already,” Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of P.P.O.W tells me in early June. “We can’t have teams of people in simultaneously. We can’t have the sheet rockers in with the electricians.” In 1983, P.P.O.W— whose artists include Hilary Harkness and Betty Tompkins— opened its doors in the East Village, then relocated to Soho and eventually Chelsea. She anticipates a November opening in the new 8,000 square foot, multi-floor Tribeca location. “In every instance, it’s sort of been the same story,” Olsoff explains. “We sign leases in neighborhoods that are up-and-coming or becoming gentrified. The places become more corporate, more touristy and more commercial. And then we move.”
Magda Dawson, founder of Postmasters arrived in Tribeca in 2013 as the first retreat gallery from Chelsea. Time passed, rents across the city increased, and eventually in 2016, Alexander and Bonin began the wave of migration that has taken place from 2016 to the present day. After several years of steady growth however, last fall marked a critical mass of galleries in the neighborhood. “Watching the evolution has been incredible,” says artist Indira Cesarine who, in 2015, launched The Untitled Space— “a mission gallery first focused on emerging feminist artists, which has evolved to include a larger range of female identifying artists and allies.” When she opened, The Untitled Space was a destination unto itself. “Then there was an explosion last September. It was a huge turning point for the area as an arts district,” explains Cesarine, who is also the founder of Art4Equality, a nonprofit to promote equality themed exhibitions and public art. “Right now is a turning point again. Openings are going to have to take a different format. We’re going to have to rethink the display of art.”
There’s really no forecasting the global economy post-Covid—or when exactly that era begins for the art market—but galleries who’ve relocated to Tribeca have a long-term advantage either way. “Unlike Madison Avenue or prime Soho, because there’s very modest foot traffic, the rents are at such a modest point,” explains Travis. “The delta between where they are, ninety dollars or a hundred and five dollars a foot, and where they could go, is less drastic.” Tribeca ground floor leases also come with highly prized basement space, while much of Chelsea’s is unusable, deemed a flood zone after Hurricane Sandy. Essentially, that doubles a gallery’s footprint. “Tribeca is far east enough and so there’s no issue getting insurance for art storage in the lower level,” Travis says.
Still, much of the area’s allure isn’t easily quantified. “Even though there are now many prominent galleries in Tribeca, they don’t seem so imposing or monolithic here. The scene feels more welcoming,” reflects David Kratz, president of New York Academy of Art, housed in a former rope factory since 1992. And Tribeca retains a texture that Chelsea lacks. “Maybe it’s because the neighborhood is still a mix of different types of businesses and communities,” he posits. “It still has dive bars, French bakeries, synagogues, preschools, and just across Broadway is Chinatown.” By the same token, New York Academy of Art lends a certain institutional heft to the corridor, hosting for example, the XL Catlin Art Prize, a juried competition whose judges have included Eric Fischl, Amy Sherald and Nicole Eisenman. With the rise of Tribeca’s galleries, according to Kratz, people are also becoming more aware of the school’s exhibition windows on Franklin, as well as its tightly curated lobby shows of student and faculty artwork. Down the street, Postmasters Gallery displays New York Academy of Art director of sculpture, Monica Cook, as well as faculty member Steve Mumford, famous for striking, realist paintings based on his decade of trips to conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps most of all, Tribeca embodies resilience. On the frontlines of 9/11, residents and small businesses have a strain of ingenuity that’s unique even by New Yorker standards. Phil Grauer, co-founder of CANADA recalls the gallery’s original space, a small Tribeca basement, before relocating to the Lower East Side, now in Tribeca once again, where it anchored the art scene this winter with Katherine Bernhardt’s blockbuster exhibition Done With Xanax. “We were closed down and in a scramble,” he describes September 11th. “But it felt like it was really just us, very local.” The pandemic however, puts everyone in the same boat, he says, and affords the art world a second chance. “It does feel like the whole art world was on a bit of a treadmill, and it had to perform in this very specific way in order for it to be seen and understand and go forward,” he explains. “Maybe the terms can be rewritten, and we can do this whole thing better and smarter, and maybe more efficiently and environmentally.”
Olsoff maintains an equally optimistic stance about the near future. “All of us knew that the art world was whirling out of control: the global footprint, the dinners, and the expenses,” she reflects on the recent past. “I think people will be local for a while. There won’t be the pressure to jump on planes. People will come back to galleries on Saturdays.” As Tribeca’s art district flickers back to life, the Coronavirus may fuel slower, more intelligent art looking.
After four long months, Tribeca dealers are reopening, albeit with safety precautions. Looking ahead, they envision staggered evenings, aggressively downsized events, limited visitors. Naturally, masks and hand sanitizer figure prominently. But a constant emerges. Despite the rapid-fire shift to online viewing rooms, there’s no substitute for artwork on a physical wall in New York City, and unlike museums, as James Cohan points out, galleries are perfectly poised to pivot. A hopeful sign: next week, James Cohan debuts a Grace Weaver survey, by appointment. “The best thing about the contemporary art world in New York is accessibility,” James Cohan comments. “We provide free high culture that changes every six weeks.” Meanwhile, the September exhibition at Luhring Augustine Tribeca is set for the first US solo show of Lucia Nogueira; Jane Lombard Gallery plans to christen its new space with one by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, slated for October. “When I have a first-time visitor in Tribeca, I suggest we go around to the other galleries too. We go see Andrew Kreps, CANADA. They do the same and bring people by me,” says Stefania Bortolami. “There’s possibility in Tribeca. It’s a completely different spirit.”