New York, New York

You sure you wanna be a part of it?

When David Quadrini stood on the bank of the East River and watched the World Trade Center collapse, he broke into a spontaneous wail. His knees gave, his eyes watered with overwhelming disbelief, and he knew, like the rest of us, that life couldn't continue as it had before. But as the sooty fallout mushroomed up and out over the heart of the world's financial center, Quadrini's concern momentarily crystallized. He was visiting New York on business, and as an artist and dealer based in Dallas, the leveling of the twin towers seemed to him a hint of what might happen to the art-world playing field--for better or worse.

In the days following September 11, the New York galleries, auction houses and museums rippled with mass cancellations of show openings and sales, shutdowns of exhibitions and meetings. Because of the halt in air traffic that week, Quadrini couldn't get out of New York, so he watched firsthand as the world's most prominent art scene fell silent.

He described the rest of that terrifying day and then settled into an emotionally charged recollection of the ash-choked sunset. "It was incredible, this massive display of all these colors--unbelievable purples bleeding into reds to fiery yellows and back to purple again," he said. "It was just so shocking that something so monstrous yet beautiful could come from something so awful."

Curtis Fairman's sculptures evoke a sort of "lifestyle" package of retro-future optimism.
Curtis Fairman's sculptures evoke a sort of "lifestyle" package of retro-future optimism.

Startled by his own words, Quadrini shook his head at their urgency and honesty. That day, few Americans looked past the immediate destruction of the attacks, but with the eye of an artist and businessman, he did. And while the old "silver lining" adage may be too strong for this story, Quadrini's sunset could apply to the unexpected change that often follows trauma.

Over the past three months, we've all played the prediction game: How long will it take to fell terrorism? Will the recession deepen? Post-attack, economists have prophesied New York's displacement as the world's financial capital and called for a long-needed decentralization of corporate power. Could the same be said of New York's longtime dominance of the art world?

It's a massive and dubious task, this speculation on the health of New York's art scene at year's end. But as Manhattan dusts itself off and moves toward normalcy, other American cities can step up to carry some of the cultural burden. While decentralization of the financial sector is about avoiding economic vulnerability, the decentralization of creative minds is about enriching other metropolises across the country, giving more credit to local art scenes instead of always comparing them to New York's.

Every big city has an art scene, some more notable than others: Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago. Even Dallas. Every scene needs a dynamic of discussion, support and encouragement. The North Texas art scene, as an underdog contingent countering the area's much more visible sports and corporate economies, has for years found strength and dignity in community. Its museums, galleries, dealers, journalists and collectors work together to boost artist visibility. And it's paying off. Texas-based artists are plugged into the national art-business machine and are financially stable enough to make their work.

Ironically, over the past decade, I've watched handfuls of young North Texas artists migrate to New York, some out of a need for more urban stimulation, some out of reverence for the legacy of New York's creative drive and many, sadly, out of desperation for a more appreciative audience. Today, most of them are still struggling to pay rent and unable to find representation in the moneyed galleries of Chelsea and SoHo. And some of their contemporaries who chose to stay in Texas are getting a slice of New York's discriminating attention. What happened to the New York career trajectory? The decentralization of the world's visual art center runs deeper and further back than September 11, and while any recession is bad news, the potential redistribution of talent and interest can only be good for Texas, and excellent for Dallas artists.

The beginnings of New York's bleak condition can be traced back as far as the Big '80s, when boomers looked to invest during the Reaganomic surge. SoHo art dealers introduced their young, aggressive artists to massive paychecks. The following decade, these stars' younger contemporaries frolicked in the money wake, while mounting rents in SoHo forced galleries to relocate to the more affordable Chelsea. Artists finally fled to Brooklyn for studio space. The backlash to New York's art elite had begun. For all of Giuliani's undisputed heroism in the face of terrorist attacks, his vision of a cleaner, healthier New York meant a continued drive toward Manhattan as wealthy utopia, a rich-only club, and the massive city cleanup--the shutdown of nightclubs and co-ops, along with the increased earning power of business-minded yuppies--meant much higher Manhattan rents. Ridiculous, crazy-high rents. Which now, in turn, means less young (i.e. broke) talent pouring into the city, and less new talent spells stagnation within the establishment.

Hard to believe Manhattan is on its way to becoming a dull, homogenized island of Brooks Brothers suits and Prada pumps, but there it is. There's no way an artistic think tank like Warhol's factory could exist today. Just stepping out onto Union Square--the Factory's last address--requires a visitor to throw his entire wallet into the black hole of inflated capitalism.

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