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A Seasoned Gallerist on the Chelsea Art Scene

Art, life, and business are inseparable for gallerist Jay Lehman. He and his wife, Sally Morgan Lehman, run contemporary art gallery Morgan Lehman in Chelsea. Together, they discover new artists, plan exhibitions, organize sales, and maintain their own art collection. Lehman spoke to us about the art he’s exhibiting throughout the spring and how he’s seen the neighborhood’s gallery scene change throughout his years in the industry.

Through the end of March, you’re exhibiting large-scale oil paintings by Jeff Perrott and drawings + print work by Austin Thomas. How did you become interested in these artists, and what should more gallery visitors know about the work on view?

It’s funny—of all the artists we work with, we’ve known Jeff for the longest amount of time and Austin for the shortest. We met Jeff in 2001 through mutual friends, before we started Morgan Lehman. Sally and I bought our first artwork, a 48×48 inch oil on panel painting. His gallerist then, Barbara Krakow, gave us a great deal. We still enjoy that painting today.
We met Austin through Sharon Louden, another artist we work with. I’d seen her work here and there, and then Sharon did a studio visit with Austin a few months ago and posted pictures on social media. I was drawn to the images, set up a studio visit with Sally, and was so taken by the work that we offered her a project room show on the spot.

The works in the two shows are really very different but equally complex. Jeff’s large-scale oil paintings are visceral and brooding. You need to see them in person, like a Rothko: they are quite dark and saturated, black turns to brown and brown to purple. In the project room, Austin has painted the walls pink and installed a menagerie of works on paper. They are mostly drawings and monoprints, created on found paper. They require a second look—the viewer is often unsure if they are studies by an early modernist or a contemporary artist.

Since you opened the gallery in Chelsea in 2005, how have you seen the neighborhood, particularly its art scene, change?

We opened our first New York space in 2005 on 28th and 10th Ave.  It was still very Wild West in Chelsea then. The neighborhood was primarily parking lots, taxi garages, night clubs, and galleries. Since the opening of the Highline and the rezoning of Chelsea from industrial/commercial to residential, the neighborhood has completely changed. I don’t want to sound cynical, but it is really the same cycle that Soho went through in the 80’s and 90’s—artists and galleries settle in fringe neighborhoods, seeking affordable and expansive space, then the restaurants come, then the real-estate developers come, and so on.

As far as the gallery scene in Chelsea now, it has definitely contracted. In 2008, at the peak, there were 350+ galleries. Now, there are about 200. Rising real estate prices and the proliferation of art fairs (and the business that gets done there instead of at the gallery) make one look closely at the costs and benefits of tens of thousands of dollars-per-month in rent.

Some of our colleagues have moved to the Lower East Side, where rents are a little lower and there are more options for small and mid-size galleries. Others have moved upstate. And, of course, many have closed.

Any tips for new collectors and out of towners exploring the Chelsea galleries for the first time?

For new collectors: Look at as much as you can. Find a few galleries that show what appeals to you, and get on their mailing lists. If possible, go to the openings and meet the directors and artists. There are also art advisors that can be instrumental in helping collectors find their way.

For people visiting from out of town, galleries are free and open to the public. They’re a treasure trove of great art and information.

Walk up and down any of the streets from 19th to 28th, between 10th and 11th Avenues, and have fun. Note: Chelsea galleries are generally closed on Sundays and Mondays, but you can hit the Lower East Side on Sundays.

What’s the gallery up to this spring?

We are excited about our spring programing. We have two group shows planned with outside curators. The first is called “20×16” and will feature 35 artists. The only parameter is that the work must be 20 inches high by 16 inches wide, a very classical proportion for a painting. Geoffrey Young will curate. After that will be the much-anticipated 3rd solo show for painter Paul Wackers. Paul is the most talented painter I have ever met, period. As we enter the summer season, Sharon Louden will be putting together a group show that is top secret at the moment—but stay tuned. As far as art fairs go: we are excited to participate in AIPAD (The Photography Show) in New York this April at Pier 94, where we will be featuring David S. Allee, Brittany Nelson, and Wendy Small.