Since its foundation in 1972, Artists Space has supported the careers of emerging artists and presented innovative work to the public. The nonprofit organization operated at the heart of the downtown arts scene for decades, and its program championed the likes of Jenny Holzer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Barbara Kruger, and Lyle Ashton Harris well before contemporary art history canonized them. Recent exhibitions continued to provoke with Tom of Finland’s homoerotic drawings and Laura Poitras’ investigation of the post-9/11 security state, but the current solo show of Lukas Duwenhögger will be its last at 38 Greene Street.
At sunset on June 5, Artists Space will permanently close its 38 Greene location and conclude its 23-year occupancy of the 3rd floor. The story sounds all too familiar: the lease has ended, and the landlord plans to replace this vanguard of contemporary art with a penthouse. Thankfully, Artists Space retains its TriBeCa storefront and basement at 55 Walker, where it will persist in hosting exhibitions while searching for a new home. A cluster of other art nonprofits remain in Soho, including the Drawing Center, the Swiss Institute, and the richly aromatic Earth Room.
Downsizing, moving, or completely closing is not an unusual narrative for nonprofit art spaces in New York, and soaring median rent is not a plight reserved to the arts. If you’ve spent a few minutes with a veteran New Yorker, you have likely heard “you could buy any drug you wanted on this corner in the 80s” or “this used to be a (pick one: mom-and-pop diner / hotspot for Real Punks™ / secret gay leather club).” Today you might be visiting the oldest apothecary in the United States, but tomorrow the rent has tripled and now it’s a Sweetgreen filled with off-duty Scandinavian models.
The five boroughs are rapidly changing, and the art world has suffered countless losses along the way. Cherished supply shops have cleared out for high-end retailers and luxury apartments, recently adding to the list Art Cove, Lee’s Art Shop, and Pearl Paint. Even a store frequented by Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Kiki Smith isn’t safe. In 2014, the Watts Towers-esque project Broken Angel was sold to a developer and demolished. That same year, the graffiti destination 5 Pointz was whitewashed overnight and bulldozed, with plans to become a condominium complex.
Nonprofits hold a particularly precarious position in this real estate market, and Artists Space is simply playing out the pattern of several other iconic organizations. A reputation can’t pay rent, and developers are forcing cultural institutions out of their historic sites.
In 2012, Exit Art celebrated the end of its 30 year run with a gala and the publication of two final books. In 2013, the Clocktower Gallery left its TriBeCa building after 40 years of residencies and installations. Clocktower Productions lives on as a project without a space, and its previous address at 108 Leonard Street now refers to (you called it!) luxury condos. In 2018, White Columns will follow suit and vacate its Meatpacking gallery when the lease ends, but no new location has been announced yet.
The Galapagos Art Space, however, gave up on New York entirely in 2014. Rising rents chased the arts and community project from Williamsburg to Dumbo before it decided to resettle in Detroit. “The white-hot real estate market burning through affordable cultural habit is no longer a crisis, it’s a conclusion,” the website explains. Galapagos also demands a new funding model for the arts, arguing that “near total reliance on philanthropy and government to fund infrastructure and operations – is unsustainable and leads time and again to chronic under-performance and instability in the sector.”
But abandoning the rich artistic history of New York can’t be the only solution, and we must fight to defend the nonprofits that defend the integrity of contemporary art. As said by Artists Space in its appeal for donations this past December, “the City is changing before our eyes; rents are the highest they have ever been. Artists and not-for-profits are forced to move further and further away from the City’s traditional arts neighborhoods. In other words, there has never been a more important time to support the work of artists in New York.”
It is too late for the 3rd floor of 38 Greene, but it is not too late for Artists Space, White Columns, and the other remaining nonprofit organizations that nurture emerging and alternative artists in New York. Be sure to support Artists Space and see its final exhibition, Undoolay, which will remain open seven days a week until June 5.
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