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Art Reviews : NEW YORK'S FALL MUSEUM SEASON

Follow the Money

The lackluster exhibitions on view may be a fluke, or they may reflect an economic shift in the art scene.

November 29, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

NEW YORK — During the mayoral reign of Rudy Giuliani, Manhattan has been famously focused on quality-of-life issues. Precisely what constitutes those issues and qualities naturally depends on whose life one is talking about. Historically, though, a clear gauge of the city's quintessence has always been the quality of its offerings in art.

An urban machine, relentless and even grueling, can make daily existence more than just an ordinary hassle. But it's a hassle worth enduring, if it comes with superabundant possibilities for the profound emotional, intellectual and spiritual sustenance that art at its best can provide.

How, then, to explain the surprising dearth of that sustenance in this incomparably museum-rich city during the fall of 2000? From West 53rd Street to Fifth Avenue and 89th Street, the primary art museums have put together a motley array of mostly flaccid exhibitions. Perhaps it's an anomaly. Certainly it's the first time in memory that not a single big fall show will be remembered as being of more than cursory artistic significance.

Patterns are changing in New York, and not just in newly antiseptic Times Square. Emblematic is the exodus of galleries from SoHo and the rise of a powerful gallery district amid the dockside warehouses of Chelsea during the last half-dozen years. Galleries began to open in SoHo 30 years ago, following the lead of working artists, who were transforming vacant and inexpensive industrial buildings into living quarters with abundant studio space. After the 1990 collapse of the art market, galleries began to leave fashionable SoHo because they could subsidize their operations elsewhere by selling or subletting their spaces at spiraling rates to high-end retail stores and restaurants. Galleries didn't choose Chelsea because artists in search of working space had moved there first, but because suitable exhibition space was cheaper there.

In SoHo, galleries had followed artists. In Chelsea galleries followed economics, leaving out the artist part.

Not much art gets made in Manhattan anymore--at least, nowhere near as much art as once got made. Rising real estate prices put a damper on that. More and more potential studio space is farther out of reach for more and more artists.

Young artists, who might be drawn to New York from other places and whose presence is essential to replenishing the scene, are now at least as likely to gather across the river in neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, rather than in the scruffier margins of Manhattan. The scene is getting suburbanized.

This gallery shift speaks of a larger, more fundamental change in American society, which might also help clarify the lackluster museum season. Galleries followed artists to SoHo because, circa 1970, artists were a gallery's main constituency. Today the constituency for art has expanded exponentially, to include not just the professional class that makes up the international art world--artists, collectors, curators, critics, consultants--but growing ranks of the general public as well. At Gagosian Gallery's glamorous new 26,000-square-foot space in Chelsea, which takes up almost half a city block, it's common right now to see young parents pushing baby strollers and taking pictures of the kids in front of the industrial-size fish-tank sculptures by British bad boy Damien Hirst (through Dec. 16).

Tourism is one of Manhattan's biggest industries, and cultural tourism is a linchpin to the city's economy. For art museums, the urge is strong to court a huge and churning general public that's more willing than ever to sample their offerings. While a single art season does not a watershed make, the fall 2000 season in the four big art museums certainly reflects an unmistakable long-term change. They've been aggressive in wooing the crowd.

*

Celebrity, the mass culture staple, is the product on offer at two uptown museums. One show is blatant and pompous; the other tactfully wrapped in revisionist posturing.

Most notorious is "Giorgio Armani" (through Jan. 17), the Guggenheim Museum's ode to the fashion designer who exploded into mass consciousness on the sexy back of Richard Gere in 1980's "American Gigolo." Twenty years on, Armani is an elder statesman of the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

Installed by theatrical designer Robert Wilson amid stretched gauze and taupe rugs on the famous Guggenheim spiral ramp, the Armani exhibition is the first costume show the museum has mounted. It's a profoundly conservative affair. First, its subject is a clothing brand coveted precisely for its ability to make its wearer disappear into the high-end security blanket of universally admired good taste (we're not talking Vivienne Westwood here).

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