A Closer Look at Gallery Structures Through Examining Chelsea Galleries

by Netanel Saso

Located on the far west side of Manhattan just above the Chelsea Market is the Chelsea art gallery district, which is one of the world’s pivotal locations for selling and showcasing contemporary art. These galleries are at the forefront, as they lead the auction market and cover more ground at art fairs globally. Have you ever wondered why these galleries are for the public, yet often times, the public is incapable of emotionally entering them? Though I have specifically conducted research by walking through multiple Chelsea Galleries, this information extends to galleries I have entered throughout the five boroughs. If you have ever tried to enter a gallery anywhere in the world and left within the first two minutes, you are not alone. The initial fear of entering a gallery starts with a galleries exterior presentation and can be broken down even further through the way artwork gets hung and how gallery attendants treat their visitors and potential customers upon entry. Though the Chelsea galleries showcase art to the public for free, when you walk from gallery to gallery, you begin to notice an almost identical space that has become more about the art market and the economy, than the work that is housed within it.

The Chelsea galleries are very difficult to get to with public transportation, and this is the first sign that shows how they have placed the market first. Within the article “Contemporary Art: A ‘Global’ and Local Perspective via New York’s Chelsea District”, it is stated that over 95% of the people who go to these galleries, are simply going to look at the work. There is something ironic about how this many people view the exhibits, but have a difficult time getting to the galleries. There is a reason why the Chelsea galleries are also situated so closely next to each other, and that is because they will generate a flow of people, especially on opening nights. In correlation to how difficult it is to get to these galleries, they are all identical in the way they present themselves. There is a common thread these galleries share in their outdoor features that comprise of, large windows, tinted gray glass that does not allow you to see into the gallery space, and a small decal of the name of the gallery placed on the door or to the right or left of the door. Not only does this make it difficult to get to the gallery you really want to go to, but it puts the public at a separation from the work itself. It is as if the location of these galleries should already be known, and this is apparent because Pace Gallery is the only gallery to have a sign that actually extends on to the street to indicate where it is, but even their signage is not, “trying hard enough”. Perhaps the tinting of the glass is to get people to go inside, rather than having them look within from the outside, and make up their mind on whether or not they want to go inside. A majority of the galleries that I visited embrace the industrial aesthetic, as they have white walls, exposed pipe, and even stainless steel throughout the space. The most interesting aspect, is how the gallery places their name with a small typeface onto their space. This is a disguise, as they are ultimately trying to separate themselves from the work that they present to make it look as though it is all about the work they are exhibiting.

The article entitled “Contemporary Art: A ‘Global’ and Local Perspective via New York’s Chelsea District” points out the major topics that make up the content on view in the Chelsea galleries. These topics are made up of Landscapes, Sex, Decorative/Abstract, Troubled Nuclear Family, Natural Forms/Man-Made Basic Materials, Poor and Those in Trouble, Mass Production/Commodities, and Political Art. Because landscapes as a topic is in the top percentage of what is shown in the galleries, it is clear that their main goal is to show work that is sellable. Upon visiting multiple galleries, there was only one I visited that told me they were showing a few pieces that were on loan, and not for sale. Because most galleries are commercial, it leads to the belief that only the top galleries in the district, are able to have a show with a few pieces that are not for sale. This however is a clever act as these galleries know to stage a show with some pieces on loan, to create a sense of elevation and emersion when there are multiple works on view by the same artist. This actually might help them sell even more work, because some of the pieces are unattainable. As you walk through Chelsea, you begin to notice that a few galleries have multiple gallery spaces. When I asked one gallery attendant in front of a gallery why this was, she said that it allows them to cover more ground and display more work. I would argue that it is because these are some of the top galleries within Chelsea, and with more space to exhibit, they will be able to sell more works in one shot and look more important to prospective consumers. By owning multiple different venues, they create a sense of validation in their success that could be misleading, but ultimately fruitful for selling work.

Within the Chelsea galleries, there seems to be a code that all of the galleries follow in relation to how work gets installed. Most times, a visitor can enter a gallery and look at a presentation of work that has clearly not been crafted by the artist. If you compare a gallery to a museum that has a set curatorial team, and alters the architecture of one of its galleries to enhance the work it presents, a gallery almost never changes their interior to assist the artist.  It is almost as if you could take one artist’s body of work and rotate it through each gallery space in Chelsea, and it would be displayed exactly the same from location to location. The strategy is to align work to look like a catalogue that would allow a potential buyer to easily walk by each piece and choose the work they want. This instantly places the value of the work above the meaning of the work that gets presented. This is most likely why people feel as though they should not enter a gallery as it is crafted to look like a space to make a sale rather than a place to learn about art. As each gallery space is decluttered and very organized, visitors loose the element of surprise that art carries, and gain a feeling of expectancy before entry to each gallery. This is detrimental to the artist as visitors can already categorize them in relation to other galleries across Chelsea before even seeing their work.

Not only is there a code that galleries in Chelsea follow in relation to the organization of artwork, but there seems to be a similar manner of treatment that an individual receives upon entry to each gallery. Have you ever had a moment when you walked into a gallery and felt as though you do not belong even though it is free to the public? You are not alone, as I am an art student, and I still feel as though I should not be walking into a gallery on most days that I try to. I can’t remember a time that I entered a gallery and was greeted by an attendant. In my experience, I have never gotten a smile, a name, a welcome, or an attendant to greet me and discuss the work on view with me. Often times, I feel as though I am the only one in a gallery space and that I could perform an artist heist at any moment, and nobody would notice. Gallery attendants hide behind their desks, look at their phones and computers most of the time, and are rarely there to help answer visitor’s questions. This is an issue, not just because it is disrespectful, but it does not take into consideration the fact that a visitor might be interested in purchasing a work of art. This is harmful to not only the gallery, but the artist, as the attendants do not make it a necessity to educate visitors on the work or engage them in questions about it. As the gallery has already figured out its clients, it has also established who it’s prime visitors are, and those are ones that are educated in the arts. You can look at the secrecy as a potential marketing scheme to make potential buyers feel as though they really need to have a certain work. This however is a strategy that needs to be broken, as galleries across the world take art, what is meant to be inclusive, and make it exclusive. Though there is no solution to this issue, it is important to notice when a gallery has made a shift from this repetitive act, and see if there is a possibility for it to be replicated.

The shift of galleries that moved from SoHo to Chelsea show how gentrification is constantly being conducted. Soon enough, the rent will go up for all of the galleries in Chelsea, and they might be forced to move to another location or shut down entirely. Though the Chelsea galleries reflect off of each other and place the market first, it is still important to go to them to be able to understand more of how they function, and see if the work within them changes over time. Next time you feel as though you should not enter a gallery space, ask yourself why, and maybe write a letter to the gallery to let them know. There is always a place to start to make a difference, and though these galleries might be aware of what they are doing, they can’t make a change until they have heard from the public.

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