Moving Art Downtown: Paula Cooper Blazes a New Trail for SoHo
By Aaron Shkuda
Paula Cooper’s path to opening a SoHo gallery began as it did for many art dealers in the neighborhood: with a job at an established gallery uptown. The child of a naval officer, Cooper (then Paula Johnson) spent her childhood in Greece, Italy, Germany, and France before returning to New York in the late 1950s to work at the World House Gallery at Fifty-seventh Street and Madison Avenue, close to what was then the center of the gallery world. After two years arranging the gallery’s auctions, sales, and exhibitions, she set up her own short-lived enterprise, the Paula Johnson Gallery. She then served as the director of the Park Place Gallery, a cooperative on LaGuardia Place just to the north of SoHo, from 1964 until it closed in 1968. Later that year, she founded her own gallery for a second time, this time under her married name.
This is an excerpt from the author's new book, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art and Industry in New York, 1950-1980.
With little money to spend, Cooper searched for a storefront where space was cheap and plentiful. She first focused on the area between Fourteenth and Canal Streets, looking at several industrial properties, including a former pocketbook factory and a sweatshop, which she hoped to turn into a show-room. Eventually, she narrowed her search to SoHo. Cooper was attracted to the neighborhood due to its affordability and because it would allow fora showroom that would provide a sharp contrast with the established galleries of Midtown Manhattan. Cooper did not want “a store- like gallery like all the uptown galleries had become.” Instead, she imagined “a much more open fluid place” where collectors, artists, and casual visitors could mingle and view art. She saw the open loft spaces available in SoHo as ideal for this purpose. Finally, and perhaps most important, she wanted to be near where artists lived. In 1968, Cooper rented two contiguous lofts on the third floor of 96–100 Prince Street in SoHo, right next to Fanelli’s, the neighborhood’s most popular bar, for $300 per month. Next, Cooper focused on turning her loft into a gallery. She took out a $3,000 loan from a bank (she asked for $5,000, but the bank wouldn’t give it to her without collateral), some of which covered the security deposit on her loft, artwork, and announcements for her first exhibition. The rest went toward renovating the totally raw loft space she rented. Cooper constructed walls and built a display shelf along the front windows. Without the money to hire help, getting the gallery ready for business was a community project. Cooper swept the floors, and a friend of one of her artists made and manufactured lights, which Cooper and her artist friends spent days assembling on the gallery floor. The gallery’s floors were renovated because one of Cooper’s artists, Bob Hewitt, did a piece that involved stripping and fixing the floors in one area of the gallery.
When it was completed, the Paula Cooper Gallery was large and sparse, with five thousand square feet used to display painting and sculpture “unsuited by intent and size to intimate indoor space.” It contained “two white rooms which look north over Prince Street” that were “spacious enough to accommodate large architectural pieces.” The gallery thus was able to specialize in “large outdoor painting and sculpture.” However, there was also an area of the gallery to exhibit drawings and models for these large sculpture projects as well as photographs and slides of existing outdoor works.
As the gallery was coming into shape, Cooper faced another problem: who would actually come to SoHo? No other gallery owners had their only showroom below Houston Street, and the area was filled with trucks, workers, and a few scattered artists during the day. On weekends and at night, the time when visitors came to art galleries, the streets were totally deserted. All of Cooper’s friends told her that she was crazy to open there. Yet she believed that if the art was good, people would come.Of course, Cooper had an ace up her sleeve: the New York art community. The gallery’s first show on October 22, 1968, was an art benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The artists showing that evening would not have been out of place in an established uptown gallery or the Museum of Modern Art. Noted curator Lucy Lippard organized the show, which included works by Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd, among others. Yet the atmosphere at Paula Cooper was entirely“downtown.” The subject matter was edgy (it might have offended some viewers), and the mood was open and informal, a feeling that matched this unfinished space located in the empty industrial neighborhood of SoHo.
Paula Cooper was at the vanguard of a major change in where and how art was displayed, bought, and sold in New York City, a place already established as the center of the art world. On the most basic level, the Paula Cooper Gallery was one of the first major galleries to open in SoHo during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her efforts, along with the work of other early gallery pioneers,set off an explosion of art display in the neighborhood. While the New York press followed five major SoHo galleries in 1970, by 1973 there were more than eighty galleries in SoHo and its surrounding neighborhoods. By 1979,there were one hundred galleries in the area, and two guidebooks had been written on the local art scene.
Moreover, when art came downtown to SoHo, it became more accessible, community-oriented, interdisciplinary, and visitor friendly. Cooper exemplifies some of the major trends that shaped SoHo and New York art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She conceived of her gallery not as a sales floor but as an open and accessible space where anyone including collectors, artists, and casual visitors would be welcome. Further, when Cooper saw the potential in loft space for the display of art, she began a trend that changed how art was shown in New York and worldwide. The physical nature of loft space was ideal for displaying the type of outsize works that New Yorkers, including SoHo artists, were producing during this era. Cooper and other SoHo gallery pioneers invented the sparse, high-ceilinged, white-walled art gallery with interior columns that one now sees everywhere art is presented and sold. Soon, loft like space became the canonical form of display for modern art.
SoHo likewise transformed the geographic relationship between artists,art galleries, and art patrons. Art dealers came to SoHo to be around artists,and both found ample loft space to rent due to the neighborhood’s continuing deindustrialization. An important point is that galleries opened in SoHo to be closer to the area’s arts scene, not to be near their customers. This meant that a large portion of the artist and art gallery community occupied the same neighborhood for the first time in the history of New York. The low cost of space and the dense population of artists and galleries led to the creation of a distinct arts community where an artist could show works in commercial galleries down the block from his or her loft, or rent inexpensive loft space to open a cooperative gallery and show his or her own work. At the same time, both for-profit and cooperative arts institutions presented performance art, dance, and music created by the diverse artists in SoHo.
Local artists and art dealers did not seek out their patrons; they brought them to SoHo. SoHo’s commercial galleries found customers among an international community of art collectors, institutional buyers (such as museums and universities), and corporate purchasers who either visited local galleries or sent their representatives to buy art. The artists who formed SoHo’s cooperative galleries, which were less dependent on sales, brought monetary support for the arts to the area, first by using their own sweat equity to establish and operate nonprofit arts institutions and then by garnering state and federal arts funding for these establishments.
SoHo’s collection of commercial and cooperative galleries also brought substantial numbers of visitors to the neighborhood. While some sought out painting and sculpture, others traveled to the area to experience various forms of artistic performance, including dance, theater, music, and interdisciplinary performance art. SoHo’s commercial galleries hosted performances, and artists established several cooperatives (and some for-profit venues) dedicated to performance. SoHo’s galleries, jazz lofts, dance companies, and interdisciplinary alternative spaces all sought to bring people to their doors to experience their art, or even to participate in its creation. These venues formed a vibrant and increasingly popular arts scene in SoHo.
Yet because of the diverse funding sources for SoHo galleries and arts organizations, visitors were not essential for the financial success of these institutions. As a result, those who traveled to SoHo could experience a museum-quality pop art retrospective, or an avant-garde performance piece, without the pressure to buy anything. Sometimes outside parties funded the gallery’s operation, and in other instances the art displayed defied commodification. Crowds quickly grew, creating a potential customer base for businesses catering to these artistic tourists, which gave the SoHo gallery scene an impact beyond the art world. It was local galleries that drove the area’s commercial renaissance and contributed to its continuing redevelopment.
Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.
Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980 by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.