SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After artists transformed industrial spaces into spaces for making art, SoHo became the principal location for New York City’s trade in contemporary art. This trade provided the economic basis of the SoHo arts community and gave it a cultural orientation.

Summary of Event

The SoHo area, a forty-three-block district in lower Manhattan, originated with urban planners who, as late as 1962, referred to this area as the south of Houston (thus, “SoHo”) industrial district. The acronym designates the structurally intact but socially transformed district where most of New York’s and much of the United States’s visual art is created and marketed. SoHo, New York Art galleries [kw]SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art (1960’s) [kw]Contemporary Art, SoHo Emerges as a Center for (1960’s) [kw]Art, SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary (1960’s) SoHo, New York Art galleries [g]North America;1960’s: SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art[06350] [g]United States;1960’s: SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art[06350] [c]Arts;1960’s: SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art[06350] [c]Trade and commerce;1960’s: SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art[06350] [c]Urban planning;1960’s: SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art[06350] Feigen, Richard L. Cooper, Paula Castelli, Leo

SoHo residents are predominantly artists and their families who work and live in renovated factory lofts. Residents have created a community with an economic foundation resting on the demand for contemporary fine art and with a cultural identity rooted in the dynamics and contradictions of the American middle class.

The artists of SoHo first drifted into the district in the late 1950’s. A few of the new breed of artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Klein, lived and worked in factory buildings in the Coenties Slip area of lower Manhattan, near the Battery. The postwar years brought an influx of artists into lower Manhattan and into SoHo specifically.

The artists settled into the middle of industrial decay, into what was then a zone of doll makers and dress manufacturers, rag balers and wastepaper processors. Painters, sculptors, and dancers found that the deserted factory lofts were uniquely adaptable to their needs for unrestricted space. Landlords found artists to be useful scavengers of otherwise unmarketable upper floors in poorly maintained buildings. Artists were occupants who renovated the lofts they inhabited and who legally were in no position to ask for anything but to be left alone, beneath the notice of the law. A symbiotic relationship was struck. Landlords received modest rents and could count on leaky roofs being fixed by the tenants; artists in search of cheap but ample studio space found it on a scale commensurate with their needs.

In the 1960’s, SoHo’s population of artists grew, and the area came into being. The industrial base of the area declined and, simultaneously, more and more middle-class youth set out on an artistic trek that led them inevitably to New York City, a major center for art education, museums, and art sales. Having perfected the techniques of coping with life in lofts, and finding that more of the district’s spaces were losing their attraction for manufacturing tenants, painters and sculptors formed cooperative associations in order to purchase and remodel entire factory buildings for studio and residential purposes. The “art world,” the urban subculture to which artists belong by virtue of their shared commitments, was expanded by a new basis of interaction: finding, renovating, and collectively financing loft studios in SoHo.

The extent of the growing renovation brought artists new problems. At first, they had only to supplant the established rat population and provide heat and hot water in buildings with coal furnaces long rusted into uselessness. As greater numbers of artists moved in, open confrontation with the city became the artists’ most pressing difficulty. In the early period, fire and building inspectors had been third parties to the illegal housing accommodation between artist and landlord. The inspectors took their portion of petty graft or simply attended to higher priorities elsewhere in the city, thus informally licensing the residency.

The increasing numbers of artists and the growing publicity surrounding their residency, however, inevitably made the artists’ occupancy a political issue. Parties with an interest in the course of urban change—planners protecting their professional prerogatives, developers, urban reformers of varied types, and elected officials—generated opposition that made the place of artists in the city an important issue.

The SoHo artists, trading on the patron relationship between art and its sponsors, won legal sanction of their residency by 1971 in a contest that reveals much about the position of the artist in urban society and national culture. The artists had won a political struggle to defeat demolition schemes and to secure a residential monopoly in what was otherwise a manufacturing zone.

SoHo subsequently became an attractive location for art dealers, such as Richard L. Feigen, who, in 1968, was the first established dealer in SoHo. The gallery display technique and the storage of art require extensive but moderately priced space. This is particularly true when, as with contemporary art, much of a dealer’s inventory is speculative in value and executed on the large scale that had been established by abstract expressionism. SoHo offered dealers more space for their money than was available in the established gallery district along Manhattan’s Fifty-seventh Street. The first gallery in SoHo was opened in 1968 by Paula Cooper, who had worked in several uptown galleries before testing the waters in SoHo.

More important, the surrounding artistic community facilitated interaction between artists, dealers, and clients, generating an ambience that drew clients away from the more fashionable uptown art neighborhood with the prospect of investing in new trends at their very source, a concept that had been promoted by the garment industry in its use of the Manhattan “factory showroom.” During the 1970’s, new galleries opened in SoHo, and the contemporary art operations of many established uptown dealers, such as Leo Castelli, were relocated among the artists’ lofts, making the area the focus of the city’s trade in the work of living artists.

The galleries, in their turn, attracted art lovers as well as the professional and managerial populations of Manhattan, which were growing with the completion of each new office tower. Having established themselves as a part of the urban design, however, the artists discovered that complete control of the area was beyond their economic and political resources. The middle class exacted a tribute in return for its sponsorship.

Although the law only permits certified artists to live in SoHo, severe budget cutbacks at the Department of Cultural Affairs, plus a loft board mired in owner-tenant disputes, meant a gray area in enforcement. As a result, the area became by the 1990’s a mix of early pioneers, arts-related residents from the 1980’s, and those among the internationally rich who saw SoHo as a “finishing school.”


As a result of the increasing migration of artists and dealers into the area, SoHo became the national center for the contemporary fine arts. It is the focus for many status communities within the arts, each distinguished by its own medium. As the location of New York’s largest concentration of painters and sculptors, and of the galleries that display their work, SoHo most notably became a center for the visual arts, central to the dynamics of the contemporary art world.

The impact of SoHo on the environment in which contemporary art was viewed was enormous. Dealers wanted to distinguish themselves from the conservative, formal atmosphere of uptown galleries. Galleries in SoHo became simpler and larger, with 5,000-square-foot floors and 10-foot ceilings. As a result, dealers were able to exhibit works without concern for their size. In addition, the atmosphere was more relaxed. The galleries welcomed students, professionals, and tourists as well as art connoisseurs. Doors were kept open, and visitors were free to come and go without being observed or questioned. SoHo dealers were highly visible. Most remained on hand to answer questions and to discuss the works on display. This accessibility to the public became one of the major differences between SoHo galleries and uptown galleries.

The artists, in turn, benefited because exhibitions of experimental works by unknown artists became financially less risky for the dealers. Because the galleries were evolving as showcases for an increasing diversity of styles, artists had the opportunity to exhibit larger, more innovative art not considered to be mainstream.

Another by-product of the development of SoHo is the proliferation of artist-managed “alternative space,” or cooperative galleries. These developed as a result of the tight caste system of private galleries. Because of the limited number of private galleries and restricted exhibition spaces, a large number of artists went without representation. Cooperative galleries allowed groups of artists to represent themselves. SoHo grew to have the largest concentration of cooperative galleries in the world, as the artists were attracted by the same economic factors that brought private galleries to the area.

The development of the SoHo community and its galleries has coincided with specific changes in the art world—the growth and openness of the market since the advent of abstract expressionism, the introduction of a new contemporary art buyer who seeks artistic coordinates from the market itself, and the absence of any single critical definition of what is important or correct avant-garde art or theory. The result of these changes has been elevation of the dealer to the central position as arbiter of taste in contemporary art.

Art has become an unabashedly and increasingly entrepreneurial field as a consequence of the SoHo art world. Some artists have become entrepreneurs and even celebrities, either through showmanship or by articulating their own theories about art and their own context of interpretation. The celebrity artist may use a dealer, but only as a representative, and will conduct his or her own salesmanship and conceptual defense. SoHo, New York Art galleries

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilgore, Ellen. “The Boom Town of Bohemia: SoHo.” Town and Country Magazine, September, 1977, 118-123. Bilgore gives an interesting historical perspective on the growth and development of SoHo in the twentieth century. She discusses social, economic, and cultural changes in the area as well as its reputation as a mecca for bohemians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edens, S. T. “Alternative Spaces—SoHo Style.” Art in America, November, 1973, 36-40. Compares and contrasts uptown galleries to those of SoHo, noting the advantages of SoHo alternative spaces. The advantages of exhibiting works without concern for their size are discussed. The diversity of styles exhibited in SoHo galleries and the relaxed atmosphere of the galleries is considered an advantage, as is accessibility to the public.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Katherine. Explorations: The Visual Arts Since 1945. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991. An excellent history of the period. Details the development of the various postwar movements and the artists who shaped them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. 1980. Rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. The companion to a widely acclaimed television series narrated by Hughes. Provides an excellent background on the development of modern art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kostelanetz, Richard. SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony. New York: Routledge, 2003. Presents a history of the SoHo arts district, from its beginnings in the 1950’s and 1960’s to the twenty-first century. Takes a nostalgic but studied look at topics such as how the area is becoming unaffordable to the very artists who made SoHo a community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Brenda. “An Artist’s Gallery.” Feminist Art Journal 5 (Spring, 1976): 21-26. The author surveys thirty galleries; twenty had taken in no new “unreferred” artists in 1975. She focuses primarily on female artists and their gallery representation in New York City.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rapkin, Chester. South Houston Industrial Area: A Study of the Economic Significance of Firms, the Physical Quality of Buildings, and the Real Estate Market in an Old Loft Section of Lower Manhattan. New York: City of New York, City Planning Commission, Department of City Planning, 1963. This is an excellent historical study of the growth of industry in SoHo from the 1880’s to the 1950’s. It focuses on the development of the quiet residential area into one filled with a million-dollar textile industry and its commercial and industrial buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegfried, Alanna, and Helene Zucker Seeman. SoHo: A Guide. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1978. In addition to being a guidebook to museums and galleries in the area, this book also provides useful information on the history, architecture, and residential neighborhood of SoHo. Contains numerous photographs and maps as well as an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, Charles R. SoHo: The Artist in the City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. This is a scholarly longitudinal study that extends from the initial phases of artist residency in SoHo in the early 1960’s to the culturally heterogeneous community of the 1980’s. The work discusses the cultural renovation of SoHo, the structure of the SoHo art market, the historical movement from industry to art, and family life in the area. Contains several appendixes.

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Categories: History