I don’t remember ever surviving long enough through a game of Monopoly to have any hotels; impatience and a childlike business sense were my constant companions there, hopelessly undermining my nonetheless enviable competitive streak. It might have been different given a slight shift in tone, a nod, say, to my arty sensibility. Take this example: A Manhattan gallery owner with two spaces in SoHo and a reputation for showing fashionable contemporary artists decides to expand his operation and open a third gallery. Dice be damned, where does he move? Well, if he were inclined to find Chelsea too commercial and, by dint of that, too expensive, then he might consider Williamsburg.
Jeffery Deitch opened Deitch Projects five years ago after consulting for Citibank's art advisory in the 1980s and then entering into a fruitful partnership with Sotheby’s in the late 1990s. The gallery has made a name for itself showing successful young artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Mariko Mori while also showing saleable diehards like Keith Haring. Talk of Deitch opening a space in Williamsburg has been circulating for about a year now, though most gallery owners I spoke to seemed vague as to his intentions. Certainly, a Deitch Projects in the area will be something of an anomaly given that it represents artists more upscale than those normally associated with the more parochial Williamsburg scene.
Deitch, however, is not exactly rushing headlong to plant Manhattan’s commercial art flag on the shores of Brooklyn. For one thing, he intends the new gallery to be party to that same experimental spirit that gave Williamsburg a reputation. The space he is occupying is the 4,000 square feet at 90 North 11th Street formerly used by the local artists’ collaborative known as Fakeshop. In fact, Fakeshop initiated proceedings when the gallery opened on September 7th with a show called “Game.” An installation, Game involved performances and live webcasts centered around a large structure wrapped Christo-style and divided into capsules. For those of you who saw the Capsule Hotel project last New Year, in which the public was invited to come and live and be filmed in a similar setting, consider this the sequel.
One of my enduring memories from my spell living in Williamsburg last year was a party I went to on North 11th at which the chief source of entertainment was a flaming cage with revolving bars. Somehow individual members of the crowd were enticed away from cliquey corners to stand in the cage while the bars, which were set alight, spun around them with increasing speed. Despite being trapped in what looked like some infernal gibbet, the victims’ initially self-conscious and apprehensive faces gradually lifted into expressions of bright-eyed epiphany. It was spellbinding to watch, and I should have known it was fun to do once people started getting in the cage naked. (It wasn’t long after this that I decided exhibitionism and arty distractions were de rigueur at Williamsburg affairs.) It was only recently that I discovered the party had been at Fakeshop.
Deitch seems keen to be the inheritor of this kind of legacy. His intentions for the new space are not quite those of your standard gallery. It will be keeping more social than business hours, open on Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Rather than long-running shows it will be geared more toward weekly performances and artists’ talks and events. Erin Krause, who will be managing the space, says nonchalantly, “We just want to do something fun, something that people will want to come to,” also hinting that both she and Deitch have their own creative ideas that they would love to put into effect there. The fact that this whole endeavor is based on Deitch’s takeover of the only remaining year on Fakeshop’s lease makes it more a testing of the water than a full blown move. However, with a warehouse in Williamsburg that would easily yield enough space for a gallery, Deitch assures, “I’m committed to being in the area.”
One wonders what it says about Williamsburg that he should feel this commitment, and even more so what the implications might be. There are already about three dozen galleries in the area, from the well established—Pierogi, Roebling Hall, and Momenta—to fledglings such as Southfirst, which opened at the beginning of the year. They built their reputation showing primarily local, or at least Brooklyn-based, artists. Just as, a decade ago, the critic Robert Hughes opined caustically, “The idea of the New York painter in a big white downtown loft…is about as real as the notion that French painters wear berets and live in high studios in Montparnasse,” so I have wondered recently whether there were any real artists in Williamsburg to be discerned through the multitude wearing jeans flecked just so with paint. But it seems my cynicism was misplaced. Local gallerists continue to have faith in homegrown talent, some of whom—like Fred Tomaselli—have made major names for themselves.
This faith in their ability to put on good shows, together with the perception that Deitch’s arrival is something of a half measure, leaves the gallery owners I spoke to ambivalent about a Williamsburg Deitch Projects, seeing it neither as a valuable endorsement nor as an ominous portent, just another development. What it demonstrates, and there has been some talk of this in the press of late, is that people are looking for an alternative to Chelsea as the central pivot of New York’s commercial art world. A reasonable fear might be that, with larger commercial galleries forsaking Manhattan for Williamsburg, the inexorable process of gentrification and rent-raising will be galvanized, forcing smaller galleries, not to mention artists, out of the area. Aside from the fact that this process is well underway, such fears would be premature. Despite complaints of its saturation, Chelsea’s days are not quite numbered, with upmarket galleries still lining up for their slot on the block.
Certain factors may just inhibit Chelsea’s transformation into another SoHo, such as its relative distance from the subway and the pockets of dead retail space inhabited by its projects. Even so, the owner of one of Chelsea’s newer galleries, with four years remaining on his lease, told me that he would be more inclined to look in Harlem or Long Island City were he forced out of Chelsea.
Williamsburg, he feels, is too hard to drive to and too diffuse. By the time his lease expires, it may also be too expensive. With towering apartment blocks in development and chain stores like Verizon opening on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s future as an art neighborhood is up in the air.
What is inspiring about the Williamsburg art nexus is its independence as well as its dedication to local and experimental art. Unlike most of Chelsea, here many of the galleries stay open because their owners have other jobs on the side. Meeting the rent in Williamsburg already requires imagination and resourcefulness. Hence you have Southfirst Gallery implementing a scheme whereby 48 subscribers paying $1,000 a year are being sought to meet the minimum costs of keeping the gallery open ($48,000), receiving in return 10 works of art made in editions of 50. Aside from being pragmatic, the owners like to think of it as encouraging a more democratic approach to art patronage.
The impression I get is that Deitch is keener to fit in with the Williamsburg community spirit than he is to stand out from it. The new Deitch Projects, in its one-year incarnation anyway, appears to be less a primarily commercial venture than it is a creative one. If, in a year, he transforms his warehouse into a sizable gallery housing a formidable collection, then let the conjecture as to Williamsburg’s future resume. By all accounts, the next few years will be a formative period in the delineation of New York’s cultural stamping grounds, what with numerous major museums set to open branches in lower Manhattan, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of the City of New York, as well as the MOMA-led development of Long Island City and Queens. In the meantime, Deitch’s presence in Williamsburg will not be upsetting the status quo. If, in the long run, it brings a little extra exposure to the neighborhood art scene and injects a touch of diversity to the foot traffic, then so much the better.
JUSTIN MCGUIRK is the editor of Icon, the international architecture and design magazine.