The Return of the Tribeca Art Scene in NYC

By Jerry Saltz

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Something wonderful is happening in the once and future art neighborhood of Tribeca. On the first Friday after Labor Day, these blocks were populated with crowds of artists and art lovers, all drawn by the siren song of possibility. But the smell of money, hustling collectors, and deal-makers was nowhere to be found. Instead, the air was filled with a feeling that’s been hard to come by for some time: hope. A batch of galleries opened for the very first time that night. Others had been there for a while. Many have come looking for new homes, trying to escape the alienating slew of High Line tourists and the costly rents of Chelsea.

Can a claim be staked here? Against all odds, can New York have a good art neighborhood with a walkable density of galleries? Galleries with wooden floors, flaws, and funny footprints, which are more like where artists actually make art than all those perfect, concrete-floored slick showrooms? And, unlike Chelsea and Upper East Side and elsewhere, Tribeca spaces come with basements for storage. This is a big deal when such space can cost a fortune all by itself and is often impossible to come by. “The fabulous old architecture, the feel of the neighborhood, subway accessibility, and lower prices make Tribeca a wonderful alternative to overdeveloped West Chelsea,” says Jonathan Travis, a partner of Redwood Property Group. “It’s like the old Soho scene but with a weird renewed energy.”

 

As always with New York, some of these opportunities were born of tragic and dispiriting circumstances. Numerous Tribeca businesses shuttered after 9/11, and retail has basically died more recently. Bruce Ehrmann, a broker for Douglas Elliman who has lived in Tribeca since 1988 (and is married to a painter), says that there are few retail tenants these days “for these classic gallery spaces with their high ceilings and Corinthian cast-iron columns.” The leases aren’t bad either — and usually ten years or longer. That will give the galleries a chance to withstand market blows and maybe grow.

 

For us older aficionados, it has been stunning to see, for the first time in decades, this former home to artists, artist haunts and hangouts, galleries, and seedier things come alive. Among the ghosts of Tribeca are the Mudd Club, where New Wave and punk were given life, in a building owned by an artist; Artists Space, the artist-run gallery that staged Pictures, one of the most famous shows of the late 20th century, in 1977; and the Baby Doll Lounge, where the lost, poor, and art-world wannabes worked as strippers or sat nursing loneliness and pain. (Hi.) That Friday I saw these streets teem again with love of art, eagerness, connection, and people looking for art away from the corporate noise. It was like being in New York City again.

 

None of this means the other art neighborhoods are bad. But this Tribeca (ish) scene doesn’t feel too cool or closed. There’s an emotional–spiritual-metaphysical warmth to the spaces, the art, the people. These galleries show lots of women artists and are finally getting better at representing artists of color. (Right now, however, the audience is still mainly white. This must change — otherwise this scene will be a dead duck before it begins.) And while it’s true that artists were priced out of this area years ago, there’s still a funkiness to the neighborhood. Which may be why Tribeca dealers seem eager to sit once again and talk with art-interested audiences, anyone — even me and you.

September 17, 2019