On a recent Saturday, the Lower East Side buzzed as crowds of people went from restaurant to boutique to gallery, taking advantage of the long-awaited taste of spring.
One gallery, Eleven Rivington, has attracted an impressive amount of visitors throughout its short existence. Although the storefront is small and inconspicuous, passersby constantly stop for a closer look. “Vaga Lume,” the current exhibit by Brazilian artist Valeska Soares, is especially eye-catching.
The white-walled main room is completely empty. Thousands of beaded metal chains hang from ceiling to floor, filling the space. Each of the chains is attached to individual light bulbs that cover the ceiling. The piece is interactive, so a steady flow of people comes in to navigate the space and turn the bulbs on and off.
Eleven Rivington is only one of several new galleries in the area. As restaurants and retail shops throughout Manhattan close their doors for good, art galleries in the Lower East Side are thriving. In the past year, eight new galleries have opened, adding to the more than 50 that already exist.
David Suarez, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, views the trend as a welcome surprise considering the tough economic climate. He says the number of galleries has increased by almost 65 percent since 2006.
“The increase in art galleries throughout the area is remarkable,” Suarez said. “It signifies one of the many changes in the neighborhood; this change is certainly positive.”
To assist emerging art galleries in the area, the BID works directly with local artists and gallery owners to organize “Every Last Sunday” on the Lower East Side, a free guided tour of up to 16 galleries.
“When we first started offering the tours, there weren’t nearly as many galleries,” Suarez said.
According to some gallery owners and employees, the reasons for the massive influx are several and varied. Ryan Steadman, 36, of Brooklyn, is an artist and employee at Anastasia Photo on Orchard Street. The gallery, specializing in documentary photography and photojournalism, opened in April 2009.
“Rent prices are one of the main attractions to opening in this neighborhood,” Steadman said. “It’s cheaper than Chelsea or the West Village, and there is still a great art community.”
Rent in the Lower East Side typically runs from $5 to $15 per square foot, while rent in Chelsea can be anywhere from $20 to $60 per square foot, depending on the floor number and condition of the space.
Anastasia’s current exhibit features work from young artist David Wright, whose photos depict a school in northern Uganda. Although the pieces are considered affordable, starting at $2,000, Steadman classifies most customers as “people with money.” And even they haven’t been buying much.
“The dead of winter was really bad this year,” he said. “Luckily, the owner is more than comfortable. She was in the position to weather the storm.”
Of course, not every gallery owner is in such a position. According to Paul Brainard of Eleven Rivington, which features contemporary works in various forms, his gallery has survived the old-fashioned way.
“All things considered, we’ve been doing really well this year,” said Brainard. “We depend on ‘established clients,’ but we make money by selling things for as little as $600.”
Brainard agrees that rent prices in the Lower East Side are a major draw but cites other advantages of the location that have benefited the galleries.
“In Chelsea, you’re not only paying more, but you’re stuffed into the eighth floor of some massive building,” Brainard said. “Here, we’re right on a busy street. People come in because they like what they see from the window.”
At Eleven Rivington, those who stumble upon the gallery unintentionally drive much of the visitor traffic. In the case of the current Soares exhibit, people come in to snap photos and play with the hanging chains.
And just as street performers are more likely to collect donations in a hat that is already full of money, a crowded gallery attracts more people.
“None of these people would be coming in if we didn’t have the exposure,” Brainard said. “In other areas, it’s impossible.”
Still, non-paying visitors do not produce profit, no matter how many stop by. Potential customers are few and far between.
“Selling art is always very sporadic — you sell a few pieces here and there,” Brainard said. “It has become even more sporadic in the past year, but things seem to be turning around.”
During the first weekend in March, Eleven Rivington joined hundreds of galleries, artists, collectors and critics from all over the world to exhibit work at the annual Armory Show, a leading international art fair. Brainard and gallery co-owner Augusto Arbizo were pleased with the results.
“The show was really great for us,” Brainard said. “It was a good indicator of what’s to come this year.”
Sitting at his desk in Anastasia Photo on the first warm Saturday of winter, Steadman is also optimistic about the upcoming months. As the weather improves, more people will be out and about, taking advantage of tours and spending money.
“We made it through the hard part. … I think the worst is over,” he said. “At least I hope so.”