A Chelsea Gallery’s Secret Beekeeping Operation

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Beekeepers at work near Claude Lalanne’s bronze sculpture “Pomme d’Hiver” (2008/2014) at Manhattan’s Kasmin Gallery (image courtesy Kasmin Gallery)

In Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, a longstanding gallery has found a new hobby: beekeeping. In 2020, Kasmin Gallery decided to set up three hives on its rooftop sculpture garden, creating a “habitat for pollinators” filled with plants such as quaking aspens, New York asters, Northern bayberry, and grasses native to the area, like bristle-leaved sedge and dwarf-tufted hair grass. Now, the space has five hives, enough to supply around 100 small jars of honey each year with labels custom-made by gallery artists.

A ladder stretches from a back office space up to the roof, where the honeybees are tucked away at the far corner. The space isn’t quite accessible to the public — it’s perforated with skylights for the exhibition rooms below — but the garden directly faces the High Line. Across a three-foot gap, passersby can see the gallery’s current rooftop display: two sculptures by Diana Al-Hadid that link to her show Women, Bronze, and Dangerous Things on view downstairs. “In Mortal Response” (2011) showcases a torso that appears to melt into its pedestal, and “Double Standard” (2022) features another women’s form, this one appearing almost aquatic as it reaches toward the ground in tentacle-like forms.

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Two of the gallery’s five hives (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
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Artist Daniel Gordon’s artwork for the 2022 harvest honey jar (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

A large-font plaque lists the works, but the five hives are obscured from view by a tangle of grasses, bushes, and aspen trees planted into the roof. Visitors might catch a glimpse of the bees when they swarm in the spring and summer, but for the most part, the tiny insects are a well-kept secret.

In the fall, the beekeepers prepare the hives for cold weather, checking on them sporadically throughout the winter to make sure they are surviving the cold. Corey Bernstein, a preparator at Kasmin Gallery who serves as its “bee liaison,” said that according to a recent sample, the tiny creatures mostly forage from oak trees in the city. The project is in collaboration with beekeeping company Best Bees, which hosts lectures and honey tastings for the gallery staff in the summer. It’s part of a larger initiative to turn the sculpture garden into a more welcoming space for birds and insects. 

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Diana Al-Hadid, “Double Standard” (2022), bronze, 115 x 68 x 66 inches (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

After the COVID-19 pandemic, gallery president Nicholas Olney returned to the city to find that the rooftop had become a bit untamed. He decided to allow the space to go in a more natural direction, and in early November, many plants were still green and others had turned dry by this point in their lifecycle.

“We go through with the gardeners and landscape architects, identifying things that are non-native and probably were brought by a bird up from the Carolinas,” Olney said. “But if it integrates well, then we leave it. You just don’t want something to completely take over and become more of a monoculture.”

The Highline’s Meadow Section stretches from 23rd to 25th Streets, mirroring the roof plantings with local flora such as milkweed, blackberry lily, and wildfire black gum trees.

The three-block section is a sanctuary in the rapidly evolving Chelsea cityscape. Directly behind the roof, a new apartment building partially blocks the view of the Hudson River. Its wrapping balconies feel close enough to overhear a conversation across the way. Old brick buildings rise to the south. To the north, a slew of towers — which Kasmin’s director of communications Molly Taylor aptly described as a “wall of glass” — stretch skyward.

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The native plant garden is wedged among new construction in Chelsea (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Taylor said the bees have become a “mascot” for the gallery. An image of a bee now serves as the printer’s mark for the company’s publications, and three of their artists — Mark Ryden, Daniel Gordon, Alexander Harrison — have designed labels for the annual rounds of jars.

“They’ve become a popular holiday gift,” Taylor said, describing the harvest as “delicious but modest.”

“Enough for a single jar for each of our artists, estates, and staff,” she laughed.

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