Some readers may recall the early days of 179 Canal, the gallery and den of rambunctious activity that sat on Canal Street, lower Manhattan’s main thoroughfare, just east of Broadway. A generation of downtown New York artists remember its experimental installations and wild parties. Spanning both Chinatown and the Lower East Side, Canal Street is known the world over as a distinct commercial hub. Tourists marvel at the dizzying array of bootleg luxury items and kitsch souvenirs (fake Rolexes, “I Love NY” t-shirts) peddled by immigrant hawkers from stalls and illegal pushcarts, which they are ready to abandon at any moment should the police decide to crack down on the black market. Presiding over this frenetic scene, the gallery now known as 47 Canal first opened in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, as 179 Canal, operating within a similarly precarious economy.
Proprietor Margaret Lee first laid eyes on the original space, previously a brothel, after the Chinatown building where she worked caught fire. Seduced by the anachronistic green marble-tiled interior and dangling chandeliers, she convinced the landlord that the burnt-out space would benefit under her auspices, attracting artists rather than the seedier crowd drawn in by the previous business. Miraculously, he agreed to let her use the space at a nominal price on a month-by-month basis, marking the start of a series of parties, exhibitions, and programming that lasted just over a year.
With the market at a standstill, Lee recognized the need to support young artists just starting their careers. Many of her peers were fresh out of MFA programs and trying to figure out the next step. Gathering a small group of friends around her, she began by hosting parties, a low-cost endeavor and effective PR stunt, generating excitement and intrigue around the project. With the first party, which coincided with the Armory Show, she accrued a formidable audience (the party was thrown with James Fuentes and Gianni Jetzer of Swiss Institute). Then, in May 2009, the gallery held its first exhibition, curated by artist Josh Kline.
“Nobodies New York,” which included ten artists (among them Amy Yao, Anicka Yi, Trevor Shimizu, and Antoine Catala, who still sit on the gallery’s intimate roster) was cozy, if not overcrowded. The press release, which took the form of a casual email, bore a commiserating message: “We’re broke, so BYOB!” Lyrical press releases are emblematic of the gallery’s DIY ethos. Sometimes the text may detail the actual exchange between curator and artist, as with Xavier Cha’s 2012 exhibition on technology and posthumanism, where the heady topic was discussed at length between Cha and Lee in an email exchange. In this way the conversation stays dynamic, never pausing to simply illuminate the inherent nature of one work or another.
In May 2010, the space at 179 Canal closed. Shortly after, Lee began dating Oliver Newton, who was then working at the Chelsea gallery Alexander and Bonin. With his help, she reopened the gallery the following year, heading further east. Taking up residence at 47 Canal, the name of the gallery was changed to match the new address, marking the transition. The new space featured a more polished interior (white walls and innocuous flooring) but maintained the program’s experimental spirit. For the inaugural show, friend and collaborator Michele Abeles had her first solo exhibition: a series of Photoshopped images of hairy legs, household plants, and other motifs of the contemporary domestic.
Lee describes the motley crew of artists she has fostered as embodying an immigrant mentality. “A lot of the artists we show are immigrants, so western culture isn’t even theirs to mine in the first place,” she explained in an Artspace interview last year. This outsider perspective is also evident in the work of artist duo Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, which resembles something of a fractured, globalized identity: in their exhibition at the gallery last year, glowing lan terns hung moodily, made of the sorts of materials used to construct makeshift homes or transport the belongings of someone constantly on the move—striped tarps, plastic string, bamboo—their constantsubtle shifting eliciting the feeling of being unmoored.
Late last year the gallery relocated once again, this time northwards to 291 Grand Street. With each move has come increasing professionalization, and this space, a loft with high ceilings and old New York columns, seems to demand even more ambitious programming. Many of the original 47 Canal artists are now players in the international art scene. Last year Amy Yao took her readymade sculpture to Shenzhen’s He Xiangning Art Museum, and, in February, Josh Kline took part in the New Museum Triennial, curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin. The gallery is also represented at major art fairs, like Frieze and NADA. But, despite these institutional milestones, Lee and Newton remain committed to their grassroots practices, and always put their artists first. Newton is now working for the gallery full-time, while Lee juggles a position working for artist Cindy Sherman alongside her own studio practice. Though 47 Canal’s activities may finally be paying for themselves, the profits are slim. “We’ll all be poor together,” Lee jokes.
Shortly after the closing of the original 179 Canal gallery space, a mahjong parlor opened up in its place. Upstairs, a new venue, 3A Gallery, is run by friends of the gallery. This past September, Lee invited Berlin’s Mathew gallery to take up the lease at the 47 Canal address. This game of musical chairs marks the creative ebb and flow that characterizes the downtown New York scene. Artists must find ways to cope with unaffordable real estate and an unpredictable market. The legacy of 47 Canal continues to grow, and in fact revels in these haphazard moments, leaving an unwieldy, untameable spirit in its tracks.