A few words with the founder of Half Gallery, Downtown New York art dealer and icon Bill Powers.
What makes Downtown Manhattan such a unique arts hub?
Downtown New York has such a history. So many art legends used to show in this area, as so many artists lived in TriBeCa and SoHo. There’s The Earth Room, there’s the Marc Jacobs store on Prince Street that used to be a restaurant – there are so many secret histories embedded Downtown.
How did you get your start as a Downtown Manhattan art dealer?
I used to write for culture magazines and The New York Times, and I got into art dealing from the journalism side of things. I think Downtown still has kind of that gritty diversity that I loved about New York growing up. You kind of want the bodega next to the shoe boutique next to the hipster restaurant next to the dry cleaner – you like having all of those different lives intersect. New York can be over-curated at times. I like the authenticity of Downtown New York.
How would you describe the role art has played in the culture of New York?
Necessity can create community. For instance, SoHo: the reason it became cool is because artists needed space to work and live. In the 70s and 80s you could get a studio in an old factory building for relatively cheap. It became a hotbed for artists and creative people. Then the rest of culture catches up to it, and you have the cool restaurants, little boutiques, etc.
Someone has to plant their flag for the culture to be built around. Often artists and creatives are leading that charge.
Why do you choose to champion new and emerging artists at Half Gallery?
I think in any kind of cultural experience people have, they want a mix of consistency and novelty. Consistency lets you trust the venue or experience, and novelty to keep it fresh. For us, the consistent part is showcasing emerging talent. It gives people a narrative they can hook into. But they know there’s always going to be a surprise around the corner – which is the novelty.
What have been some of your favourite public art installations in the city?
There have been some great things at Rockefeller Center, like the Jeff Koons Puppy installation. As for right now, a new Sanford Biggers sculpture was just unveiled recently at Rockefeller Plaza.
There are some great permanent moments that are more subtle – on Madison Avenue between 79th and 78th Street, part of the sidewalk was designed by Alexander Calder.
There’s a little vestibule on Broadway just south of Great Jones St., where there’s a Keith Haring mural in the foyer. His office used to be upstairs. I thought it was so incredible that it still exists.
What’s a perfect NYC afternoon for you?
A great afternoon in New York is to go get a tin of caviar at Citarella, the cheapest potato chips you can find, and whatever you want to drink, and take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.
What are some great places to see art in Downtown Manhattan?
In TriBeCa, the New York Academy of Art has graduated some incredible artists in the last couple of years. Sometimes their ballroom hosts exhibitions – they’re always worth checking out.
A lot of galleries have moved to TriBeCa. It definitely has become more of an arts hub. There’s the new Broadway Gallery, and there’s Andrew Kreps Gallery. There are alot of galleries just south of Canal Street, on or just off of Broadway.
If each neighbourhood of Manhattan was a style of art, what would each be and why?
Downtown Manhattan: I guess it depends on what generation you are. If you’re of a younger generation you might be thinking of Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow, the party kids of the earlier 2000s. If you’re older, maybe Warhol.
The Upper East side has a kind of politeness to it that makes you think more of a Frederic Church painting. Something a bit more conservative.
Central Park has the tranquillity of a Rothko.
The Financial District is an NFT!