“The art industry is cool, sexy and overflowing with money,” according to Magnus Rench’s new book Management of Art Galleries. “Oh, no hold on. It is an edgy, gritty world, with painters and sculptors who would die for their art, caring nothing for money and passionately committed to their artistic meaning.”
Of course, as Rench admits on the following page, both views are partly true, and nowhere was the distinction between these two sides of the art business made clearer than in Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.
A new exhibition, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery focuses on lower Manhattan during the years 1952 to 1965, between the peak of Abstract Expressionism and the beginnings of Pop Art, to examine how a handful of artist-run galleries transformed the city’s art scene.
These places, such as Tanager Gallery and Hansa Gallery, were not run by a single, well connected, wealthy director, but instead along cooperative lines, where decisions were made and expenses were shared among a group of elected co-op members, many of whom were fine artists themselves.
Well-known artists painters and sculptors such as Alex Katz, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois, Tom Wesselmann, Alice Neel and Dan Flavin all worked within this system, even if they went on to make their names with other galleries.
Initially, these-artist run galleries were attracted to the neighbourhood partly because better-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline had studios there, and, if younger painters and sculptors were going to locate the city’s then relatively small audience for cutting edge art, they would find it there. Indeed, de Kooning and fellow Abstract Expressionists Philip Guston, came on board as co-op members of Tanager gallery.
Yet they also flocked to this part of New York because, in an age when contemporary artists were less likely to strike-it rich, the buildings around 10th street remained relatively affordable.
Low costs allowed for artistic experimentation. The Fluxus artist Allan Kaprow staged some of his early happenings within these galleries, while other institutions, such as the Brata Gallery, hosted jazz concerts and readings of Jack Kerouac. The divide between the studio and the gallery was also less pronounced here, and with so many fellow practitioners in the area, plenty of artists chose to collaborate with one another.
Clustered around the then relatively affordable southerly streets of Manhattan, these short-lived institutions encouraged a more pluralistic, collective and tolerant style of artistic production, albeit one that was probably less commercially successful than more straightforward, profit-oriented concerns in uptown neighbourhoods.
The show is being overseen by NYU’s associate professor Melissa Rachleff Burtt who argues that the innovations most closely associated with the mid-century New York art scene - Pop, Minimalism, and performance and installation art - may not have flourished quite so successfully had it not been for these open-minded, and sometimes overlooked co-ops.
For more of Alex Katz’s work consider this book; for more on Louise Bourgeois get this one; for more on Pop take at look at these titles; for more on Minimalism go here; for more on the economics of today’s art market order a copy of Management of Art Galleries; and for more on how artists are working together today, order Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration.