What Is a Gallery?

Commercial galleries are an old business, and a unique one within the New York City economy, something between a storefront and a salon, the anchor of both a largely unregulated marketplace and of creative expression itself. The earliest examples of galleries in New York, from the first half of the 19th century, predate every major museum and auction house in the metropolitan area, not to mention Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and Grand Central Terminal. This would seem to suggest there is something indelible about galleries in the landscape of this city and, by extension, any truly global city that values culture. That New York has the largest network of galleries in the world is a fact that many observers of the art business simply take for granted: Why does New York have so many galleries? Because it’s the center of the art world. Why is New York the center of the art world? Because it has so many galleries.

The sale of art is generally assumed to be a secretive affair at best, and at worst a distillation of inequality at its most glaring — an industry run by and for an elite with more money than they could ever possibly hope to spend in one lifetime. This is at least partly true, but it isn’t the whole story. While a handful of galleries have ballooned to the size of major corporations, many art dealers are, in effect, small business owners, doing their best to navigate rising rents and changing priorities. And however opaque and off-putting the gallery business may seem to someone walking in off the street cold, these places are also among the last pockets of the city other than public parks and plazas where anyone can do just that, enjoying entry free of charge.

Even for those who’ve never stepped foot inside of one, galleries have had an outsize influence on life in New York. Much of how the city has transformed since World War II is the result of its galleries, to which we not only owe various movements that have changed the course of art itself — Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, minimalism, No Wave, etc. — but also the growth of vast commercial and residential areas like SoHo, West Chelsea and the Lower East Side. T’s 2023 Art issue looks past the assumptions about the gallery system and examines the realities: how it formed, how it has shaped the city, the state it’s in now and what the future holds. (For one thing, a migration from West Chelsea.) The story told here is one of gentrification and inflation, of the way we fetishize a more bohemian (and notably more affordable) past. But beyond that it’s a story of survival. However much New York changes, and however much contemporary art has to do with those changes, this is still the primary place where artists want to share their work with the world.

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