What’s Behind the Recent Wave of New York Gallery Closures?

“This address was my favorite spot,” veteran art dealer Betty Cuningham told Hyperallergic on a sunny spring morning at her longtime gallery space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

A staple figure in the New York art scene since opening her first venture, Cuningham Ward, in 1972, she has operated her namesake space at 15 Rivington Street since 2014. Betty Cunningham Gallery has hopped around the city quite a bit over the years, from Upper Manhattan to Chelsea to Soho. But after its current exhibition The Last Picture Show closes on Saturday, April 27, the gallery will vacate its physical premises and take its business exclusively online from an office in Union Square.

“This is the end of our lease, so it’s a good time,” Cuningham said. “It’s actually been a good year financially, but it’s just a hard time for everybody.”

Last year, New York City saw the exit of at least six galleries from downtown Manhattan. In Tribeca, Denny Gallery, JTT Gallery, and Queer Thoughts — spaces that operated for at least a decade or more — all shuttered their doors within the second half of 2023. Chelsea’s Cheim & Read joined these closures in November after 26 years in operation. Chinatown’s Foxy Production also publicized its closure in October, and by December 31, Soho’s Alexander & Bonin Gallery had also permanently closed its doors.

This ripple of closures has carried into 2024, with veteran spaces like Chelsea’s Washburn Gallery and Betty Cuningham Gallery announcing within the first two months of the year that they were moving their operations fully online.

On April 2, Fortnight Institute shared on Instagram that it was “concluding its programming and closing its doors” after eight years in Lower Manhattan. Days later, the nearly 80-year-old Marlborough Gallery followed suit, revealing that its locations in New York City, London, Madrid, and Barcelona would too be “winding down operations” in early June. The gallery said it plans to sell its physical spaces and inventory, consisting of thousands of artworks by more than 50 artists, and direct a portion of the proceeds to nonprofit contemporary art institutions. Its final New York exhibitions open on April 30 next week and run until June 29.

From pandemic-related economic blows to technological evolutions, gallery owners are pointing to a variety of reasons for closing their doors.

Joan Washburn, who has led Washburn Gallery for over 50 years, told Hyperallergic that rising business costs, encompassing everything from rent to steep art fair fees, led to the closure of her business’s space.

“It was simply that the expenses have gone up so radically, it didn’t seem possible that we could stay open where we are,” Washburn said, adding that although she and her son Brian, the gallery’s senior director, will attempt to continue operating via its website, they remain skeptical of the venture.

While the migration of the art market to online platforms may be foreign territory for galleries that have long relied on traditional in-person auctions and exhibitions, the shift has simultaneously presented new opportunities for smaller, emerging galleries entering the competitive landscape. Raul Barquet, director of the Lower East Side’s Harman Projects, told Hyperallergic that he thinks the digital option has increased accessibility for younger businesses.

“No longer must a gallery be located in a city to operate successfully,” Barquet declared, pointing out that before the 2020 lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many younger, smaller galleries were already conducting a considerable amount of sales online.

“While there is still certainly value placed on a gallery’s physical location, the internet has helped to flatten things to the point where galleries located anywhere can make a go of it,” Barquet said.

A fledgling contemporary art gallery founded in 2022 by curator and gallerist Ken Harman Hashimoto, Harman Projects left its location on Rivington Street at the end of 2023 for a “flex space arrangement” at 54 Ludlow Street — the address of Hashimoto’s other art gallery, Hashimoto Contemporary, that was founded in 2013. 

Like Harman Projects, New York’s galleries are anything but strangers to address-hopping, responding to the city’s increasing rent and neighborhood redevelopment projects. In 2017, Washburn Gallery notably left its long-time home on West 57th Street for Chelsea when their landlord ended their lease agreement amid suspicions that the building and its neighbors would be demolished for redevelopment. These speculations were confirmed in 2018 and 2019, when the owner of Solow Realty and Development Group filed construction permits for a proposed 52-story mixed-use tower and demolition permits for the pre-existing building, respectively.

Foxy Production also had its own landlord dispute prior to the East Broadway gallery’s closure in the fall. In July, CCW Realty sued the gallery, alleging unpaid rent dating back to February 2022 and claiming that the business owed nearly $197,500. Foxy Production subsequently contradicted the charges, insisting that the gallery owed less than $9,000 as of June 20. By the fall, the two parties had reached a settlement and the gallery agreed to voluntarily vacate the space by October 31 and pay CCW Realty “a compromised agreed-upon sum of unpaid rent.”

Although the gallery’s attorney noted in court filings that Foxy Production was continuing to struggle financially “as a direct result of the pandemic,” co-founder John Thomson told Hyperallergic in an email statement that expenses and changes in the art market were not “over-riding factors” in the decision to close the space.

“The reason we closed the gallery was that we felt we had done all we wanted to do within the gallery format,” Thomson wrote, adding that Foxy Production “was always a project to us about people, ideas, and images and, after 20 years, we wanted to move on to other things.”

Thomson noted that after the lockdowns, the “online sales buzz faded, and in recent months, as discussed by many, there has been a slower pace of sales.” Demographic shifts in collectors and the proliferation of expensive art fairs, where some booths cost thousands of dollars, have made the market more difficult for some galleries to compete.

“The smaller galleries need the art fairs in order to get better exposure, but it depends on what you’re willing to spend,” Brian Washburn said, emphasizing the pressure for galleries to participate in fairs, despite high participation fees and travel costs that can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars and make these events gamble investments.

In a half-joking manner, he added: “As I’ve said to some people, ‘the house always wins.’”

On the other hand, Barquet opined these fairs can still benefit smaller galleries by providing opportunities to showcase on a broader scale. (He also admitted that “there is pressure put on small and midsize galleries to participate in art fairs in order to be perceived as relevant.”) Last year, Harman Projects participated in four art fairs and Hashimoto Contemporary in two. For 2024, both galleries are scheduled to participate in three fairs each.

“How many and which fairs you’re participating in can often be the basis on which a gallery is judged when in fact fairs are usually only a small portion of a gallery’s programming,” Barquet continued. “While fairs can be a great way to meet a good deal of potential collectors in a short period of time, they are not a project to be taken lightly as it is very easy to lose money if you don’t approach them in a strategic way.”

“It’s a very tough time in the market,” Brian Washburn said. At the time, he and his mother were in the process of vacating the gallery’s Chelsea space, organizing filings and records, packaging books and fragile artwork, and coordinating with estates to move works. 

When asked about the gallery’s future, Joan laughed.

“Our plan at the moment is trying to get out of this space,” she said.

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