(Grey Art Gallery and DelMonico Books, 2017)
Packed with luxurious images, Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 traces the movement of mid-century artists who, rather than cater to the city’s traditional artistic and financial procedures for gallery exhibition broke the mold of established creative practice by establishing their own group gallery spaces. This new model of self-curation redefined contemporary art and moved the contemporary art gallery scene from Manhattan’s Midtown and Upper East Side to downtown, a transformation that led to the re-establishment of the city’s cultural geography, a legacy that remains to this day. The book accompanies an exhibition of the same title at NYU’s Grey Gallery, and serves as both an amazing stand-alone piece and invaluable accompaniment to the exhibit. But its most valuable contribution is in its implicit proposition to art historians that more attention must be paid to this pivotal moment in modern New York art history.
Inventing Downtown raises many questions and answers few; it seems to leave the deeper critical analysis to art critics and art historians, of which Melissa Rachleff—the author of the book and curator of the exhibit—is neither. A clinical associate professor of Art Management in the Visual Arts Administration Masters program at New York University, Rachleff instead takes her mission to be one of rediscovery and provocation, demanding overdue examination for a largely overlooked movement in modern art. “Although standard art-historical narrative can be a useful tool,” Rachleff says in the book’s preface, “it can also distort the facts.” She endeavors instead to stick just with the facts, sharing with her readers a plethora of illuminating information but never vouching for any definite determinations. In doing so, she seems to be begging scholars to investigate this era further, to use her research to get this fecund past into the scholarship of the future.
Her research implicitly issues forth a call and a template for artists who do not have representation to go and create these opportunities for themselves. While a great many of the artists documented here left a great impression on the artists who followed, both curatorially and artistically, in their stead, the question remains: Why are they not in most modern art history books, which are otherwise so devoted to the mid-century artistic movements of New York? The book implies that, despite their curatorial and artistic brilliance, these artists and their galleries lacked the business know-how to remain financially viable. While Rachleff herself never says as much, it is hard to avoid the insinuation that an artist’s success most often depends upon entrepreneurial, marketing, and business acumen. To my reading, this book is a reminder to artists, lest they forget: If you want representation, then build a business first and create after.
Much hidden treasure remains to be researched by contemporary scholars, but their attention is so often guided by the business of an art market that overlooks the entrepreneurially un-savvy. Rachleff presents her research as an opportunity to right wrongs, ultimately implying that the broad narrative of contemporary art history, as it has been broadly codified so far, might only scratch the surface of the period’s many great profundities. Inventing Downtown offers audiences the excitement of discovery, inviting its readers to participate in an interrogative approach to history.