Art Market

Inside Tribeca’s Booming Gallery Scene with the Realtor Who Helped Build It

Osman Can Yerebakan
Jul 12, 2021 9:54PM

Exterior of Denny Dimin Gallery, Tribeca, New York, 2020. Courtesy of Denny Dimin Gallery.

Portrait of Jonathan Travis on Cortlandt Alley, Tribeca, New York. Courtesy of Jonathan Travis.

On a late June morning in Tribeca, bustling commuters in chic outfits dash from coffee shops while echoes of construction mix with the clamor of Broadway traffic. The chaotic energy, however, is far from bewildering for Jonathan Travis—in fact, he’s partially responsible for it. The commercial real estate broker has been almost single-handedly overseeing the area’s recent influx of art galleries, which, within just two years, has marked the neat downtown Manhattan neighborhood as the new New York gallery hub. “Five years ago, I had to convince gallerists to come down to Tribeca to show a space,” Travis said. “Now, I get a call from a dealer every other day.”

Over the past six years, Travis has placed 18 of the 20 galleries currently located in Tribeca’s rows of ornate, cast iron–clad buildings, primarily concentrated to the consecutive Lispenard, Walker, White, and Franklin Streets, between Broadway and Church Street. And two more of Travis’s clients will open their doors soon. They range from established Chelsea expats, veering away from skyrocketing rents and generic white cubes, to emerging newcomers in search of broader visibility.

Ivan Morley, installation view of “Hyperion” at Bortolami Gallery, New York, 2021. Photo by Kristian Laudrup. Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York.


Before 2016, the few contemporary art galleries in the vicinity included Postmasters Gallery, which opened its Franklin Street location, just east of Broadway, in 2013; and Taymour Grahne Gallery, which opened the same year on Hudson Street (Grahne gallery closed his New York space in 2017 and currently operates in London as Taymour Grahne Projects). Patrick Parrish Gallery, which shows art and design, had its first show at its Lispenard Street space in September 2014; and Sapar Contemporary opened its space on North Moore Street that same year. And handful of others have been dispersed across the neighborhood over the past decade, like Art Projects International, which has had a ground floor space on Greenwich Street since 2011.

In 2016, Travis represented Alexander and Bonin as it moved into its Walker Street space. The broker first discovered Tribeca’s potential for contemporary art galleries while looking for a new space for Casey Kaplan in 2014. He’d sent a cold email to Kaplan after reading an article in which the dealer expressed skepticism about the future of Chelsea. “I didn’t know anyone or anything about the art world, but I promised Casey to find him the most ideal place,” Travis said. A space in Tribeca was, in fact, his first offer, though Kaplan went with his other find, the gallery’s current location on West 27th Street in the Flower District. Travis later found Anton Kern Gallery’s East 55th Street Midtown townhouse at Kaplan’s recommendation, but he didn’t sleep on Tribeca. After Alexander and Bonin’s move to Walker Street, he helped Bortolami move in down the block. And soon, Travis found himself in the midst of what he now calls his “passion project”: orchestrating something of an art world puzzle across Tribeca.

The limited availability of real estate in the area creates what Travis sees as “a natural selection process,” whereby a space gets matched with the most well-suited gallery. “Only galleries at a certain maturity can afford most units’ current price range,” Travis said, “but availability of smaller storefronts at reasonable rates attract emerging galleries that would not consider Chelsea.” His clients include P.P.O.W, Bortolami, GRIMM, Luhring Augustine, Jane Lombard Gallery, Denny Dimin, 1969 Gallery, Patrick Parrish, James Cohan, Andrew Kreps, and CANADA, among others. “I’ve learned that the art world is in fact quite small, and word of mouth is the way to expand my clientele,” Travis said.

Exterior of Luhring Augustine, Tribeca, New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York.

Gallery-hopping with Travis on his stomping ground does not necessitate any navigation app. He and his puppy Waldo lead the way into James Cohan, where a columned and frosted glass façade opens up to the gallery’s ongoing group exhibition, “NXTHVN: Un/Common Proximity.” The artists in Titus Kaphar and Jason Price’s namesake New Haven residency have created the intricate large-scale paintings and sculptures, which are situated across spacious adjoining rooms. James Cohan inaugurated the 48 Walker Street space in September 2019 with a solo show by Josiah McElheny.

The veteran gallery started out in Midtown in 1999 and joined the Chelsea wave in 2002, “when the prime locations below 23rd Street were already taken,” gallery partner Jane Cohan recalled. The gallery’s team first started considering Tribeca in 2017, when they witnessed peers moving downtown and up to Harlem. Travis showed them a storefront on Walker when their 15-year Chelsea lease was nearing its end, “but we were not just sure yet about this neighborhood,” Cohan said. They shelved the move for two years, having received an extension from their Chelsea landlord. In the meantime, however, the New York gallery migration only gained momentum. “This time we wanted to be on the street, so we immediately reached out to Jonathan,” Cohan said. “Walker Street is the neighborhood’s epicenter.”

Installation view of “BIG PAINTING,” organized by Jonathan Travis at Patrick Parrish Gallery, Tribeca, New York, 2019. Photo by Clemens Kois. Courtesy of Patrick Parrish Gallery.

To create the James Cohan space, architects Jane Sachs and Thomas Hut united two adjacent storefronts, which were formerly a garment showroom and a tech office. They developed a series of white cubes on the ground floor and a basement that hosts offices and storage—the latter of which was missing in Chelsea. After Hurricane Sandy, Chelsea galleries were forced to stop using their basements for storage as insurance premiums skyrocketed. James Cohan, like many other galleries in the neighborhood, was relieved to have in-house storage again. Plus, architectural details—like exposed brick, tin ceilings, and cast iron—and the surrounding neighborhood convey charm and warmth that was hard to find in Chelsea. “Here, we are knit into the city’s fabric—there is a tailor on one side and a shoemaker on the other,” Cohan said. (David Zwirner, one of the few galleries that is not a client of Travis, will open its new space, 52 Walker, just two doors down from Cohan this fall.)

The gradual waning of liveliness in Chelsea is partially due to the neighborhood’s ongoing development from a warehouse zone into a high-end residential district. Tribeca, on the other hand, is comprised of landmarked buildings, which are protected under strict regulations against development or even major renovation. “Character is an important trait galleries find here, but these historic buildings also have the right bones to turn into gallery spaces,” Travis said.

Exterior of P·P·O·W, Tribeca, New York. Courtesy of P·P·O·W.

Passing by fellow Walker Street galleries kaufmann repetto and Bortolami, across the street on Broadway we reach P.P.O.W, a New York fixture that has historically harnessed both tradition and the avant-garde. The gallery’s trajectory, in fact, may be read as a textbook case in terms of the history of New York art galleries. After founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington opened their humble storefront on East 10th Street in 1983, then moved the gallery to SoHo, and eventually, Chelsea. Olsoff and Pilkington’s savviness, however, exceeds an eye for real estate trends. While their peers and institutions are just catching up with the canon of queer and feminist art, the duo were championing many pioneers—from David Wojnarowicz to Carolee Schneemann—when such artists were merely on the market’s periphery.

The gallery’s current Broadway location, which opened in January 2021 with a solo show by Gerald Lovell, is its first ground-floor space since P.P.O.W’s inaugural East Village gallery. The three-room, column-free railroad space currently hosts ceramicist Ann Agee’s solo exhibition “Madonnas and Hand Warmers.” A massive pedestal in the first room displays Agee’s dozens of ceramic Madonna and Child sculptures, while the next room holds numerous porcelain shoes inspired by Florentine pottery traditions. “This is a family-owned building and we have a landlord who we can actually call,” Pilkington said of the community she finds at their new space. Similar to James Cohan, the duo signed a 10-year lease to secure a return on their investment. “Transforming the storefront into a white cube was a physical and financial commitment, so we needed a decent amount of time to offset the cost,” she explained.

Ann Agee, installation view of “Madonnas and Hand Warmers” at P·P·O·W, Tribeca, New York, 2021. Courtesy of P·P·O·W.

Pilkington likens the current moment to the early heydays of SoHo and Chelsea; she compares Travis’s aspirations to those of art world real estate maven Susan B. Anthony, who spearheaded movements to the aforementioned neighborhoods. “After moving to Chelsea in the 2000s, however, we never felt that similar excitement of SoHo there,” Pilkington said. She noted that the collegiality they’ve found among nearby Tribeca galleries (and “not having to face the brutal West Side piers wind”) has furthered the feeling that this move was the right decision.

Tribeca’s clean slate nature also offers emerging galleries room for growth. The availability of less conventional, smaller spaces provides young dealers with exposure through being located on the same block as major players. “If there is a version of equality in the art world, it must be here,” said Max Marshall, who first opened Deli Gallery on a quiet Long Island City street in 2016 after earning his art world chops under powerhouse dealers Paula Cooper and Matthew Marks.

Richard Rezac, installation view of “Pleat” at Luhring Augustine, Tribeca, New York, 2021. © Richard Rezac. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Deli’s cutting-edge roster of young and emerging artists—which includes rising talents such as Sarah Zapata and Ficus Interfaith—and an ambitious physical and online program helped Marshall move his enterprise to a large space in Bushwick in 2018. A Chelsea storefront would have been an unthinkable next step, but the modest-sized, 1,400-square-foot ground floor space that Travis secured on White Street aligned with the dealer’s expansion plans. Excluding renovation costs, Marshall’s overhead only slightly increased upon moving to Tribeca, where he benefits from being located on the same block as more established peers such as Jane Lombard Gallery and GRIMM. The renovation included removing a mezzanine at the back of the unit and transforming an 800-square-foot basement into an office and showroom. “I finally have an office space now!” Marshall said.

A generous skylight now fills Deli’s box-shaped gallery with ample light, while a metal staircase adds an architectural accent that pays homage to the gallery’s DIY roots. The gallery’s more manageable size, compared to some of the other nearby galleries’ footprints, which hover around 2,250 square feet, is well suited to Deli’s early-career artists. “I would not impose a large space onto my artists who are mostly having their first or second solo shows,” Marshall said. Deli’s inaugural exhibition at its White Street space is the gallery’s first solo show with Haitian artist Widline Cadet, a current artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Her show, “Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You),” features staged self-portraits and shots of family members or nature in sharp colors.

Installation view of “Loose Ends” at Jane Lombard Gallery, Tribeca, New York, 2021. Photo by Arturo Sanchez. Courtesy of Jane Lombard Gallery.

Given his proclivity for galleries, it’s no surprise that Travis is a serious contemporary art collector. And as one might suspect, his relationships with some of his clients, such Deli Gallery and P.P.O.W, extend to his collection of over 200 works. “I’ve always been passionate about objects, whether it was collecting sports memorabilia as a kid or selling antiques in college,” Travis said.

Representing art galleries in the last seven years has sharpened his eye for what he likes to collect: figurative paintings by emerging artists. “I’d rather own a seminal work by an emerging artist than a work on paper by an established name,” he said. And he’s witnessed many artists in his collection eventually reach price points that he can no longer afford, though Travis is also focused on supporting young artists. This fall, he will unveil his own artist residency called Wolf Hill at his upstate New York home, where one artist at a time will be given a dedicated space to live and work.

Exterior of GRIMM, Tribeca, New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of GRIMM.

Exterior of Denny Dimin Gallery, Tribeca, New York, 2020. Courtesy of Denny Dimin Gallery.

Being a collector also helps Travis understand the pillars of the gallery business, such as the optimum size and format of a space. The diversity of architecture across Tribeca, he has noticed, taps into the changing needs of galleries over the years.

Denny Dimin Gallery moved to its Lispenard Street space in April 2019, after a handful of years at a tiny Lower East Side storefront. “Jonathan knew we would only move to a space that would respond to our growth,” said gallery founder Elizabeth Denny, noting that the space he found exceeded expectations. When the broker showed the owners the unit, the gallery was on the cusp of growth. Following a lucrative solo booth with Erin O’Keefe’s colorful geometric prints at the Untitled art fair in Miami in 2018, Denny Dimin was able to secure the new space.

Caroline Walker, installation view of “Nearby” at GRIMM, Tribeca, New York, 2021. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of GRIMM.

For Denny, the location was certainly part of the appeal. “The access is a big advantage here, especially for art workers who mostly live in Brooklyn,” she said. “We are at the cross section of SoHo, Chinatown, and Downton Manhattan—there is so much foot traffic here.” Denny noted that she loves the gallery’s wooden floors and its flexibility, allowing for shows to be hung in a variety of different configurations. Wendy White’s recent solo show “Mark and Phil” demonstrated the space’s potential to hold ambitious presentations with her suspended, large-scale, steel emoji sculptures and wall-to-wall black and yellow carpeting.

Gradual growth in recent months has signaled to Denny and her partner Robert Dimin that they may need a larger space before their seven-year lease ends. “We are bursting out of this space already!” Denny said. They’re eyeing the building’s back-end unit, or potentially the space next door. She and Travis agree that the need for expansion, for a gallery, is “a good problem.”

Wendy White, installation view of “Mark and Phil” at Denny Dimin Gallery, Tribeca, New York, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Denny Dimin Gallery.

Travis believes the ongoing Tribeca wave will push the borders of the current radius a few blocks south and perhaps more towards Church. “The west side is populated by high-end residential and Chinatown storefronts are too small to transform into galleries,” he said. As we speak, he has several new spaces in the works and more calls coming in.

Funnily, Travis himself doesn’t even live in the city, let alone Tribeca. After living in New York for 18 years, he started looking for a modest weekend getaway upstate, while also contemplating the idea of starting a residency. When he found a historic house in Chappaqua, New York, he decided to make a permanent move upstate in February 2021—but he can still be found in Tribeca a few times a week. “Now, the galleries have to convince me to find a place here,” he laughed.

Osman Can Yerebakan

Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Postmasters, which opened on Walker Street in 2013, was the only gallery in the area until 2016; Taymour Grahne opened his eponymous New York gallery on Hudson Street in 2013; Patrick Parrish began the lease on his space on Lispenard Street in December 2013; Sapar Contemporary opened on North Moore Street in 2014. The text also misstated that James Cohan opened on Walker Street in January 2020 with a solo exhibition by Teresa Margolles; the gallery actually opened the previous September with a solo show of Josiah McElheny. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.