Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Ivy Brown in her Ivy Brown Gallery on Hudson St. in front of a sculpture by Sean Lyon and a painting by Carol John.
Art is taking the (new) edge off the Meat Market
By Joy Wiltermuth
From grit and grime to glamour. It’s a story played out in countless Downtown neighborhoods and the next chapter to unfold in New York’s Meatpacking District.
More than a decade and a half ago, artists set up shop in the area’s improvised, hollowed-out and affordable spaces. Now, some of the district’s earliest pioneers are turning a wary eye toward change — and the market forces that threaten to cut them out of the neighborhood’s future.
“We are probably the last of the Mohicans,” said Douglas Heller, co-owner of Heller Gallery, at 420 W. 14th St. His gallery relocated from Soho 10 years ago, moving into what was then the heart of the old Meat Market district. Back then, property in the area was “spacious and conveniently located,” he said. “The landlords were reasonable people.”
But with rising rents and five years left on a 15-year lease, Heller said time is running out for the area’s arts community. Like many of the district’s long-established galleries, it was rent spikes and the rise of upscale retailers in the mid-’90s that led him to leave Soho.
“People don’t realize it all started with the galleries,” said Mazdack Rassi, owner of MILK Studios at 450 W. 15th St. Like the Heller brothers a block north, Rassi’s was one of the first galleries to establish itself in the area.. MILK purchased the property five years ago, setting up studios in one-third of the building, while renting out the rest to tenants in related industries.
When he moved into the district 12 years ago, Rassi said many of its buildings were crumbling. Now, he said, many meatpackers have turned into developers of valuable property.
“I’m glad the main property owners are original people from the neighborhood,” he said, noting their interest in retaining good tenants, as well as the character of the district. “A lot of people have been living 20 or 30 years in this neighborhood.”
Unlike Heller, Rassi said the changes were probably for the better. He lives at the intersection of Horatio and Washington Sts. and walks the few blocks each day from the studio.
“Sometimes we take alternate routes to our homes,” he said, noting the flood of bars, restaurants and people along Ninth Ave.
White Columns, a nonprofit, alternative art space, nearing its 40th year, started out on Greene St. and hopped around various locations, until landing at 320 W.13th St. White Columns moved when the Meatpacking District was not considered a destination, according to its director, Matthew Higgs.
“Gallery space was both available and affordable,” he said.
Some changes have benefited the neighborhood, Higgs said, such as increased audiences for their artists and the diverse groups of people now visiting the area. But when their lease is up in a few years, he said they would probably be forced to leave.
“There seems to be an inevitability about these cycles,” he reflected.
Yet, some see a bright future in the district’s growing arts community.
In 2012, the Whitney Museum plans to open a new branch — bigger than its Upper East Side location — at Gansevoort and Washington Sts. Rassi of MILK studios said the expected museum, together with the High Line park project, are key to cementing the district in New York City’s arts community.
“We like to think the Meatpacking District chose us as much as we chose it,” said Jeffrey Levine, a spokesperson for the Whitney. After the Dia Art Foundation decided not to build on the proposed museum site, the Whitney threw open the possibility of establishing its second site.
Ivy Brown, co-chairperson of the Chelsea Village Alliance and a mainstay of the Meat Market’s gallery community, is bullish on the area’s arts expansion.
“The more art, the better,” she said. Formerly called the Go Fish Gallery, now known as the Ivy Brown Gallery, Brown’s gallery opened in the Meat Market years ago at 675 Hudson St. She said art adds a counterweight to the influx of commercial and retail uses.
Or, as she put it, “It takes the edge off the other stuff.”
A few blocks south of Brown’s space, a year ago, the Leo Kesting Gallery moved into 812 Washington St., into a location tucked under the still-vacant end of the soon-to-open High Land park. Next door to the gallery, meatpackers still ply their trade and feed the local restaurant industry.
For the past 10 years, John Leo and David Kesting have been partners in the art world and their Meatpacking branch was an expansion of their Williamsburg, Brooklyn, site.
“All of the grit and grime has been flushed out,” Leo said of the district’s changing character.
Despite the area’s increasingly sanitized feel, they were enticed when their landlord, Rockrose Development Corporation, offered the new gallery a generous subsidy.
“They are outrageously good people,” Kesting said.
“They are very supportive of the arts,” added Leo.
Leo Kesting is a small, privately funded gallery with a keg always on tap. They specialize in showcasing young painters and artists breaking into the art-world scene. It’s a place hip painters come to hang out, support each others’ work and unwind.
“This place was a hotbed for artists years and years ago,” Leo said. “It’s nice to bring young, edgy and different art back to this area.”
A few blocks south on Washington St., childhood friends Genevieve Hudson-Price, Sabrina Blaichman and Caroline Copley opened 7ELEVEN, a temporary art gallery. The gallery is housed in a donated storefront space in a building slated for demolition.
Up until this fall, the young curators will be busy featuring works by “outside” and emerging artists.
“Because of the consumerism aspect of the art world today, it is really hard for young artists to have the capital to show their work,” said Hudson-Price. With 7ELEVEN, they hope to redirect the trend, by “making the relationship between art and commerce more meaningful, proactive and socially conscious.”
David Rabin, president of the Meatpacking District Initiative, said he wishes there were more art galleries in the district. Owner of the former restaurant and nightclub Lotus on W. 14th St., he said that over time, bigger stores and wealthier tenants always push out original galleries and cool restaurants — even those that established the area’s vitality.
“I don’t think the economics in our area will support galleries in the near future,” he predicted.
But Rabin holds out hope for the new Whitney. He said it could have an enormous impact on area businesses.
“I think all the shops and restaurants will finally see some of the daytime traffic that is still sorely lacking from our streets,” he said. Rabin called the new Whitney project slated for a spot next to the High Line “a wonderfully designed museum” and a “perfect fit for our neighborhood.”
“Galleries make a neighborhood current for 20 years,” offered Matt DeMatt, an owner of Gaslight lounge on 14th St. at the northern end of the Meatpacking District. He said the only way to hold onto the art community is for real estate owners to give galleries a break.
“The neighborhood wants to be artsy and current,” he said, adding that the economic benefit of art helps diversify the district. “A gallery adds monetarily to a neighborhood, whereas a bar or deli doesn’t necessarily.”
At the same end of the district, the Heller Gallery faces off with the fashion world and more incoming designer boutiques. Heller says the neighborhood has turned into “another upscale but characterless tourist destination.” He called it “famous but fatuous and lacking in any real reason to visit.”
To DeMatt, who has seen the Meatpacking District’s transformation from hookers to high-end retail, boutiques and nightlife, the next five years will tell if galleries can remain a vibrant part of the community.
“Art gives the neighborhood a calming effect. It is like trees around the city,” he said. “People will always be pushed out — but art always has a value.”