Block party

A group of art-world upstarts has created what could become the hottest gallery destination in Chelsea

LET'S MAKE A DEAL The West 27th Street crew includes, from left, John Connelly, Sheri Pasquarella, Oliver Kamm, Abby Messitte (Clementine), Derek Eller, Michael Gillespie (Foxy Production), John Thomson (Foxy Production), Janine Foeller (Wallspace), Jane Hait (Wallspace) and Elizabeth Burke (Clementine).Photo: David Schinman

Sheri Pasquarella, a 29-year-old art consultant and private dealer, is conducting a tour inside the cavernous block-long space on West 27th Street that held the Tunnel nightclub until 2001. On this blustery midweek afternoon, the place is almost empty—and silent, except for the whir of a fashion shoot's cameras off to one side. In a wilder and more chaotic New York, the spot was often filled with drag queens and undulating throngs, even drug-sniffing dogs from the NYPD. Today, the hall is an event space—but more pertinent for Pasquarella, it's adjacent to what she hopes will soon become a major new attraction for Chelsea gallerygoers.

Pasquarella and six young art gallerists are all moving their businesses from other parts of Chelsea to a series of old loading-dock bays along the south side of the former Tunnel site, with a grand opening set for Thursday 12. "The galleries all back up against that wall," Pasquarella notes as she gestures down one seemingly endless stretch of bare brick. "They each have a window overlooking the old Tunnel." Then she adds, "My office is the only one with a door."

TAKE ANOTHER LITTLE PIECE OF MY ART The gallery group's opening exhibitions will include work by, from top, Kurt Lightner at Clementine; Kirsten Stoltmann at Wallspace; Michael Wetzel at John Connelly Presents; Scott Hug and Michael Magnan at John Connelly Presents; and Ivan Witenstein at Derek Eller.

It's only a minor amenity, to be sure, but this door is symbolic of Pasquarella's role in what's probably the most concerted effort at expanding Chelsea's gallery scene since the art world began abandoning Soho for the West Side in the mid-'90s. Intent on creating an instant "destination block," Pasquarella is leading the exodus of emerging-artist dealers—heretofore confined to the upper floors of several Chelsea gallery buildings—to an unlikely promised land: a windswept strip of street-level spaces between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, under the shadow of the imposing Starrett-Lehigh Building. The tribe accompanying her on this quest—Oliver Kamm Gallery, Foxy Production, Derek Eller Gallery, Clementine Gallery, John Connelly Presents and Wallspace—are headed for, in art-world terms, terra incognita.

"There's nothing on this block," says Connelly, 37, who, along with Pasquarella, is a driving force behind the new micro-district. "It's totally off the beaten path, even though it's a block and a half away from Gagosian."

Larry Gagosian Gallery, the Everest of Chelsea's art scene, is at the corner of West 24th Street and Eleventh Avenue—until now, the neighborhood's western boundary. But while the distance Connelly mentions is a short one, it might as well be a walk to the moon for some capricious art lovers. "There are so many galleries in Chelsea that, I know in my case, I tend to go where I can hit a bunch of galleries in one shot," he says. "But having a group of young, emerging galleries that have a really good-quality program, we thought, would be a good draw." Nodding in agreement, Pasquarella says, "It gives people a reason to come here."

Whether people—especially people who buy art—will make the trek is the big question. But for the dealers, many of whom have been in business for only a couple of years, if that, the potential benefits of fronting the sidewalk far outweigh the financial risks. "It makes perfect sense to me, because the name of the game, for better or worse, is being on the ground floor," says Jerry Saltz, an art critic for The Village Voice who has bemoaned the overcommercialization of the Chelsea scene. "It isn't surprising that a bunch of galleries would attempt to colonize a block together. They are responding to the herd instincts of collectors." Pasquarella, naturally, takes a more sympathetic view. "What kind of supertogether person, who's used to having a certain level of service in life," she asks rhetori-cally, "wants to wait ten minutes for an elevator, and then get squeezed in like sardines to go up to some gallery? It's uncomfortable—I hate doing it!"

"Who wants to wait ten minutes for an elevator, and then get squeezed in like sardines to go up to some gallery?"

Pasquarella and Connelly have known each other for three years, and in many respects, their current project stems from their previous associations, especially as cofounders of the New Art Dealers Alliance. Connelly had worked as a director at Andrea Rosen Gallery before striking off on his own in 2002, when he landed on the tenth floor of a gallery building on West 26th Street. Pasquarella worked as an associate director at the Marlborough Gallery, then moved up to director at Gorney, Bravin & Lee.

When that gallery closed last year, Pasquarella decided to set up shop as an art consultant, and needed an office. Connelly, meanwhile, wanted to get to the all-important ground floor. The two decided to look for real estate together, which is how they came across the Tunnel building and its 11,000 square feet worth of loading-dock space. "It was clear that although the landlord wanted an art-gallery presence, they didn't really have a vision," Pasquarella says. "John and I came up with a concept of what to do with that space, and we approached galleries whose personalities would be good fits with our own.

"We were able to develop a really great deal for ourselves and for our colleagues by doing this as a group," she continues, though she won't disclose the rent. The fact that they were all NADA members, she adds, was a coincidence, if a happy one. "It's funny," she says, "because one of the first stories that came out about this project had a headline that read something like, 'NADA Creates Art Mini-Mall.' John and I were really shocked, because it had never occurred to us to think of it that way."

In a sense, the West 27th Street project is an extension in miniature of gallery migrations across the city over the past 40 years. Soho, the East Village and Williamsburg would be unimaginable today without the waves of pioneering artists and galleries there. But the process of creating art neighborhoods as bohemian paradises was ultimately self-defeating, as artists and dealers would end up pricing themselves out of the hot rental markets they created.

Chelsea, however, turned out to be different. People took a more dry-eyed approach to building a brave new art world, whereby old garages would be transformed into glitzy showcases for art—and nothing more. Unlike Soho or the East Village, art isn't made in Chelsea for the most part; it's just sold there. On the surface, at least, Pasquarella and Connelly's plan continues in this vein, but to hear them tell it, their approach represents a revolution in how things will get done in Chelsea—an innovative marriage of romance and commerce.

"My practice is based on the synergy of collective action. There is a real relationship between all of the gallerists, a communal atmosphere," Pasquarella explains. "There's a sense of support and respect from professional colleagues that is very helpful pragmatically, but also conceptually." That relationship extends to the artists they show, and Pasquarella and Connelly say they approached the other galleries involved on the basis of a shared sensibility—in keeping with the notion that past gallery nabes became synonymous with certain art movements (Soho in the '70s with Conceptualism and Minimalism, for example). When asked to define what sort of aesthetic the galleries share, though, Connelly says only, "I don't know if you can answer that in a single sentence."

For years, one of the complaints about Chelsea has been that it's all about business, with little room for ideas. "The market is the discourse," is how Saltz puts it. Pasquarella bristles at the idea that new work coming out of Chelsea is all about the price tag. "I disagree with that so strongly," she says.

She points to one of Connelly's artists, assume vivid astro focus, the Brazilian-born installation and video artist whose psycho-tronic work was a highlight of the 2004 Whitney Biennial and is currently on display in "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "People are only seeing his work like, 'Wow, it's cool and it's hip, and it's got bright colors and music, and this is the youth culture," she begins. "But his work is extremely subversive, very political. It's very much about changes in our society, and over time, people will begin to understand that."

Time will also tell whether this new outpost of art will succeed, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality. Pasquarella is ambitious in both respects. "West 24th Street has what we're trying to capture here," she says, referring to the Broadway of gallery rows. "John and I are confident that if you do the right thing, and do it well, you'll attract people. Even if you are a little further away."