Laurel Gitlen opened her art gallery of the same name on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in September 2008.
Three days later Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.
“I knew there was going to be some downturn, but I didn’t anticipate how severe it would be,” said Gitlen, 36. “People didn’t even come to see the shows that fall.”
Things have improved.
Sales at her 650-square-foot, light-filled gallery on Broome Street more than doubled each year. She has been accepted into prestigious art fairs and has placed works in public collections, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Gitlen is part of a wave of women art dealers who arrived on the Lower East Side in the past four years.
Anchored and bolstered by the hyper-contemporary New Museum, which opened in late 2007, they are helping transform what was a distant outcropping of the Chelsea art scene into an important hub for new art.
Women own about 30 percent of art galleries on the Lower East Side, up from about 4 percent five years ago, according to Katie Archer, business services manager at Lower East Side Business Improvement District.
The first batch -- Gitlen, Candice Madey, Rachel Uffner, Lisa Cooley, Nicelle Beauchene -- came in 2008, settling along or near Orchard Street. They had worked at blue-chip Chelsea galleries, auction houses and art-advising firms.
“They bring incredible knowledge, history and experience to the way they promote their artists,” said Sue Stoffel, a collector and emerging-art adviser in Manhattan. “Whenever I go to the Lower East Side, they are the basis of my itinerary.”
Stoffel owns a ceramic sculpture by Jessica Jackson Hutchins, who began working with Gitlen in 2005 while both lived in Portland, Oregon. At that time her works sold for $1,500 to $6,000.
Since her newspaper-upholstered couch appeared in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Jackson Hutchins’s works have been snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Prices now range from $10,000 to $60,000, Gitlen said. Another gallery artist Joseph Montgomery will be included in a 2013 exhibition at the Walker Art Center.
Lisa Cooley, 36, opened in a 900-square-foot space on Orchard Street in January 2008. Last month, Lisa Cooley Fine Art upgraded to 4,700-square-foot space, which once housed experimental music venue Tonic, on the less-central Norfolk Street.
‘Grow or Die’
“It’s about my artists’ needs,” said Cooley. “It’s like, grow or die.”
More than 150 people showed up for her opening of Andy Coolquitt’s new exhibition “chair w/paintings” on March 30. Displayed underneath 14-foot ceilings were structures made of found materials, including old lighters, colorful tubes and light bulbs.
Coolquitt’s work, initially priced between $500 and $4,000, helped Cooley sell $100,000 of art in her first year. Recently, his sculpture sold for $75,000 to a European collector.
Cooley placed abstract paintings by Alex Olson in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a video by Erin Shirreff and a set of four black-and-white photographs in 2010.
“In our second year we sold four times the amount we sold in the first year,” Cooley said. “It’s really been exponential growth.”
Nicelle Beauchene, 35, who will celebrate her self-named gallery’s fourth anniversary in May, is also thinking about expanding.
An alumna of Marianne Boesky Gallery, she had sold an intricate textile piece by Afruz Amighi to the Metropolitan Museum. Another of her artists, Valerie Hegarty, who makes paintings and sculptures based on iconic American artworks, will have a solo project at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.
“A lot of our artists deserve a bigger space,” said Beauchene. “We are assessing the situation. Lisa certainly has raised the bar.”
Candice Madey, 34, opened On Stellar Rays on Sept. 14, 2008, the Sunday before Lehman Brothers collapsed. After two hard years, she struck gold when five of her seven artists were included in Greater New York, an influential exhibition organized by MoMA PS1 every five years.
“It’s meant to be an introduction to the next important generation of artists working in New York,” said Madey. “It drew attention to our program in a pretty substantial way.”
Since then she sold a video by Tommy Hartung to the Museum of Modern Art; another of her artists, Brody Condon, will have a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum this summer.
After running Peter Blum’s Chelsea gallery, Simone Subal, 37, opened her self-named space on the Bowery six months ago. As a more recent arrival to the area, she discovered a welcoming network of women gallery owners.
They invited her to dinners, helped with practical matters like finding a projector and sent clients, advisers and curators her way.
“Some of them became my clients,” said Subal. “So it’s been super, super helpful.”
For Cooley, a strong community of art dealers can only benefit everyone.
“It’s impossible not to be competitive, but at the same time, this job can be very isolating and we all reach out to each other and support each other,” she said.
“I want all people in this group to do well because it makes us all do better.”