Workers at Jack Shainman Gallery were so engrossed in preparing for their grand opening last Friday afternoon that they didn’t notice New York City’s Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch leaving her office across the street. The commissioner and her aides briefly stopped to glance at the entrance of 46 Lafayette Street before scurrying into their Suburban.
“They’re finally opening? There was so much scaffolding,” an aide said.
Inside, Shainman and his staff buzzed throughout the 20,000-square-foot building making final preparations for Broken Spectre, a presentation of Richard Mosse’s alarming 74-minute video of the rapid degradation of the Amazon alongside a suite of related photographs. Four hours before the official opening, workers in the gallery’s foyer carefully peeled off a sheet of paper listing the names of everyone who worked on Mosse’s film while others shot still images of the piece.
“This room is for all the ambitions of our artists,” Shainman said during a tour of the new location. “When he saw the space for the first time, Kerry James Marshall said, ‘Are you sure?’ and El Anatsui said, ‘You have a lot of work to do,’” Shainman added, quoting two of the gallery’s longtime artists.
Known for its extensive multicultural roster of artists, Jack Shainman Gallery had been eyeing an expansion downtown, where a community of art spaces has been clustering for several years. But their realtor struggled to find a suitable place. An old theater they scouted fell through. Developers fought over another site.
Then he visited the Clock Tower on Lafayette and Leonard Street, an Italian Renaissance Revival building in Civic Center a few blocks south of Tribeca constructed in 1898 for the New York Life Insurance Company headquarters. Later, it housed a number of federal and state governmental offices, then a court, a smaller gallery, and a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) branch before the Peebles Corporation and Elad Group purchased the property in 2013 to convert it into condos. (Shainman said that Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten considered the space for a restaurant, but passed.)
Even though it was unusual, with its marble and bronze-topped Corinthian columns and ornate coffered ceilings, the Clock Tower was kismet. Its architect Stephen Decatur Hatch, who designed the initial plans before McKim, Mead & White finished the job, also conceived of the building where Shainman and his partner live. Plus the mezzanine features unobstructed views of the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building to the south and New York Family Court to the north, where Manhattan’s divorce proceedings are held.
Perhaps Shainman could get a jump on the competition if he recognized an art collector trudging into court?
“I am so not that type,” the dealer said.
He expected the renovations to take six months. Instead, they took nearly three years. Part of the problem was that the building was landmarked and developers had to bring it up to the city’s strict historical preservation standards. That meant a lot of costly stone restoration as well as careful paint removal, since the DMV had painted over marble columns and walls in a drab off-white layer.
Fortunately, the second-floor mezzanine was not landmarked, and Shainman has plans to knock down two interior walls and create a private viewing area for clients. There’s even a working vault with 16-inch plates of steel that the life insurance company installed, although they haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.
“This space seduced us,” Shainman said. “We saw all its possibilities — the height, the width — and we’re close to Chinatown restaurants, too.”
The main draw is the expansive second floor, where the gallery’s large-scale works will reside. It’s currently home to Mosse’s mesmerizing video installation “Broken Spectre” (2018-22), which will be playing in a loop on Shainman’s 60-foot-wide LED screen through March 16 after showings in Melbourne and London last year. For four years, Mosse filmed Brazilian workers illegally sawing and burning vast swaths of rainforest to mine minerals and create grasslands for cattle to be slaughtered under former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s orders. He stitched those scenes together with close-ups of the forest floor using UV lamps and overhead shots of the environmental devastation, relying on a custom-built multispectral video camera that he attached to the nose of a helicopter.
The climax of the video is a stirring monologue from a member of the Yanomami tribe named Adneia who castigates Bolsonaro for allowing the ruination of her sacred land.
“This is not your land,” she said. “You make us angry. You are disturbing our children’s sleep. I am angry about this. We are all suffering.”
Devan Owens, a director at the gallery, marveled at the sense of danger in Mosse’s work. “On one occasion he was carted off the property,” she said. “In another, he set up on a beach with an umbrella and sunglasses, so people thought he was a dumb ‘gringo.’”
Mosse’s installation gives visitors a glimpse of the new space that will undergo additional renovations in its mezzanine before officially opening in September 2024 with an exhibition of new works by artist Nick Cave.
“It’s really hard to find a space with a soul,” Shainman said. “Often with new construction they suck all the soul out of it. But I came to the galleries here, I love Tribeca, and I love mixed-use properties.”