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Is Harlem becoming the new gallery district?

By
Howard Halle
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Call it the art-world circle of life: Gallery neighborhoods become too crowded and expensive for galleries to remain, forcing them to move to less expensive, more off-the-beaten-path parts of town—which then become too crowded and expensive for galleries to remain. And so it goes.

For 20 years, Chelsea has been New York’s gallery hub, and in all that time, dealers have watched condos popping up like mushrooms, while tourists increasingly colonize the streets west of Tenth Avenue. Even ten years ago, younger gallerists could no longer afford Chelsea, so they set up shop on the Lower East Side. But rents have really accelerated since the completion of the High Line, forcing any dealer who doesn’t own his or her building to eye the exit. Destinations of choice include the LES and the Upper East Side, but there may be a new frontier opening up: Harlem.

There are, of course galleries that have been in Harlem for years, but they aren’t refugees from downtown, and they’ve tended to focus on neighborhood artists. Harlem is already changing thanks to an influx of white gentrifiers, but relative to Chelsea, its commercial rents are gallery-friendly. At least one new venue, Tatiana Pagés Gallery has opened in the past year. Meanwhile Gavin Brown, a Harlem resident himself for several years, is busily constructing a new space on West 126th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, which is expected to open later this year. Now a new dealer is moving on up: Elizabeth Dee, who is decamping her Chelsea home of 15 years for a 12,000-square foot building on Fifth Avenue and East 126th Street. Dee, a founder of the Independent Art Fair, hopes to include a “educational initiative for Harlem-based children” as part of her program uptown.

Does three make a trend? So they say, though as suggested by the distance between Brown and Dee’s respective galleries (they’re basically on opposite sides of Harlem), it’s likely that an uptown gallery hub will be spread out—more like the Lower East Side scene than Chelsea’s closely packed spaces. Will anyone who doesn’t live nearby come for a visit, especially those all-important collectors? It doesn’t really matter because these days, the contemporary art business is conducted at art fairs.

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