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Morning in Chelsea

In New York's fluid gallery scene, SoHo is yesterday's news. Now a West Side neighborhood is emerging as the place to be.

June 08, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

NEW YORK — Here in the capital of the American art world, galleries have always rubbed shoulders with other businesses. On and off Madison Avenue, showcases for fine art are interspersed with designer boutiques. Galleries on 57th Street and 5th Avenue compete with upscale department stores and Planet Hollywood.

In SoHo, where art displaced industry in the 1970s and dominated the neighborhood in the early '80s, galleries have become part of an increasingly dense mix of apparel and home furnishings shops, watering holes and eateries. A boutique for high-end Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana is scheduled to open this fall on West Broadway, in the same block as the venerable Leo Castelli and Sonnabend galleries.

The scene in Chelsea--Manhattan's newest gallery enclave--is quite different. Bordered by 18th and 27th streets, between 10th and 11th avenues, this district offers few attractions for shoppers and diners.

A ramshackle outlet for Williams-Sonoma cooking gear and several house and garden suppliers is doing a booming business on 10th Avenue. Next door is Zucca, a classy Mediterranean bistro favored by the cognoscenti. But the rest of the neighborhood is home to a plastics manufacturer, a mass mailings company and a glut of transport-related businesses: One-Stop Auto Center, Adolph's Trucking Co., a gas station, a car wash and a taxi repair yard.

"I think this is the world capital of car deodorant," said dealer Helene Winer, who moved her gallery, Metro Pictures, to Chelsea after 16 years in SoHo. She and her partner, Janelle Reiring, share a building on West 24th with Barbara Gladstone, who also left SoHo, and Matthew Marks, who also operates another gallery in Chelsea and one on Madison Avenue.

In a cooperative venture, they bought the building together and turned a former cutlery factory and garage into a handsome showcase for contemporary art. Dubbed the MGM building--for Marks, Gladstone and Metro--the two-story brick structure symbolizes the growing solidity of the Chelsea gallery scene. The galleries seem to be here to stay, at least until the next hot spot appears or art gets squeezed out by commerce.

"People ask how long it will be before Chelsea is like SoHo," Marks said. "I used to say, 'I hope we have 10 years,' but now I say, 'Let's be realistic' and give it five years."

Indeed, the rush to Chelsea is astonishing, especially for occasional visitors to New York. As recently as three years ago, the only reason for the art crowd to go to Chelsea was to visit the Dia Center for the Arts, a prominent nonprofit showcase that opened in 1987 and launched a critically acclaimed program of large-scale solo exhibitions of contemporary artists' work. In October 1994, when Marks opened his space on West 22nd in the same block as Dia, his was the only gallery in Chelsea.

In sharp contrast, the current issue of New York's "Art Now Gallery Guide" lists 35 galleries and two nonprofit organizations in Chelsea. Among the newcomers are several SoHo veterans, including Pamela Auchincloss, who is doing business on the 12th floor of a huge building on West 26th, and Max Protetch, who has opened a ground-floor space on West 22nd.

Still, many dealers believe that a rerun of SoHo's commercial boom is unlikely. Chelsea will become much more of "an art ghetto," said Paula Cooper, who established SoHo's first gallery in 1968 and opened her space on West 21st in 1996. The section of West Chelsea inhabited by galleries is confined by a residential district east of 10th Street and by the Hudson River on the west, so expansion can go only north and south, she said. Chelsea's large industrial spaces are also less inviting to the small shopkeepers who have stuffed themselves into every square inch of SoHo.

For the moment, Chelsea seems to be in a state of transition. Feigen Contemporary, owned by longtime New York dealer Richard Feigen and directed by Lance Kinz and Susan Reynolds, is expected to open on West 20th in September. Signs posted on a nearby building announce the imminent arrival of half a dozen other galleries, but the general ambience is quiet by New York standards.

"You still can't get a good cup of coffee here," Marks said.

Compared to those in SoHo, distances between some of the galleries are long, and people don't just drop in. "There are no chic people wandering around here," Winer said. "It's a bit of a shock when you step outside and realize there is nowhere to go but another gallery," she said, noting that she can't pop out for a bite to eat or to buy a birthday gift as she did in SoHo.

But the dealers aren't complaining. Many of them have moved to Chelsea to get away from alien commerce and avoid prohibitive costs of more desirable areas. "SoHo did us in," Winer said. "It got overrun with things that have nothing to do with art galleries."

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