BROOKLYN -- The dam has burst. Fine art is slowly leaking from that well-guarded bastion of high culture, Manhattan. Sure, museums like the Guggenheim and the Whitney are still must-sees for art-loving visitors to New York. But the Museum of Modern Art, undergoing renovations at its Manhattan digs, has opened a satellite in Queens for the duration. And in the last five years, even the most insular of curators and collectors have resigned themselves to coming to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where dozens of galleries have sprung up, exhibiting cutting-edge art.
It's not that commercial galleries have defected from Manhattan. Chelsea, which became the city's art district after SoHo gave way to commercial development, is home to plenty of ritzy, high-end galleries, with bright, white walls and polished hardwood floors.
Williamsburg is the anti-Chelsea. An old, rough-and-tumble Polish neighborhood, it's less slick than its artsy counterpart on Manhattan. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 artists, the world's densest enclave, live and work in Williamsburg. As much as they grow around commerce, art venues are built on and for dialogue within the community. Here they have a built-in audience and a ready supply of fresh, young artists. Chelsea has never been known as an artists' neighborhood. Its galleries traffic in the known quantities of established artists who sell well. In Williamsburg, all the 40 or so art spaces boast of tapping unknown talent. This is the place to see what and who will be hot next.
The scene centers on North 9th Street, but stretches southward down Bedford Avenue about a dozen blocks. As the gallery scene has developed, the area has gone from low-rent and dangerous after dark to high-rent and dense with bistros and burgeoning clubs.
Joe Amhrein, a California artist who moved to Brooklyn in 1989, opened the district's flagship gallery, Pierogi, in a warehouse loading dock in 1994. "Manhattan rents were ridiculous," Amhrein recalls. "I had friends with studios in Williamsburg. There weren't any restaurants. It was much more run-down, and rents were cheap. Now they're high."
Amhrein started showing art in his studio. "I wanted to start a glorified studio-visit idea," he says. ''To hang art on the wall and invite people over. I didn't want the artists to have high expectations. It wasn't about sales."
Today, Pierogi -- named for the savory Polish dumplings -- is an important commercial gallery, but as much as Amhrein aims to succeed commercially, he also has artistic and community goals in mind. The gallery's October show, "One on One," features four video installations, set up in booths throughout the gallery. Video installations are notoriously hard to sell, but they suit Amhrein's artistic imperative.
"The more eccentric shows give you credibility about what you're trying to do," he says. ''New ideas are difficult to try to sell, but Williamsburg can afford to. Your overheads are not so daunting that you're afraid to take a chance. Collectors love to see the new stuff, and curators and critics have embraced what's going on out here. It's not just going to Chelsea all the time and seeing some diverse stuff. Discovery, especially in art, is refreshing."
Amhrein spearheaded Pierogi's flat files, an archive of works on paper by more than 700 artists, many of them based in Brooklyn. Galleries in Los Angeles, London, and the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston have followed suit. Visitors can walk in, ask to view the flat files, don a pair of gloves, and riffle through the work.
"It's one thing to have a show once a month. The flat files are more in a community context," Amhrein says. "It's a way to show work that's affordable, at $200 to $300, and a way to get people involved in collecting. This demystifies the viewing process, and the artists have gained another voice."
Like Amhrein, Lisa Schroeder's intention when she cofounded Schroeder Romero 11 years ago was not to sell art. She didn't sell a single piece for five years.
"We don't curate based on whether it will sell enough, and that makes it more interesting," Schroeder says. She's wearing jeans and a work shirt, a contrast to the corporate garb art dealers wear in Chelsea. Schroeder Romero, she says, leans to conceptual work, with a sociopolitical slant.
Schroeder can point to the moment Manhattan woke up to the possibilities of its low-rent neighbor. It was 1995, and art dealer Ronald Feldman invited four Williamsburg galleries -- her space, Pierogi, the not-for-profit gallery Momenta, and the now-defunct Four Walls -- to put together a show in his SoHo space. "That's when everything changed," Schroeder says.
Priska Juschka opened her space, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, two years ago. She had been a private dealer on Madison Avenue. She found a garage space on Berry Street in Williamsburg. "The response was amazing," Juschka exclaims. She had considered moving to Chelsea and was put off by the prices and the lack of space, but her reception in Williamsburg cinched the deal. "I was welcomed. The first show got good reviews. I realized I'd rather move to Williamsburg than Chelsea. I wanted to work with younger artists. New galleries would struggle to compete with more established galleries in Chelsea."
Juschka adds that the gallery community here is less competitive than across the river.
"It's not cutthroat," she says. "It's collegial and cooperative. The galleries are all different from one another. Some are focused on performance art, or readings. Some are not for profit. Everyone has a little niche here."
Juschka, a native of Germany, has her own niche: Rather than showing Brooklyn-based artists, she taps young talent from around the world.
Becky Smith opened up her gallery, Bellwether, fresh out of Yale in 1998 with an MFA in painting. She's brassy, a real people-person, and when she was offered a solo show of her paintings in Chelsea at the same time she was trying to get her gallery up and running, Smith had to make a choice: To try to make it as a painter, or become an art dealer and help out scores of other artists. She opted for the latter.
When asked what her niche is, she runs through most dealers' aesthetic litany: finely crafted, intelligent, beautiful work. But Bellwether does have an edge: "Some people call it surreal," Smith says. She leans toward installation work; her last show, by New Hampshire artist Marc Swanson, featured tar-black deer roaming over glittering coals and a mummy suspended from the ceiling.
"The day we opened it became clear, I had stumbled into a black hole of need," Smith says. "We have all these artists [in Williamsburg] and not enough exhibition opportunities. They flood into your doors."
Some say the neighborhood has even passed its peak.
"It's gone from being one of the trendiest spots, to now people saying it's the new bourgeois," says Tamara Gayer, director of the Williamsburg Gallery Association. As the district moves up in the world, there is a fear that artists will be priced out. It's an old story: Artists move into the cheapest, dirtiest neighborhoods for their affordability and big workspaces, gentrification follows, the artists flee.
"It's become extremely expensive," says Schroeder. "Artists can't move in. They go seven stops in on the L train now. We're at the first stop. That will change the landscape here. It will be harder for younger people to open galleries. There are more artists per square foot here than anywhere in the world, and now they can't afford studio space."
But the artists haven't defected yet, and in the meantime, Williamsburg thrives. It's one of the most exciting places to see art in New York, but it lacks the austerity and, some would say, snootiness many associate with the art world. "We mentor younger galleries, we share collectors," says Schroeder. "There's room for all of us."
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.