Loren Munk was cycling through Lower Manhattan about five years ago when he saw some unusual construction activity happening on a quiet side street off Broadway.
“I rode the street and saw someone building walls and a gallery,” he told Hyperallergic. “At one point early on, I heard six galleries would be on the strip.”
Munk, an artist and critic also known as James Kalm, is best known for pioneering the guerrilla online video art review. During openings, Munk pedals up to a gallery on his mountain bike, pulls out a small digital video camera, and records his spontaneous impressions of the show that he later uploads to YouTube. The project has taken him to wherever an art scene had developed and informed his meticulously documented map paintings that track the diaspora of New York’s galleries. The works have also become a hagiography of artist studios and the gallery spaces that existed, even briefly, in the city’s overlapping eras.
Lately, Munk has found himself in Tribeca, where a cluster of art spaces has begun to rival Chelsea. This spring, Munk returned for the Gordon Matta-Clark and Pope.L show at David Zwirner on Walker Street, where two dozen people wandered inside. The atmosphere reminded him of Soho in the mid-1980s, when hundreds of artists congregated in loft spaces with galleries on the ground floors.
“I’ve seen the cycle go five or six times and if it’s good it takes 20 years to run through a cycle,” he said. “You start out with this area that’s pretty rugged with garages and warehouses, then people move in and start changing it. It takes five or six well-known galleries to solidify a neighborhood. Once entrepreneurs start seeing that’s where people want to make money, the gold rush starts.”
Artists have long gravitated to less popular or overlooked areas where commercial studio space was plentiful and affordable. Galleries often followed, remaking the corridors where they put down roots as they did in Soho in the 1970s, the East Village in the 1980s, Williamsburg in the mid-1990s, Chelsea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the Lower East Side and Bushwick in the mid-2000s.
But Tribeca has inverted that model. Nearly 60 galleries have sprouted in central Tribeca in the area between Canal and Chambers streets and west of Lafayette Street, triple the number that set up shop in the neighborhood in 2019. That growth occurred even though Tribeca is among the priciest places to live in the city: Homes sold at an average price of $4.73 million last year, making Tribeca the city’s third most expensive neighborhood, the Real Deal reported. (Nolita and Times Square North topped the list.) Its studios had average rents of $5,683 per month for non-doorman buildings, while its one-bedrooms nearly reached $7,000 per month, easily the highest in the city, according to a March 2023 MNS Real Estate rental market report.
And yet, its retail prices have remained largely stable and affordable compared with other parts of Manhattan. The average asking rent for Lower Manhattan stores in the first quarter of 2023 was $253 per square foot, two dollars less than landlords wanted the same time a year ago, per a 2023 Cushman and Wakefield retail report. Rents in Tribeca are about 20% lower than those in the Meatpacking District and Soho, and a third of the price of Madison Avenue, the report said.
Savvy brokers familiar with Tribeca’s nooks and crannies have often found even better deals. One of the neighborhood’s most prolific salesmen, Redwood Property Group partner Jonathan Travis, who placed 34 galleries in Tribeca over the past decade, said rents on the side streets where art spaces have concentrated now range between $95 and $125 per square foot.
“It’s unique in that it’s a luxury area with an affluent zip code but the retail rents did not reflect the affluence of the neighborhood where in many other places of the city they would,” he said. “There’s a lot more of a neighborhood feel in Tribeca than in Chelsea.” Travis has received much credit for luring galleries to Tribeca. His first client was Alexander and Bonin Gallery, followed by Bortolami, Casey Kaplan, and Andrew Kreps. As he met more gallery owners, clients told him they were unhappy with new development around the High Line and Hudson Yards. Owners began doubling the price of their leases once they expired or simply tore down their one-story garages to make way for multi-story condos and tech offices.
“The common denominator that we frequently heard was, ‘We think we’d like to leave West Chelsea but we don’t know where to go,’” Travis said. “Instead of galleries saying, ‘I want to pay more to be in Chelsea,’ they said, ‘We don’t want to be here now.’ It felt like our opportunity.”
The neighborhood’s cast iron lofts have been a fruitful match for gallerists’ needs. Many 19th-century industrial buildings were once used by textile merchants and printers but have since been landmarked and converted to condos or co-ops. Their retail spaces are often too small for a chain or luxury retailer but large enough for galleries that don’t need to renovate. Some ground-floor Tribeca locations have also been too cumbersome to build out a restaurant or bar. The neighborhood’s community board must also approve new liquor licenses, which have been increasingly tough to come by in Lower Manhattan as its residents prefer peace and quiet, restaurant advocates say.
“Although the law allows business to serve alcohol until 4am, some community boards demand stipulations with much earlier closing hours or they outright reject an applicant because they don’t want a nightlife business at that location,” said Andrew Rigie, New York City Hospitality Alliance executive director. “A raw space that opens up as a gallery is a much lower barrier to entry than conversion to a restaurant.”
Other larger forces have shaped galleries’ migration south. A handful of spaces had opened in Tribeca at the turn of the century, but the September 11 attacks shut down Lower Manhattan for months, stunting retail development there for much of the decade. Chelsea began to mature as the city’s pre-eminent art destination until Hurricane Sandy flooded many ground-floor spaces in 2013, destroying millions of dollars worth of work. Tribeca became an alluring destination because its buildings offered basement-level storage out of a flood zone.
Once the pandemic occurred in 2020, some gallery owners who contemplated a move for years ditched Chelsea or the Lower East Side as retail rents in Tribeca dropped considerably. Many stores and restaurants in the area closed permanently, but galleries stayed afloat because customers continued to purchase art online. “The art world fared pretty well,” Travis said. “A lot of dealers had solid years in 2020 because dealers ramped up their focus on online offerings. People were bored at home and the art buying population still had disposable income.”
But the most significant reason gallerists gave for moving to Tribeca was that another gallery they admired was already doing business there. Bortolami moved from Chelsea to Walker Street in 2017 when their lease was up and their landlord decided to gut the building and build offices above it. Tribeca had Alexander and Bonin and a couple other galleries nearby, as well as a space 30% larger than what they paid for in Chelsea.
“It was just bigger spaces, a more interesting neighborhood, an easier commute … It wasn’t a hard sell,” said Claire Bergeal, senior director at Bortolami gallery. “We had thought about the Upper East Side — that’s where the money is — and some people told us we should look at the Lower East Side, but the spaces in both those places were not as generous. We also want to be mindful of who would be around us, the kinds of clients who would visit.”
One year later, the owners of the contemporary art gallery Canada decided to move from Bowery Street to Lispenard Street after they were recruited by other dealers including Stefania Bortolami and Andrew Kreps.
“I remember running into Andrew [Kreps] and asking, ‘What do you think?’ and he said he was all for it. He wanted the shift to happen,” said Canada Co-Founder Phil Grauer. “Galleries wanted to move there because it was affordable and the rooms were big enough.”
Charles Moffet, who opened his eponymous gallery in Chinatown in 2018, moved to a ground-floor space on Washington Street in 2022, just west of Tribeca’s art epicenter, because he liked the area’s critical mass of galleries and its accessible location. “We have a nice community thread of Tribeca galleries and we’re in communication about openings,” Moffet said. “It’s been super convenient. We’ve spoken with collectors who pop right off the West Side Highway. It’s a really easy way to drop down in a car or the subway.”
The art scene’s momentum has shown little sign of slowing down even as new construction has surged north of the neighborhood in Hudson Square. Google opened a 630,000-square-foot campus on Pier 57 last April while Disney’s 22-story headquarters at Four Hudson Square is expected to be ready by 2024.
Chris Roth, managing director at Hines and the developer behind both corporate megacomplexes, wants to attract more galleries to his ground-floor retail spaces as white-collar workers return to offices in the area. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for art galleries and community-driven space activation at the street level,” he said. “We would love to have them, in all candor.”
Galleries are likely to remain in Tribeca for a long time. Travis predicts many of his tenants will renew once their current 10 or 15-year leases run out. He doesn’t envision commercial rents rising more than 20 to 25 percent. But the art world’s physical footprint has always been fleeting, especially in New York where it can be hard to stay rooted in one neighborhood without generational wealth.
“When something like this starts to happen you realize it’s a groovy thing, if it’s authentic,” Munk said. “It’s a cultural power spewing out this energy. People can come in and be part of this community, and learn and do strange weird things. And when it falls apart, that’s it.”