Galleries Space Out on the Lower East Side

Some people fritter away their youth in vain pursuits. Others open galleries. In the past year alone, three new exhibition spaces have cropped up on New York's Lower East Side; a fourth is planned for October. All but one are run by twentysomething art dealers; their approaches vary wildly, but their energy and ambition is putting this long-time gritty neighborhood, now a fashionista paradise, back on the art world's map.

Melissa Bent, 24, and Mirabelle Marden, 23 (daughter of the painters Brice and Helen Marden), signed the lease for Rivington Arms, their storefront at 102 Rivington Street, on September 10 last year. Undeterred by world-shattering events, they launched in January with a group show devoted to largely unknown artists. "We were trying to keep it a young crowd," Bent explained. "People who hadn't been in a million exhibitions before, or published a million books, and who were excited to work with us."

This fall, Jonah Koppel's plasticine portrait sculptures will be among the gallery's first solo exhibitions. In December, Daisy de Villeneuve, a British artist, is curating a show of art by young women from London, including photographs by her sister, Poppy. The pocket-sized space is a classic white cube; beyond the mood of countercultural camaraderie, there's also a business strategy. "We're not charging an arm and a leg for these works," said Bent, who met Marden while both were studying art history at Sarah Lawrence. "We want them to sell. A lot of the paintings and photographs are priced at under a thousand dollars. And with every show, we think, what did we learn from this. And what should we change."

Street dealers: art aficionados Melissa Bent and Leo Koenig
photo: Robert Hale
Street dealers: art aficionados Melissa Bent and Leo Koenig

Down the block, amid the bodegas, boutiques and watering holes, 34-year-old Lia Gangitano is set to open Participant Inc., a gallery and performance center, in October. Just south of this epicenter of boho chic, Michele Maccarone runs Maccarone Inc. on the top two floors above the Kunst Sales Company, an electronic shop, at 45 Canal Street. Maccarone, 28, started things off last November with a knockout installation by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel—a kafkaesque architectural construction in which viewers climbed ladders and crawled through small holes, getting torn and dusty.

Maccarone began as an intern at Chelsea's Luhring Augustine and spent four years there as director. But her gallery, which gets rebuilt for each show, is in many ways the un-Chelsea. "It's meant to be really unprecious," she said, as we sat at a table piled with water bottles and papers. "I didn't want you to walk in and see this high desk, with some really gorgeous gallerina behind it. I wanted it to be more organic, like an art house. It's for-profit, but it's also a place where art can just exist, with people."

As if on cue, artist Mike Bouchet stops by, to toss around some ideas for his December installation. Those whom Maccarone represents, both more-established Europeans and emerging Americans, all work in multiple media; all are under 40. "I have this random rule," she explained, "that you need to be making work for seven years, before you're ready to show. I'm opposed to artists getting shown directly out of school, and their career gets blown up, and then they can't handle it. Artists should be able to maintain the lean years, and really concentrate on their work."

Though he's only 25, Leo Koenig has been in business since 1999, when he opened in a small garage in Williamsburg. Remarkable salesmanship helped finance his move to Tribeca the next year, and, last December, to the gallery's current location, a sleek 2000-foot space at 249 Centre Street. Koenig tends to show big, beautiful paintings by up-and-coming stars, such as Eric Parker and Lisa Ruyter, both on this fall's schedule. His instincts were formed in his mother's art bookshop in Munich and under the influence of his father, museum director Kasper Koenig. His uncle, art-book publisher and dealer Walter Koenig, inspired his passion for books; all of his shows are accompanied by catalogs, and major publishing projects are planned for fall.

"Every second question I get from someone my age is, 'Why don't you have a Web site?' " Koenig said by cell phone from St. Bart's. "When I tell them I'm more into doing these catalogs, they say, 'Oh, nobody buys books anymore.' Well, in my own way, I'm working against that." His blue-chip background carries obvious advantages, but it can also be a psychic liability. "What I tell people is, stick within your own means and you'll get there," he said. "It's always best to do it yourself."

Through October 5
Andrea Rosen, 525 West 24th Street, 627-6000
The queen of surveillance art returns with "Securityland," an installation of lights, sounds, security blankets, surveillance equipment, and just maybe a real helicopter.

September 5-October 5
Anton Kern, 532 West 20th Street, 965-1706
This Korean American conjures a pack of 50 coyotes and an Eskimo "God" reclining on a block of ice in his newest installation.

September 5-October 19
Artists Space, 38 Greene Street, 226-3970
Sixteen artists from far-flung places, including Uganda native Zarina Bhimji and Korea-born Do-Ho Suh, populate this show with works about modernity, difference, and "the relativising impulse of globalization."

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