Bronze public art statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr at Harlem's 125th Street. Photo by David Goehring via Flickr.

Bronze public art statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at Harlem’s 125th Street (photo by David Goehring/Flickr)

Harlem presents a unique quandary for the art gallery field in New York. It has a storied past as the nexus of a flourishing black arts movement in the early 20th century, however, since then it has largely been left aside in the cyclical migration of artists and galleries to new territories whose economies are transformed to support and drive the burgeoning systems of artistic production, distribution, sales, and promotion. This is more or less the stories of Chelsea, the Lower East Side, and Bushwick, Brooklyn. The question is whether Harlem can or will follow that same trajectory.

The tensions existing in the question of how Harlem will be affected by the infusion of galleries and project spaces are well illustrated by the case of Claire Oliver, who has told Hyperallergic that she would like to expand into Harlem. While Oliver has run a successful gallery in the blue-chip environs of Chelsea for 15 years, she feels that the rapacious commerciality of the district has an impact on the kind of work she shows. She imagines establishing a project space in Harlem that would function as an incubator for artists’ and curators’ ideas — a space in which participants will benefit from feeling reduced pressure for commercial success. While the idea is very much in the development stages, Oliver is aiming for a raw, vacant, sun-filled space that would welcome ad hoc projects, allowing “creative expression for its own ends,” she says. “It’s a cliché, but the space is needed in order to pursue art for art’s sake.”

There are clear benefits for gallery space in Harlem: geographically, the neighborhood is very accessible by both surface streets and public transport. However, it is not clear that the cost of renting or buying comparable space would be less than in Chelsea. According to Oliver, it depends on what’s available. She has been looking for two years but has not yet found the right situation.

Front view of Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo courtesy of Claire Oliver.

Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea (photo courtesy of Claire Oliver)

What primarily draws Oliver to create a project space specifically in Harlem is the energy and feel of the neighborhood, she says, adding that she find it “uncommonly attractive.” Even before moving there years ago with her husband Ian and her two dogs, Claire felt that Harlem folks cultivated relationships with their neighbors, protecting their own. She relates being recognized and greeted by name by the inhabitants on her block, like the man who sells pies from 11 am each day until his supply is gone.

Oliver also respects the desire she sees in many Harlem residents to preserve a sense of the neighborhood’s architectural and artistic history. She describes being interviewed by her current home’s previous owner for two hours when she was preparing to purchase it. He conveyed the history of the building, the generations of his family that had lived there, and stories about the small modifications previous inhabitants had made that he hoped would be kept. Oliver was impressed by how crucial it was to the owner that he pass on the property to someone who would appreciate its history, and she is concerned about gentrification eroding visible reminders of that same history throughout the neighborhood, citing concern over the kinds of developers who are being awarded projects there. Part of what has made the process of finding the right space so difficult, she says, is locating a space that can be integrated with the neighborhood, rather than one that will be viewed as an incursion.

If she is successful, Oliver would join a small number of contemporary art spaces that have been located in central Harlem over the past few decades, such as Triple Candie, which was founded by Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett in 2001 on West 126th Street. The duo created unusual art shows there, showcasing photocopies of David Hammons’s work, mockups of sculpture by Cady Noland, and pieces by the fictionalized artist Lester Hayes. It was a not-for-profit outfit so never sold any work, instead depending on grants and contributions to keep the space open. The gallery closed in 2008 when the founders moved to Philadelphia, but in interviews they discuss how Harlem was integral to their larger concerns — concerns that echo Oliver’s own. They say, “the culture of Harlem — its low income levels, its ethnic diversity — has opened us up to thinking about what art means to communities outside of the art world, and what roles art might play in such contexts.”

But enterprising new art businesses have also come in to fill the gap left by projects like Triple Candie. Now, not too far from where that gallery once stood, the art dealer Gavin Brown has moved his gallery from the West Village to the site of a former brewery on West 126th Street.

Performance during David Humphrey and Jennifer Coates' "Plush Onus" exhibition at Arts & Leisure, April 2015 (photo courtesy of Nick Lawrence)

Performance during David Humphrey and Jennifer Coates’s ‘Plush Onus’ exhibition at Arts & Leisure, April 2015 (photo courtesy of Nick Lawrence) (click to enlarge)

East Harlem has also seen other project spaces recently open, such as Arts & Leisure, which Nick Lawrence established in 2014 in a former beauty salon on Lexington Avenue. He has mounted 15 shows so far and has tried to imbibe his space with a relaxed atmosphere in which, as he says, “artists can let down their hair a little.” Lawrence, who spent 10 years running Freight and Volume in Chelsea (which has since been relocated to the Lower East Side) moved to Spanish Harlem years ago. He loves the idea of working on curatorial projects in his own neighborhood, and with Arts & Leisure has created a space where artists who already have representation with other galleries can do small, uncommon projects, such as the shows he mounted with artists who are couples.

Certainly the raw vitality of Harlem and the environment of reduced pressure on sales has proved enticing for gallerists who already call the neighborhood home. Still, it remains to be seen how projects such as Oliver’s will dovetail with the concerns of the district as a whole — particularly since so many new for-profit ventures are moving in. This is essentially a question about Harlem’s future, and whether a neighborhood’s self-regard is expansive enough to allow new project spaces to flourish.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...