New York Juggernaut

The Whitney Museum’s new home under construction, 2013; Timothy Schenck

New York is on the verge. It’s calamitous. Culture. Economy. Society. The old triumvirate isn’t getting along. They’re faking it, retreating to the corners of a too small apartment of a too-new condo building in an area of the city that didn’t know it had been signed up for the neoliberal remodel. There is anger, and resentment. There have been betrayals, born of disrespect. Just listen to Spike Lee at Pratt Institute this past February, speaking here of the historically black neighborhoods of New York City:

‘You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it any more because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not – he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!… You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.’

Is there hope? After 12 years of Bloomberg, and eight years of Giuliani before that, it’s the age of Mayor Bill de Blasio. A Democrat. A liberal. A man of and for the people, who comes to office armed with a mixed-race family. Not a billionaire. Not a Republican. Someone who has stacked his administration with organisers and activists rather than MBA technocrats. According to a Quinnipiac poll from March of this year, 65 percent of New Yorkers are optimistic about the future with de Blasio as opposed to the 29 percent who aren’t. But when asked if their lives over the next four years will be better, worse or unchanged under the de Blasio administration, the greatest number, 38 percent, believe it will be business as usual.

And so the Great Gentrification rolls on, a juggernaut on a double-diamond slope. Apartments in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, once one of New York’s ‘toughest’ neighborhoods, now go for north of $1 million. Art people I know – critics, teachers, dealers, artists, all white – are moving to Harlem. ‘Great bones’ is how the real estate crowd unironically describes what these neighborhoods offer, as if the flesh and blood should be overlooked. Bushwick is now East Williamsburg. Williamsburg, one stop out of Manhattan along the L train, is now just an extension of Manhattan’s East Side. As is Long Island City. A couple I know are selling their apartment near Columbia University and beating it out of the city… for Singapore.

The visual arts have long been at the tip of the gentrifying plough. Newly minted MFAs and aspiring outcasts often look to such outlands for inexpensive studio and living spaces. But the speed of the speculators has picked up, and the established communities are pushing from the other direction. At a recent panel on the ‘Studio in Crisis’, Brooklyn deputy borough president Diana Reyna noted that ‘once speculators see an artist, they think: there goes the neighborhood. [Artists are] seen as the enemy in our neighborhoods, and that has to change.’ Greater community engagement might be the solution. Reyna offered the example of NURTUREArt, a Bushwick-based nonprofit that has engaged the local schools. But for individual artists, New York’s economic imperatives seem to leave less and less time for anything other than wage earning and rest. Meanwhile, the speculators lie in wait.

The Great Gentrification isn’t only centrifugal – that is, it reaches inward too, into even the most hallowed of cultural precincts.

‘Once upon a time the Museum of Modern Art was a home away from home for anybody who cared about modern art. Now it’s a fucking department store.’

‘This bland and banal scheme possesses all the presence and panache of a commercial parking garage entry.’

‘Somewhere inside me, I heard myself saying my good-byes to MoMA. I thought, I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness.’

That’s Jed Perl (New Republic), Martin Filler (The New York Review of Books) and Jerry Saltz (New York magazine) on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for MoMA’s expansion into the lot currently occupied by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s 2001 building for the American Folk Art Museum, which is getting the wrecking ball. Never before in my recollection has a single proposal for a cultural product, in this case a design for a museum extension that puts an emphasis on public-facing – aka visible to the street – performance and contemporary art spaces, elicited such a ferocious and, more importantly, unified chorus of histrionic opprobrium. ‘Department store!’ ‘Parking garage!’ ‘Madness!’ To the barricades. Yes, Mr Lee, ‘You have to come with respect. There’s a code.’ If you are middle-aged and white, there’s art.

And artists. Currently sitting on a bank of the Hudson River in Chelsea lies Tony Tasset’s Artists Monument (2014), an offsite project of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (and not far from the construction site of the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano building – a different kind of ‘there goes the neighborhood’ event). Etched with 392,486 names of modern and contemporary artists, from the established to the emerging to the middling, all arrayed on technicolour panels (no black, no white, no brown), Tasset’s shipping container of pseudo-recognition gestures at equality, even collectivity. Congratulations, artists, you have made it to New York, at least in name.

Collectivity is not what Tasset’s Monument is to, however. It’s to individualism. I suspect artists will arrive like pilgrims to Mecca, and will begin their circumnavigations, but always alone, or perhaps in pairs, searching for their names, for that mark of recognition that establishes them as what they have chosen to be. Those who can’t make the journey will ask for pictures. “Look! Here you are, on the same panel as ________!” There is no class called ‘artist’ though. There is no shared project, no modernist utopia nor fidelity to some ‘evental’ eruption of the new in the offing. Which is why just as many will likely avoid the Monument, repulsed by their shared polarities.

It is an interesting number nevertheless: 392,486. According to the 2014 European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) Art Market Report, it’s almost the exact midpoint between the world’s population of high-net-worth (roughly 600,000) and ultra-high-net-worth (roughly 200,000) individuals. It’s the latter, those with more than $30 million in ‘liquid’ assets, who buy the most expensive art and account for the greatest share of the estimated $60 billion market, but the HNWIs, those with $10m, contribute their share too. According to Knight Frank’s Global Cities Survey, which ranks the world’s cities according to how hospitable they are to the global rich, New York, right now second place to London in the overall rankings (but first for ‘economic activity’), will gain the overall top spot by 2024, increasing its numbers of UHNWIs, currently about 3,000, by about 30 percent.

That’s $114b in wealth in ten years’ time calling New York City home. Add to that the HNWI’s roughly $12 billion on the next rung down the ladder and you have the makings of a trickle-down city where money flows easily at the very top but largely evaporates by the time it reaches anything below the second or third percentile of earners.

In the artworld, this translates into big dollars spent at the big November and May auctions, and at the top galleries, especially those that don’t feel the need to vie for the top spot in this magazine’s yearly rankings – that is, the Goodmans, the Gladstones, the Coopers, the Marks – because they’re confident the money will be there when all is said and done. It’s the structural causality behind Christopher D’Amelio closing his gallery and partnering with David Zwirner, and behind Jessie Washburne-Harris and Michael Lieberman closing their gallery (which represented Karl Haendel and Matt Saunders) and joining, respectively, Metro Pictures and Marianne Boesky. ‘Patrimonial capitalism’ is what the economist Thomas Piketty calls it. In New York City, it’s the wellspring of the Great Gentrification.

Against this backdrop, gallery movements (Gagosian to the Lower East Side!), new professional affiliations (former Christie’s Contem-porary Art honcho Amy Cappellazzo to partner with uber adviser Allan Schwartzman!) and academic migrations (David Joselit ditches Yale for the Graduate Center at City University!) are just the rosy epiphenomena (can you hear Frank Sinatra? “New York, Neew Yooooork!”) of a wave – fast, hard, high – on which we are all being driven towards an unknown shore. Will New York’s artworld shatter against the gilded rocks of speculation and status? Or will its formidable ranks of artists, dealers, directors and thinkers manage to surf this inevitable swell in a demonstration of fitness, talent and guts that is worthy of this most improbable of places?

Once upon a time it was regular custom for New York parents to give their children an extra wad of small bills to carry in their pockets when they went off to school. It was called mugger money, the informal fee one paid to walk the streets between ‘nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight’ and sometime soon after the end of the David Dinkins administration (1993). Kids in those days were adults, worldly in ways that only ten frightening blocks could test.

The Great Gentrification has done away with such quaint scenes, for which leisurely art walks on the avenue were backdrops. Everyone has gone to their corners, including Culture, Economy and Society. One almost wants to look to the western horizon, to whisper the words attributed to the great educator and publisher Horace Greeley: ‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.’ And yet…

Excuse me, how does it go, Mr Lee? Oh, that’s right: ‘Get the fuck outta here!’

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.

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