Art Market

What’s behind the Closure of One of Brooklyn’s Best Galleries

Nate Freeman
Oct 30, 2018 10:35PM

Exterior view of Signal. Courtesy of Signal.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Kyle Clairmont Jacques and Alexander Johns were sitting in the lofted office of Signal, the gallery they opened in 2012 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Clairmont Jacques and Johns are two of the more well-liked art dealers in New York, and they’ve bottled that passion into a program at Signal that became one of the borough’s—if not the city’s—most vital. Through true grit, they made it possible for young artists to flex their ambition in a raw space larger than most blue-chip galleries in Chelsea.

But the mood on this gray October day was a touch melancholic. Johns poured coffee, Clairmont Jacques offered red wine and lit incense, and the soundtrack playing on Spotify was Billy Joel’s classic 1977 album The Stranger. The sweet strains of “Just the Way You Are” played softly as the founders of Signal talked about how, just a few days earlier, they announced on Instagram that Signal would be closing.

Johns explained, in his characteristically calm and deeply thoughtful way, that Signal would end, instead of turning into something that it’s not.

“The gallery started out with a very particular goal, to stage really ambitious projects by young artists in a very professional-looking way—because we thought it was something the neighborhood could use, and young artists could use,” Johns said. To continue in the current climate would have meant changing not only the way they’ve operated the gallery, he said, but also the kind of art Signal has shown.

“That would totally change the nature of what we do,” Clairmont Jacques added. “It felt kind of right to, instead of morphing the project into something unrecognizable, just complete it, to finish it with clean hands.”

Installation view of Bennet Schlesinger, Atlas, 2012. Courtesy of Signal.


Signal is the latest in a string of beloved Brooklyn galleries that have closed or moved to Manhattan. The redoubtable Real Fine Arts closed in April, and in September, The Journal Gallery held its last show in Williamsburg after 11 years in the neighborhood; the gallery will relocate to Manhattan in early 2019. In 2016, Pierogi moved out of the same area and into the more gallery-friendly confines of the Lower East Side, on Suffolk Street. In September 2017, American Medium, a gallery formerly based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, moved to Chelsea. Southfirst, the gallery opened by the critic Maika Pollack in 2000 in Williamsburg, has not had an exhibition since the end of 2017. Owners of these galleries cite the borough’s rising rents, distance from the city’s collector-rich hubs, and the lack of appetite for contemporary art in gentrifying neighborhoods full of hip boîtes and coffee shops as precipitating their decisions.

But Signal’s closure has hit the Brooklyn art scene particularly hard. There was an outpouring of grief on the gallery’s Instagram when it announced that a final, one-night-only exhibition, “No Signal,” would take place on November 2nd.

“People are sad, because there was this community aspect—it was like, oh shit, this was the place you could go,” Clairmont Jacques said. “It’s just been a home for a lot of people.”

Johns said that when the end of Signal is taken collectively with other spaces shutting down or moving, it amounts to a “changing of the guard.”

“New York, for better or for worse, has an endless appetite for novelty,” he said.

A neighborhood in flux

Exterior view of The Journal Gallery located on N. 1st Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Raimund Koch. Courtesy of The Journal Gallery.

Michael Nevin, who has run The Journal Gallery with co-owner, Julia Dippelhofer, since 2004, said that they were forced out of Williamsburg after their building sold. They couldn’t afford to stay in the neighborhood—in a reversal, Nevin said, some Manhattan neighborhoods can now get you more bang for your buck.

Nevin pointed to Amazon-owned Whole Foods, which opened a few blocks up Bedford Avenue from The Journal two years ago, as being indicative of the influx of large corporations that have pushed up the average cost per square foot of retail space in the neighborhood from $35 per square foot in 2007 to $300 per square foot in 2017, according to data compiled by CPEX Real Estate. If you’re not “one of these big corporations, it’s getting hard to pay these rents,” Nevin said. “A lot of people who came out to Williamsburg and Greenpoint came for their community and affordability, both of which have been reduced,” he added.

Johns and Clairmont Jacques said that Signal’s closing wasn’t the result of an exorbitant rent increase, but rather a steady stream of setbacks that forced their hand. They said that galleries in Brooklyn are too far away from Manhattan to attract collectors, and the art boom they predicted in Williamsburg and Bushwick never really happened. The L train, off of which Signal is located, is scheduled to shut down for a projected 15 months of renovations in April 2019, which is anticipated to decrease foot traffic even more. Attempts to increase visibility through art fairs bled cash.

“There wasn’t this one thing that happened—our rent didnt go from $6,000 to $16,000 or $60,000, as often happens elsewhere,” Clairmont Jacques said. “In the last couple years, yeah, the rent got more expensive, our production budgets got bigger, we tried to do fairs, we got the truck to move the art around.” He said that compared to most galleries, their expenses “are still hilariously low.” But the minimal emphasis the gallery placed on showing sellable work was based on a starting point where “expenses kind of didn’t exist,” he said.

Opening a gallery in a rug warehouse

Installation view of Tim Bruniges, Mirros, 2014. Courtesy of Signal.

A DIY mentality fueled Signal gallery from the start. The gallery began in 2012 when Clairmont Jacques, a designer, and Johns, who works for the art book publisher Gregory R. Miller & Co., were first looking for a shared studio. Discussions turned to the idea of finding a live-in space where they could also host gallery shows: They were both 24 at the time, and figured that they could crash on couches or beds in a gallery space, no big deal. The money they would have normally used to pay rent on an apartment would go toward paying the monthly bills for the gallery, and Johns’s boss, the book publisher, was willing to chip in for some office space. They looked at 30 or 40 spaces, until they saw a listing on Craigslist for a building being used as a rug warehouse, buttressed by a cement mixing plant and a granite wholesale distributor.

They wanted it immediately.

“I came checkbook in hand,” Clairmont Jacques said. “I’ve never tried harder in my life to give someone money.”

The gallery flew somewhat under-the-radar for the first two years, connecting with Bushwick tastemakers and an interconnected crew of artists. In 2014, Signal started staging ambitious grab-you-by-the-collar projects, such as Tim Bruniges’s massive installation Mirrors, which consisted of two 9-by-9-foot concrete slabs with conical indentations, each with a speaker and a microphone in the middle that picked up and re-amplified ambient sounds.

“There was no chance that we could ever sell it, but it was so beautiful for us to make and to be around,” Johns said.

The installation hit a zeitgeist: New York magazine put it in its “Approval Matrix” in the highbrow-brilliant quadrant. Shortly thereafter, Signal gave early shows to artists such as Hayden Dunham, who was then scooped up by Andrea Rosen, the legendary dealer who stopped holding regular exhibitions in her Chelsea gallery and ceased representing living artists in February 2017. Meriem Bennani secured a show at MoMA PS1 after her solo debut at Signal in 2015. In 2015, they showed Rachel Rossin, a pioneering figure in the field of virtual-reality art, who has since featured in shows at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, and the Zabludowicz Collection in London. Madeline Hollander staged her first large-scale dance performance at the gallery in 2016; in 2018, she collaborated with Urs Fischer for a show at the cavernous Gagosian space on West 21st Street.

Signal helped young artists springboard to success quickly due to the nature of the large space, and the lack of any sort of pressure to give in to commercial impulses.

“The trick was always: You give someone this ridiculously sized space and you focus on the details making sense,” Clairmont Jacques said. “You take someone like Meriem Bennani, who three years ago had basically only shown drawings. And then we did this show with her, and all of a sudden she had holograms and projection-mapped video works—10 years of her trajectory happened in a one-month install, and she’s been speeding ever since.”

The Signal mentality, as Clairmont Jacques put it, was “let’s give you your demo Chelsea mid-career show, let’s demo that 15 years before it should ever happen.”

The Signal artists started to gain traction and the market side of the operation began to pick up. With this came the pressure to support their artists by taking their work to art fairs and starting to act like real art dealers, placing works in high-profile collections and hustling PDFs of the work to potential buyers. As 2016 turned to 2017, Clairmont Jacques said momentum was rolling, and that everything was “revving up, revving up, revving up.”

“We were starting to sell art on some level,” he said. “Not enough to make a profit, but it was like, ‘OK, this is sort of happening.’”

The moment it started to glitch

Installation view of FlucT, Is it God or Am I Dog?, 2018. Courtesy of Signal.

The momentum was hurtling toward March 2017, when Signal put together a high-wattage booth for NADA New York 2017, including new work by Dunham, Bennani, Ivana Bašić, and Sable Elyse Smith, who now shows with the influential Chrystie Street outfit JTT.

And then, the bottom fell out.

“We dropped $15,000 just to show three-and-a-half miles away, and we sold one thing for $1,500, and that was definitely the hardest hit so far,” Clairmont Jacques said. “On paper, we did everything right. This booth has only incredible artists and some of their best pieces, everything looked right, and the right people came by the booth. It just made us realize, ‘Oh, there’s something that we’re either missing, or something that nobody told us isn’t quite there.’ It was in that moment where it started to glitch.”

There was also the issue of what the neighborhood was becoming. Instead of birthing a new cultural epicenter, certain parts of Brooklyn became so gentrified, so quickly that chic chains took the storefronts boundary-pushing contemporary art galleries were once supposed to enhabit.

“We signed our lease the same week that the New York Times was like, ‘Bushwick, the future of art!’ and their forecast was… slightly off,” Clairmont Jacques said.

“A year ago, I was trying to park the car and ended up back on McKibbin, where I had been living, and parked in front of what was all of a sudden a Blue Bottle,” he continued. “It just felt, like, ‘Got it—it’s a different level of Japanese tourism that will be coming to this neighborhood.’”

Nevin, the co-founder of The Journal Gallery, also said that the neighborhood he came to in the mid-2000s has become a place that doesn’t pride itself on having galleries anymore. As had been the case with other great artist neighborhoods of the past, like SoHo, as people with means to buy art moved in to Williamsburg, the artists and galleries that built the neighborhood moved out.

By the time The Journal’s lease wasn’t renewed early this year, Nevin said he and Dippelhofer were already eyeing an exit strategy—mostly due to the problems posed by the impending L train renovations.

The long goodbye

Portrait of Kyle Jacques and Alexander Johns and Echo. Photo by Stefan Falke. Courtesy of SIGNAL.

At Signal’s office, Billy Joel was still playing. “Only the Good Die Young” was fading into “She’s Always a Woman.” I asked about any potential plans to re-launch Signal, to deal with the issues of Brooklyn the way other galleries have, by moving into Manhattan.

“I definitely looked at a few things, and was like, ‘This is slightly affordable, but no way’—it was the size of the office,” Clairmont Jacques said.

“For the last six to nine months, we were thinking, ‘Do we leave this physical space and try to get a space in the city and get a roster and open five days a week and play that game?’” he went on. “It just didn’t make sense.”

He and Johns said that they had asked a number of New York dealers and gallery owners for advice on what to do. None had a viable answer.

“It was like, ‘Take out a $100,000 loan, and in 5 or 10 years, you’ll pay it back,’” Clairmont Jacques said. “At that point I’m probably going to have kids. Like, what the fuck?”

And so they began telling their artists that the dream was over. The founders would still be around to help in any way they could, informally brokering meetings with collectors interested in their work, or dealers interested in showing or, hopefully, representing them. But Signal, as a gallery, had come to an end.

Maybe, Clairmont Jacques joked, in 20 years, Johns would call him up having just bought an airplane hanger in Arizona that could act as the right spot for Signal 2.0. But for now, there’s the last celebration the night of November 2nd, where the ethos of Signal will be strong, and attendees are asked to bring flowers.

Clairmont Jacques said such a coda is the best way to end things, invoking a Brooklyn-associated band that got famous for its go-for-broke retirement shows.

“I went to LCD Soundsystem’s farewell tour, and then I didn’t want to go to their reunion show a few years later,” he said. “What feels best is that it was us, in this space, during this period, with these people. Locked.”

Nate Freeman

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Julia Dippelhofer as the wife of Michael Nevin. The co-owners of The Journal Gallery are no longer married.