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On Tuesday, I took a stroll in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, through the galleries that are often seen as a major hub for the sales of luxury contemporary art. I noticed some galleries were being boarded up, including Hauser & Wirth, with workers nailing plywood sheets to protect the outside windows.
Other galleries in the area chose to cover their windows from the inside to avoid the eyes of potential looters, it seems. I ran into one gallerist who was walking to check on their gallery, which had its windows covered with paper on the inside. They shared that the idea of dealing with insurance gave them anxiety, considering the artists they show are not blue-chip. “I don’t want to fight with an insurance company over how much things might cost,” they said. “Particularly as some of our artists have shaky auction records.”
But even without the plywood barrier, in these mostly empty streets, it’s clear how fortified many of Chelsea’s art galleries already are. Sure there are exceptions, like Lisson, which continues to show its exposed glass doors on Tenth Avenue, but David Zwirner, Gagosian, and others have long used rolling gates. You could argue that it was simply preserved to maintain their previous look, as many of these shops were formerly garages and other industrial spaces, but considering they are some of the only elements preserved it’s notable. It’s also worth acknowledging that the wealthier spaces appear more likely to preserve this feature.
303 Gallery is a case of an art gallery that doesn’t need gates, since the building they occupy is so uninviting to the public you might think you were entering a type of white-collar-crime detention facility. Their space relies on the visual language of contemporary architecture, which has long been a darling of autocrats, to relay a bigger message.
The fact that galleries are uninviting to most people outside of a certain demographic is not new. What appears to be unique is how contemporary art galleries have morphed this century into boxes of extreme luxury that are taking notes from fashion flagship stores with their sparse interiors, unfriendly staff (unless you’re in the target demographic), intimidating front doors, and cold interior temperatures (remember,“the higher the prices, the lower the temperatures”) that rely on manifesting insecurity to encourage sales. Insecurity is key to a thriving luxury industry. And I won’t even go into how the daunting doors, the lack of benches, and other features can not only be limiting for people but fully exclude those with mobility and other physical challenges. Thankfully none of the galleries have been using razor wire on the plywood, like Saks Fifth Avenue did in Midtown, but we have little to be proud about considering the art community’s long and troubling history as welcoming spaces.
Part of me hopes that this hostile architecture that has become commonplace in Chelsea and elsewhere will be considered anachronistic one day. As the country, and world, wakes up to the end of an era, the new worlds before us waiting to be made and remade are being imagined now. In that new reality, the doors would open by themselves and there’s plenty of room to sit. The art’s better too.