Art on the Outskirts

By Yaphet Murphy

In New York City, the art capital of the world, neighborhoods like Chelsea and SoHo have become known for their high concentrations of art galleries, often several to a block.

But a number of galleries recently have opened in neighborhoods far from the historic heart of the art world in Manhattan. These new artistic outposts were lured by cheaper rents and proximity to the artists or patrons whom their gallery serves.

The Elisa Contemporary Art Gallery, for example, opened in 2008 in Riverdale, in the northwest Bronx, just south of Yonkers. Located on Mosholu Avenue, a largely residential street, and just steps away from the public library and real estate offices, the gallery has added a splash of color to an otherwise utilitarian strip of local activity.

“I originally started it as a virtual business, online and private showings, and launched the gallery in September 2008,” says Lisa Cooper, a co-founder who operates the gallery. “It’s been amazing. I love what I do and love connecting with people and seeing how they interact with the art.” She says she chose Riverdale because that’s where she and her husband live.

The Riverdale area has long had public displays of art at cultural sites like Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center; the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and Van Cortlandt Park. Now, the gallery’s presence encourages the purchase of art. “There isn’t really a contemporary art gallery in Riverdale,” says Cooper. “It’s such a cultured area, and affluent area, plus a multicultured area that I felt it is really something that the neighborhood needed.”

At the southern end of New York City, on Staten Island, is the home and gallery of art dealer Gary Brant and his wife Jamie Brant. Their Galerie St. George opened in the St. George neighborhood in 2006.

“We were renovating houses, and we had all of this space and I said why not use some of it to showcase the work of local artists,” Brant says. At the end of a cul-de-sac, the gallery is in an historic three-story Victorian home formerly owned by the millionaire Phelps Stokes family. The Brants, who have owned the house for 20 years, converted three ground-floor rooms into gallery space. They now offer studio tours on weekends.

One reason why a central location is no longer as important in the art business is that gallery visits are often just a small component of the art dealer’s business. Cooper says most of her work takes place outside of the gallery and includes travel for exhibitions, to the Hamptons, upstate New York, Boston and Miami, where she hopes to sell work.

On a weekend in early May, Cooper closed her gallery to brought some art to the Affordable Art Fair, staged on the sixth floor of a building opposite the Empire State Building. Other art dealers at the fair came from as far away as Britain and Australia to set up booths.

“This is the third year my gallery Elisa Contemporary Art has exhibited at the show,” Cooper says. “This year’s attendance was strong, especially on opening night. What I noticed this year was a greater gravitation toward works on paper and a slightly longer consideration before buying versus previous years.”

Brant has begun to engage buyers online. A former technology executive, he envisions a day when buyers feel completely comfortable buying fine art over the Internet. He conducts sales online through his website, the name a reference to the character limit allowable for each post on Twitter. For gallery owners like Cooper and Brant, finding artists to exhibit appears to be the easy part. Cooper says that at art fairs a lot of the visitors are artists, and afterwards she receives lots of portfolios from artists interested in being represented by her gallery. She also advertises in art magazines.

Brant has attracted artists from as far away as Germany. He says, “They hear that I’m from New York, and they are immediately interested,” he says. “They don’t necessarily recognize the difference between Staten Island and New York.”

Still, survival as an independent gallery takes lots of work, and help when you can get it. Brant credits the Staten Island Borough President’s office and the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island for working to promote local artists and galleries. Brendan Coyle and Amanda Curtis, two Staten Island residents who say they want to promote the arts and give Staten Island ferry tourists a reason to get off the boat, have organized a monthly arts tour of more than a dozen galleries in the St. George neighborhood.

The Bronx Council on the Arts offers regular tours of a cluster of art galleries and institutions near the intersection of Grand Concourse and East 149th Street. Though outside this area, the Elisa Tucci gallery benefits through the steady promotion of the Bronx by the Bronx Council on the Arts. The Bronx Trolley, a free tour ride operated by the Borough President’s office, makes its first and final stop on Mosholu Avenue, just a few short blocks away from the Elisa Contemporary Gallery.