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Considering Community as Art Galleries Help Gentrify Harlem

A new wave of art galleries are starting to move up uptown from Chelsea and lower Manhattan, and it is time to ask serious questions about their impact and what we can do to guarantee Harlem survives culturally.

HarlemWindow_ArtFlux_Squirewell_9.14.16_PhotoByPeterCooper_
A view into the window of Art in Flux during the opening for Stan Squirewell inn September of this year (Photo by Peter Cooper, courtesy of Leanne Stella)

How does one defend one’s turf — the place where one lives alongside the people one identifies with? How does one defend that place against incursions by agents or forces that seem to want to change that environment, make it inhospitable, when it had felt like where one belongs for a long time? I like the term turf, though it is a corny word that brings to mind overwrought musicals with overly stylized  characters. I like it because it connotes the ground, the soil and grass underneath one’s feet that can feel like one’s personal preserve.

Harlem Nights, 135 Street from Henry Hudson (photo by Jason Jenkins, flickr.com/jdub1980)
Harlem Nights, 135 Street from Henry Hudson (photo by Jason Jenkins, flickr.com/jdub1980)

Harlem is a preserve of a certain spirit and culture that seems worth defending. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it is under threat, that it is being invaded by institutions and economic forces that aim to transform it, and, intentionally or not, make it less affordable for its long time residents. The median household income in Harlem is now about $37,000 per year, as opposed to about $50,000 for the whole of New York, yet with buildings like One Morningside Park going up, selling two-bedroom condominiums at $2.5 million that median figure will not last much longer. Harlem’s turf is getting smaller, and what’s making slowly shrivel into a husk of its former self is gentrification.

One way to counter the invasion of gentrifying forces — businesses and real estate developers that represent large scale financial speculation — is to check the progress of art galleries that often act as the precursors for these enterprises. Activists members of Defend Boyle Heights when threatened by the incursion of new art galleries took aggressive (nonviolent) steps to protect their turf: interrupting meetings convened to discuss gentrification with picket signs, taking away the microphones being used by speakers, to insist that the galleries get the hell out. Defend Boyle Heights has also called for a moratorium on one nonprofit, Self Help Graphics, working with outside artists and galleries they think pose a threat of gentrification. But what if we thought about defending Harlem against these same forces using strategies of addition and not only ones of attrition?

Art exhibition at the new Elzabeth Dee Gallery space
The ‘First Exhibition’ show at the new Elizabeth Dee Gallery space in Harlem (all photos courtesy of Elizabeth Dee gallery unless otherwise noted)

What if the rule rather than the exception were to form institutions that can support and enable artists who are rooted in Harlem, who have durable connections to its soil? For example, there is Art in Flux, which was birthed in Harlem in 2012, and has had mostly a peripatetic existence since then, doing pop-up shows until March of this year where they were granted a display space by Harlem Properties at 163 Malcolm X Boulevard. Leanne Stella created the project with the clear priorities of creating opportunities for uptown artists to show their work in the neighborhood, and for people who live in Harlem to have greater access to contemporary work. Thus, at least half of the artists they exhibit live in Harlem, and their 2016 art fair consisted mostly of work that was publicly displayed in Harlem. The sense of their rootedness can be felt at the openings at Art in Flux: full of a mix of ethnicities, classes, and ages, in the time I have attended them never getting the whiff of de facto ethnic segregation I regularly sense at gallery openings.

Unfortunately the trend among galleries opening in Harlem is not the Art in Flux model. I could feel that the turf had shrunk when I walked into the opening of Elizabeth Dee’s new gallery on Fifth Avenue in central Harlem. The space felt like a business outpost created to flog art that is almost entirely unconnected to the community. What they displayed for this First Exhibition, a sampling of what their program will be, was utterly disappointing and made me despair for Harlem: works by John Giorno, Carl Ostendarp, and Joan Wallace that seemed devoid of soul or curiosity, the kind of works produced to fill a catalogue and incoming orders from international, speculative buyers. Dee also represents Adrian Piper, so there was one lone piece in the gallery that, for me, had some meaningful content to ponder. The symbology of the gallery’s placement is so ironic it’s almost mocking. It occupies the space where the Studio Museum in Harlem first stood. It’s an expansive space that offers tantalizing possibilities for shows, but their opening had that familiar tang of racial and class-based separation — a majority white audience that generally kept to those who they seemed to already know. The presence of this kind of gallery feels dismal, because, to quote Michael Henry Adams lamenting the end of a “Black Harlem,” “to us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people.”

Another view of ‘First Exhibition’ with work by Adrian Piper at the center

The natives are in rout and retreat. Dee isn’t the first one to come into Harlem; others include the successful gallerist Gavin Brown, who has opened a new space on West 127th street, plus the recent additions of Broadway 1602, which started out in the Flower District in Manhattan, and moved to Harlem after 10 years, and the Long Gallery, which opened this year as well. Their presence are signs not that gentrification is coming, but that it has already arrived.

What’s worse is that the story that often gets publicized about these galleries is a version of the colonizer’s tale: the intrepid gallerist creates an outpost in a relatively new territory which wasn’t much to begin with. It is the savvy colonizer’s strategy to have respected publications lead this PR charge, such as the piece in the New York Times that essentially treats Dee as a heroic figure, saying, “given the high concentration of galleries in neighborhoods like Chelsea and the Lower East Side, Ms. Dee is still very much a pioneer.” So we are encouraged to see her as an entrepreneurial Columbus who will bring the new world of contemporary art to the uptown hinterland. But this is not what will preserve the ground on which so much bountiful culture was formed.

For residents who are deeply invested and connected to their communities within New York City that are still somewhat affordable for the working class, gentrification certainly is a scourge they feel they need to beat back. However, the best strategy is not simply a defensive one, but one that embraces forming institutions that nurture and preserve that fertile ground beneath one’s feet.

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