History of the Chelsea Art Galleries

Located on the far west side of Manhattan just above the Chelsea Market is the Chelsea Art Gallery district, which is one of the world’s pivotal locations for selling and showcasing contemporary art. Have you ever wondered why these galleries are for the public, yet often times, the public is incapable of emotionally entering them? Have you ever wanted to enter them but didn’t feel comfortable or know a non-artist who avoided certain galleries in favor of others? 

Though I have specifically conducted research by walking through multiple Chelsea galleries, this information is representative of my experience of galleries I have entered throughout the five boroughs. If you have ever tried to enter a gallery anywhere in the world and left within the first two minutes, you are not alone. The initial fear of entering a gallery starts with a galleries exterior presentation and can be broken down even further through the way artwork gets hung and how gallery attendants treat their visitors and potential customers upon entry. In essence, it’s not your fault!  Though the Chelsea galleries showcase art to the public for free, when you walk from gallery to gallery, you begin to notice an almost identical space that has become more about the art market and the economy, than the work that is housed within it.

It can most definitely feel emotionally dead.

Mixed Messages

The Chelsea galleries are very difficult to get to with public transportation, and this is the first indication that the collector’s experience is not as important as following the art market trends (Pace Gallery is the only gallery to have a sign that actually extends on to the street).  Within the article, Contemporary Art: A ‘Global’ and Local Perspective via New York’s Chelsea District, it is stated that over 95% of the people who go to these galleries, are simply going to look at the work with no intention to buy. So it is understandable that the collector’s in person experience many not be a priority.  Yet, there seems to be something ironic about how  many people view the exhibits and must go out of their way to find the galleries but are not converted into a customer or a raving fan. In any other industry, this conversion ratio would shut the business down, but obviously many galleries thrive.  Perhaps the tinting of the glass is to get people to go inside, rather than having them look within from the outside, and make up their mind on whether or not they want to go inside. A majority of the galleries that I visited embrace the industrial aesthetic, as they have white walls, exposed pipe, and even stainless steel throughout the space. The most interesting aspect, is how the gallery places their name with a small typeface onto their space. This is a disguise, as they are ultimately trying to separate themselves from the work that they present to make it look as though it is all about the work they are exhibiting but the experience is not always inviting.

The Work that is Shown Does Not tell the Whole Story

Within the Chelsea galleries, there seems to be a code that all of the galleries follow in relation to how work gets installed. Most times, a visitor can enter a gallery and look at a presentation of work that has clearly not been crafted by the artist. If you compare a gallery to a museum that has a set curatorial team, and alters the architecture of one of its galleries to enhance the work it presents, a gallery almost never changes their interior to assist the artist.  It is almost as if you could take one artist’s body of work and rotate it through each gallery space in Chelsea, and it would be displayed exactly the same from location to location. The strategy is to align work to look like a catalogue that would allow a potential buyer to easily walk by each piece and choose the work they want. This is supposed to instantly place the value of the work above the meaning of the work that gets presented. This is why the user experience feels devoid of emotion. As each gallery space is decluttered and very organized, visitors lose the element of surprise that art carries, and gain a feeling of coldness. This is detrimental to not only to the artist who counts on the gallery to make a sale but to the art collector who does not make a connection to that particular gallery as a resource.

Relationship Oriented?  Not So Much.

Not only is there a code that galleries in Chelsea follow in relation to the organization of artwork, but there seems to be a similar manner of treatment that a potential collector receives upon entry to each gallery. Have you ever had a moment when you walked into a gallery and felt as though you do not belong even though it is free to the public? You are not alone, as I am an art student, and I still feel as though I should not be walking into a gallery on most days that I try to. I can’t remember a time that I entered a gallery and was greeted by an attendant. In my experience, I have never gotten a smile, a name, a welcome, or an attendant to greet me and discuss the work on view with me. I want to connect, learn, and develop my collection but do not feel supported to.

Often times, I feel as though I am the only one in a gallery space and that I could perform an art heist at any moment.  Gallery attendants usually stare at their phones and are completely emotionally unavailable.  This is an issue, not just because it is disrespectful, but because the Millennial market is the fastest growing community and Millenials LOVE EXPERIENCES. Creating a positive experience in a beautiful space surrounded by the  genius of some amazing artists should not be this difficult.   If you took the time to develop basic relationships, galleries would have a whole new crop of future collectors to market to.  Not to mention that you never know when a young tech billionaire is going to walk into the door with jeans and a t-shirt just to see if he or she wants to invest or support that particular gallery.

The Future of the Gallery World

The shift of galleries that moved from SoHo to Chelsea and now to the LES and Brooklyn shows how gentrification is constantly being conducted and moving the art market. We are already seeing the closing of lesser known galleries and a shift of how business is conducted via the use of technology.  However, the Chelsea galleries hold a special history to the art market in New York.  Time will only tell which galleries thrive and move with the change of the time and which ones will slowly die off.  Next time you feel as though you should NOT enter a gallery space, take a moment and ask yourself why do you feel this way and go find a gallery that makes you feel like you’re at home and is there to support your artistic career and education as a new generation of art collector.   There is always a place to start to make a difference, and though these galleries might be aware of what they are doing, it provides an avenue for all kinds of future entrepreneurial opportunities.

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