Recently an article appeared in Crains New York whose title was “Lower East Side Could Soon Overtake Chelsea as City’s Art Epicenter.”  I’m probably the world’s biggest fan of both of these art neighborhoods.  Chelsea was already a gallery behemoth when I started leading gallery tours 13 years ago, whereas the Lower East Side was barely a blip at the time and didn’t emerge as an important gallery center until halfway through my tenure.  Is the Crains author right?

In my opinion: not even close.  Not yet, anyway.  For the foreseeable future, Chelsea will reign as king.  Though I do feel strongly that the Lower East Side is a fantastically wonderful and fast-rising alternative, and you’ll see for yourself if you attend my first Lower East Side gallery tour of the new season on Sat. Sept. 26.

The Crains article used as its justification for the claim of world’s epicenter that Chelsea is down to 300 galleries, from a peak of 360, while the Lower East Side is now up to 225 galleries, a gap that is narrowing by the month.  While I do believe those numbers are roughly accurate, and the trend of Chelsea declining and Lower East Side increasing in numbers is certainly true, from my count Crains has overestimated the number of L.E.S. galleries by about 75 galleries.  And its claim that DUMBO Brooklyn has 10% of the city’s galleries is a wild overestimation, casting doubts about the entire article.

Yes, Crains is right that some galleries are leaving Chelsea because of the off-putting real estate market.  However, it’s only the lower-performing galleries that are leaving Chelsea, while many gallery “giants” such as Gagosian, Pace, and David Zwirner have recently added MORE gallery spaces in Chelsea.

In the Lower East Side, there are almost no “giants,” and the handful of “giants” that are there tend to have a small satellite space in the L.E.S., while keeping a much larger space in Chelsea, with Marlborough and Lehman Maupin galleries being two prime examples.  Chelsea consists of dozens of long-established internationally renowned galleries with very large industrial spaces, whereas Lower East Side consists mostly of young, first-time gallery owners showing art in small-to-medium sized spaces.  The L.E.S., which has always been a residential neighborhood, just doesn’t have the large industrial spaces that tempted name galleries to move to West Chelsea (at the time not even zoned for residences) a couple of decades ago.

Numbers of galleries just isn’t a good indication of “epicenter.”  I suggest instead we compare the two neighborhoods using either total square footage of gallery space, or total art sales (two measurements that are much harder to come by than number of galleries), and I’d say Chelsea would be the winner by 100-to-1 or even more.

Which is not to say that I’m not wild about the Lower East Side.  In some ways it’s my “favorite” gallery neighborhood, where I get to discover young, fresh talent and enjoy seeing these artists and their corresponding gallery owners take more risks.  But is the L.E.S. the best tour I lead?  Not yet.  And is it the world’s epicenter?  I’d call it second in the world, surpassing neighborhoods in London and Berlin, and that’s not bad.

Rafael Risemberg, Ph.D., Director
New York Gallery Tours

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