Taking Over Midtown
A little over a year ago I was in a squat in Chelsea – a rare find anymore – listening to an older artist ramble on about things on his mind. The space was a sprawl of massive half-finished sculptures, paintings, art supplies littered over tables and chairs, and a kitchen from which the smell of some delicious stew radiated everywhere.
The guy was instantly charming. I forget his name (unfortunately) but he was a true blue starving artist type probably since youth, a kind of aging (and gay) Henry Miller with the gleam of youth intact in his eyes. We were all sitting around a table, and after he had read some medieval motet in Latin, the conversation turned to New York City.
He said, “You know, we have a duty, as artists, to go and make this city beautiful again. To go take over midtown, go drench those billboards in paint, turn this city into something inhabitable again. Cause you know,” he said, pausing to choose his words carefully, “there are a lot of morons out there.”
It was something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing from a dusty memory, so please excuse.
I don’t want to sound condescending toward non-artists (or pretend either he is or I am an authority on this), and I absolutely don’t want to get into the tired debate on gentrification. My concern here is bad taste - which I know is subjective, but is something that I think should perhaps be discussed more in defining the urban environment in Manhattan.
The basic fact of is that, by and large, people making decisions about the way Manhattan works are financiers, real estate developers, government agencies, big corporations – in short, people with no artistic credentials whatsoever. No wonder the place is making a slow march toward total sterility, and the creep is moving into Brooklyn as we speak.
First We Take Manhattan
My thoughts on this got rekindled last Friday when I went to a show at the Showpaper 42nd Street Gallery, a temporary gallery space and music venue at 42nd Street near 3rd avenue. The gallery is closing this week.
The show itself was a bit subdued, in part because the show was held pretty early to make sure it was done at a reasonable hour. Attachedhands, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Happy New Year and Dan Friel (of Parts and Labor) played, and for a fuller writeup you can see the Voice piece here. Here’s a video I took of Dan Friel’s set:
It was pretty surreal to step out of a Bushwick-style DIY show like this and be overwhelmed in a canal of slick skyscrapers, chain storefronts, occasional clusters of tourists traipsing their way to Times Square. It got me wondering if this might be something that could actually happen in multiple venues, in multiple places all over the island.
The Gallery situation came together in a pretty simple way: it was put together by a group of artists who decided to do it. There were no super-legit “above-table” credentials any of them possessed, though Showpaper’s longstanding presence in Brooklyn definitely gave credibility to the venture. This “deciding to do it and then doing it” is obvious to anyone in the whole do-it-yourself culture that’s emerged on a big scale recently.
I don’t know all the details, but the group found a link through Chashama to get the space at a serious discount. While I’ll refrain from giving an exhaustive list of grant opportunities for artists and tax breaks for real estate developers who give to artists, there are loads out there to be taken advantage of. More importantly there are tons of spaces hidden away in Manhattan that are un- or underused – bars or venues or warehouses that might, with a little effort, time and research, be open to doing something like what Showpaper did here.
Bushwick is becoming a brand and a new frontier for developers – there are signs of it everywhere – and Williamsburg’s demise is already pretty apparent. Are artists just going to keep moving further away from the city?
So as Showpaper’s 42nd Street Gallery prepares to shut down, I have a question for you artists among our readers. And it’s not rhetorical, I’m really asking. Are there hidden opportunities in Manhattan that we can raid? Are there venues where people could approach to start putting on shows? Could we have art installations in an old warehouse in TriBeCa? Indie shows in a Mariott bar in Koreatown? Loft parties in Manhattanville? Could we see the day when Midtown’s corporate art is overrun with autonomous art? The day when there are vines growing on the Golden Arches of every McDonald’s in the city? The day, to quote a song from a friend, when a tree grows from the New York Stock Exchange?