Gallery owner Nick Lawrence came to Chelsea more than a decade ago. Previously, Lawrence had been curating galleries just outside of Boston and in Williamsburg, but Chelsea’s bustling art scene drew him to the city.
That was in 1999, and the flight of galleries from an increasingly gentrified Soho to the Chelsea was less than a decade old. Since that time, Lawrence has opened up a different gallery, called Freight and Volume, on West 24th Street where he’s been in a prime position to view the change that condo and retail development has brought in everything from food options to population.
“Parking is certainly more difficult than it used to be. If you blink, your car will be towed,” said Lawrence in recent interview.
For the latter half of the decade, developers have followed artists and converged on west Chelsea erecting skyward condos, upscale retail spaces, and restaurant. The recent addition of the High Line park has brought even more development. However, almost counter-intuitively, the Chelsea gallery scene has remained steadfast and even blossomed alongside the development boom.
Numbers show while the Chelsea real estate market was hit by the recent recession, it’s started to pick up again. Even though still not near 2006 levels, Chelsea building sales have picked up or remained steady, with art space sales picking up during the latter half of 2010.
Sales for art itself seem to match. A walk along West 24th Street reveals very few vacant galleries these days. Lawrence says that most galleries that were forced out by bad economic times have since been replaced by new ones.
The vitality that has allowed galleries to remain has seemingly eluded other businesses put in the way of development and former artists havens such as Soho. What possibly separates the steadfastness of Chelsea art businesses, at least for the moment, was an early move by many artists who opted to buy rather than rent their spaces, according to chief economist for the Eastern Consolidated Real Estate Investment Services, Barbara Byrne Denham.
“I think the fact that the artists are still there is testament that they were smart about their real estate,” said Denham.
But the health and optimism don’t just end with artists who own their space. Along West 24th and 23rd streets, many galleries in rented spaces have opened up, some as recently as this year.
Marc Jancou, who opened his eponymous Chelsea gallery in 2010, says it unlikely that he’ll leave an art scene he foresees as remaining intact. “The established galleries in Chelsea aren’t moving, and I see no signs of any change in the future,” said Jancou.
Gallery owners like Lawrence and Jancou possibly benefit from what economists call the network effect, says Denham. According to this theory, a group of similar businesses located close together can collectively draw a reputation and steady crowds.
“You just get more visitors, because a neighborhood has that kind of reputation,” said Denham in a recent telephone interview.
For the moment, it’s this reputation that may also help drive the condo boom, because Chelsea apartment developments attract mostly luxury buyers, says Vice President of Halstead Property Laura Amin. The large newly built condos, farther from the subway and in an artsy neighborhood, draw high-profile buyers looking for discreet luxury vacation homes.
“[Chelsea] is not becoming commercialized. To some degree I think that’s sort of challenge in that way for Chelsea. Its easier to buy a Warhol than a can of soup,” said Amin in a recent phone interview.
For the owners, many new developments like the condos and boutiques have increased foot traffic in Chelsea and its galleries. Lawrence says he definitely seen the increase.
While the eventual threat of a Soho-like flight is on Lawrence’s mind, he says the Chelsea scene has still maintained most of its edge and appeal. “There’s a lot of energy. There’s a lot of edginess still to this area and surprises. You can see Picasso on one block, and someone fresh out of grad school across the street,” said Lawrence.