Until recently, the James A. Farley Post Office, spanning two full city blocks on Manhattan’s 8th Avenue, wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of the kind of place you go for capital-C “Culture.” Stamps, yes. Tax forms and passports? Those, too. High art? Definitely not.
But then something curious happened. Last spring, gallerist Vito Schnabel quietly opened “DSM-V,” a provocative powerhouse show featuring the work of more than three dozen artists, including some heavy hitters like Basquiat. Picasso. Warhol.
As impressive as they were, those names weren’t what made “DSM-V” so interesting; it was the space itself. The exhibit took place on the second floor of the post office, which had been all but abandoned for decades. The disuse was palpable and reinforced the theme of the show: psychological disorder. For Schnabel, who has often eschewed a traditional gallery in favor of finding the perfect site-specific setting for each exhibit, the eerie second floor, sitting right above the lobby of what is probably the busiest post office in the country, was ideal. Its prior inaccessibility gave it an air of the mysterious. “The city protects its disused spaces better than its used ones,” said one Schabel staffer.
Call them pop-ups if you want, but that term, which is now applied to everything from flash marketing campaigns to temporary restaurants and retail spaces, obscures the philosophical and pragmatic aims of a growing number of commercial gallerists, individual artists, and non-profit collectives like New York City-based No Longer Empty and Creative Time, who are approaching public institutions and the owners of empty, underutilized spaces to colonize them—albeit on a temporary basis—for ambitious art projects.
These shows in formerly empty spaces aren’t just about saving money or reaching a new or wider audience. More often, say the folks behind No Longer Empty, collaborating to host exhibits in vacant spaces is a way for every stakeholder to learn how to “create something out of nothing.” It also encourages us to reimagine our shared use of space, especially in crowded cities like New York, where square footage is at a premium.
Owners of private property may just be waiting for the right tenant to come along, but even in New York, pieces of seemingly prime real estate can sit empty for months, or even years. One is the ground floor of Two Gotham Center, which houses the city’s Department of Mental Health. Designated for a storefront retailer, the space has not had a tenant since the building opened in 2011. Why not use it – and spaces like this – while they wait for permanent occupancy?
The situation with federal government property is even more acute. In New York City, 14,000 buildings and structures are considered “excess inventory”. Put plainly, that means “empty.” It also means expensive: the operating and maintenance expenses for these structures, most of which aren’t being used, cost taxpayers almost $200 million every year.
So what’s the advantage of using these spaces for short-term art shows? Ideally, say those who have done it, organizing exhibits in these spaces is a win-win for artists and real estate owners, not to mention for art lovers and neighborhood residents. Drawing so many people into an otherwise out-of-bounds space, or one that is perceived as being, say, only for retail, expands both its visibility and the possibilities for its more permanent use. It may even attract a prospective tenant.
Regardless of whether a tenant emerges to sign on the dotted line, there are clear benefits to local communities. Art is entering neighborhoods where it traditionally hasn’t been found, and it’s bringing neighbors together in unexpected ways. In some cases, as in Creative Time’s current exhibit of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” a series of sugar sculptures installed in the long-empty Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn, the selection of a space stimulates community dialogue about important social issues, such as labor and race, as well as the preservation of historically and culturally significant sites. Often, these temporary shows have interactive, community building elements, the effects of which continue resonating once the exhibit has closed.
Back at the post office, Schnabel’s show came and went, but not without notice or consequence. Though post office officials had said they had no plans to turn the second floor into a regular exhibition space, another show, “Byronesque,” opened there in December 2013. No word yet on whether the exhibits have increased stamp sales.