"When we heard about the teams of curators that would be involved with the New Museum, we got very excited," said Fabienne Stephan, director of Salon 94 Freemans. "We're here because of the New Museum."
Stephan's gallery at 1 Freeman Alley is in an unexpected place, on a dead end off Rivington Street around the corner from the Bowery, famous in film and real life as Skid Row. I wasn't sure what to make of it. There were icicles of candy wrappers reborn as light fixtures, beautiful orbs of Murano glass, and polished surfboards on the walls.
Stephan erased my confusion. Seated on one of "100 Chairs in 100 Days" by Martino Gamper, a Vienna-trained designer-artist, the young art director said the exhibit of mixed media and wearable art by international artists launched The Crown Jewels, a collaboration of three local galleries. The project is one of many underway as the center of New York's ever-moving art scene changes again. Salon 94 Freemans is one of a dozen galleries that opened on the Lower East Side last year.
The New Museum of Contemporary Art, at 235 Bowery, opened Dec. 1. For 30 years, the New Museum, as it's known, was a transient resident of adjacent SoHo, housed in one old building after another. Now in its first permanent home, it lives on the edge of fabled, intersecting neighborhoods: Little Italy, the East Village, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, NoHo, SoHo, and the Lower East Side, which already has a hot late-night bar and restaurant scene. It's all made for walking, with distinctly different communities, home to ethnic restaurants, markets, and festivals.
"We were looking for space to pursue creative exhibitions and found this one by luck," said Stephan, 33, who grew up in Switzerland. The short alley has two other occupants, Freemans Sporting Club, which combines handmade menswear and a vintage barber shop, and Freemans Restaurant, an excellent tavern with rustic urban decor. "Our idea was to be close to a larger public and more artists. Even though New York artists now live in Queens and in Red Hook, Bed-Stuy, and other parts of Brooklyn, many still have studios on the Bowery, where they've been ever since Roy Lichtenstein had one here."
Lichtenstein, the late Pop Art painter, moved in 1965 to a former Bowery warehouse and bank that became his studio for several years. Warehouses in SoHo back then offered cheap rent much like tenements on the Lower East Side do now. Through the 1980s and early '90s, SoHo was the heart of New York's art world until gentrification, national retail chains, and skyrocketing real estate prices sent artist studios and galleries packing, first to neighboring Chelsea, then to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where the story repeated.
As anchor of the new locale, the New Museum presents an architecturally arresting exterior, a seven-story tower of huge, unevenly stacked boxes covered in silvery mesh. Currently the facade serves as canvas for "Hell, Yes!," a neon-bright, large-scale illuminated outdoor sculptural work by New York-based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, the first in a series of public art installations. The building's architecture by the Tokyo firm Sejima + Nishizawa/SANAA seems well-suited to New York's only museum devoted solely to contemporary art. Inside those giant boxes are flexible galleries of unadorned white space.
"It's minimal in big contrast to the uptown museums and, unlike them, it isn't an art piece in itself," said Bob Dews of Gloucester. I met Dews and his wife, Leslie, on a gallery tour of the opening exhibit, "Unmonumental," three floors of environmental sculpture by 30 international artists. "The outside piques your interest," said Leslie, "and the inside backs away from the art, allowing you to focus on the exhibit."
On their first visit here, New Yorkers Barbara Garodnick and Gail Goldman agreed. "The exhibit is more confusing, more way-out than I expected," said Garodnick. "But this is my idea of what an art building should be."
"I'm fascinated," said Patricia Pinto, a native of Portugal who lives in Miami. And indeed, she seemed both excited and curious about the building and what it contains. After the gallery tour, she and her husband, Carlos Oliveira, their daughter, Jasmin, 13, and I peppered guide Sophie White with questions. She was terrific at helping us appreciate the sometimes difficult-to-understand art work.
"Some artists don't want to tell you what they're saying," said Pinto. "They want you to figure it out for yourself. But the guides have heard some of the artists talk and can point things out for us."
Among opportunities created by the new, permanent space is Museum as Hub, a "cultural laboratory exploring art and ideas" with four international partners: the Insa Art Space (Seoul), Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art (Cairo), Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, The Netherlands), and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo (Mexico City).
On Bowery Street, the New Museum's shimmering gray exterior reflects the ever-changing light. A starkly modern building, it contrasts sharply with the historically down-and-out neighborhood. Two doors down, the Bowery Mission has served the needy since 1879. Dozens of restaurant supply and lighting stores line the street, their refrigerated units, bar stools, metal tubing, and industrial cookware spilling onto the sidewalk.
The streets were busy with shoppers, merchants, and tourists on the days I explored. It felt as safe as anywhere in New York, though less crowded than SoHo, where I exited the subway to walk along Prince Street to the museum.
Across from the subway stop at 599 Broadway is "The Wall," an art installation by Forrest Myers that since 1979 has been known as an unofficial landmark, the "Gateway to SoHo." "The Wall" consists of 42 blue-green, protruding aluminum beams evenly spaced over a teal blue background covering the back of a building. It was the subject of a legal dispute when the building's landlord tried to replace it with advertising billboards.
While the various sides argued, the installation was in storage for a decade. Art activists and the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission fought for its return. Finally, a compromise was reached allowing for smaller ads below the art, and "The Wall" was reinstalled last fall. So far, there are no ads posted. Look for it across the street from the B, D, F, and V subway stop at Broadway/Lafayette, about six blocks from the New Museum.
Change is part of the fabric of New York. The Lower East Side is the former home to the world's largest Yiddish-speaking community, but that language is rarely heard on the streets anymore. Even the Streit's Matzo factory is moving to New Jersey, although Katz's Delicatessen (remember "When Harry Met Sally") remains largely unchanged. Locals complain Little Italy is losing its true Italian heart but summer festivals still pack the streets. Chinatown bustles with sidewalk Asian markets and new construction.
If history repeats, the influx of galleries and tourists to the Lower East Side will be followed by the likes of such nearby SoHo icons as the gourmet emporium Dean & DeLuca's flagship store and trendy hotels like The Mercer. Gentrification has begun.
Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at email@example.com.