“Be careful where you step,” shouted Maureen Bray over a percussion of power tools as she maneuvered past the electricians, sheetrockers and HVAC crew members who have two months to transform a 22,000-square-foot construction zone into the new home of Sean Kelly Gallery, which is about to triple in size. “Obviously this giant hole won’t be here,” said Ms. Bray, a director at the gallery, pointing to what will become a stairwell leading to a black-box theater—just one of three exhibition spaces, alongside expanded offices, a “canyon”-sized library and two private viewing rooms (“back where those toilets are now”).
In the early 1990s, most real-estate-seeking New Yorkers overlooked the gray smudge on Manhattan’s West Side known as Chelsea, then still a wasteland of deserted freight tracks, turpentine fumes and auto-body garages. But for the throngs of art galleries being swiftly priced out of Soho by fashion boutiques and Dean & Delucas, it offered cavernous, column-free architecture at bargain-basement prices.
Matthew Marks pioneered the migration on an abandoned stretch of West 22nd Street. Soon after, Barbara Gladstone, Metro Pictures, Sean Kelly and hundreds of other galleries followed, and a “new Soho” was born in Chelsea.
Twenty years, two Gagosian Galleries and a Comme des Garçons later, Chelsea art dealers are fretting that the legacy of Soho has come back to haunt them. About a third of the neighborhood’s galleries have been shuttered in the last five years as High Line-inflated real estate prices and an influx of deep-pocketed fashion and design firms have forced out many of the smaller dealers. At its height, Chelsea was home to more than 350 galleries; today only 204 remain, according to Rice & Associates real estate adviser Earl Bateman.
But it would be premature to pronounce the world’s premier gallery district dead.