Putting LES galleries on the map



Bar owner helps organize scene by including 54 arts spaces

Gallery Bar owners Darin Rubell and Josh Boyd spend much of the day fielding phone calls, meeting with artists, welcoming visitors, chain smoking and fooling around with water guns in their arts space. At night, they turn down the lights and entertain more than 200 bar-goers. Boyd even lives in an apartment above the bar, which is convenient.

But the two entrepreneurs and longtime friends are doing more than promoting their own business. They’re working to build the arts scene in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood they both love. Recently, rising prices in Chelsea and the opening of the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery have inspired other gallery owners to open shop downtown as well.

Rubell, 34, began his work uniting these galleries when he opened Gallery Bar with Boyd two years ago. The result is a comprehensive map including 54 galleries, beginning below Houston Street extending as far west as Broadway. Portrait artist, long-time Lower East Sider and friend of Rubell’s, Zito will be leading tours leaving from Gallery Bar every Wednesday, as a Lower East Side version of Thursdays in Chelsea.

Zito and Rubell led the first tour for using the map for The Society, a social club that organizes cultural events for its members, last month. The pair led 18 members to some of their favorite galleries and demonstrated the diversity and quality of the galleries downtown.

As he led the group out of his own bar, Rubell joked, “Now, which way do we go?” First, they headed to Eleven Rivington, which featured beehive sculptures crafted by artist Hilary Berseth, who had assistance from the insects. Next was Feature Inc on the Bowery, which was featuring quasi-pornographic photos by Richard Kern, which also framed the underwear the models had been wearing during the shoot. The last stop before the after party at Gallery Bar was Gallery Nine 5, which was featuring “Translating Raw,” mixed media work by Gonzalo Papantonkis and a neon installation by Anne Katrine Senstad, “Black Skull.”

Zito, 39, who wears long dreadlocks, jokingly calls himself a vandal, as stickers of his portraits, most noticeably a red-haired, big-eyed, yellow-faced girl with a nose ring can be found on garbage cans and other surfaces all over the city. His portrait of David Bowie painted on a mirror hangs in the downstairs lounge space of Gallery Bar.

In order to promote his own space and the other galleries, Rubell is using skills he’d gained from a prior life. Before going into the restaurant and bar business, he’d earned a communications degree at the University of Miami, in the city where his cousin Don Rubell has an extensive modern art collection. Next, he worked in marketing until September 11, when the career gave him a “pit in his stomach.” He’s also related to the late Studio 54 owner, Steve Rubell, and although he says his cousins have had no influence on his life, he often mentions them for press purposes.

He points to a caption in the October catalog for TheNewYorkArtWorld.com that reads, “The New Frontier: LES (Lower East Side) replaces Chelsea as the fastest growing art district in New York” to demonstrate his aims.

“That’s exactly it. It’s what we’re trying to make happen,” he says.

He teamed with the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which did a bulk of the research and funding for the map, to make the Pop-art inspired multi-colored map with taxi cabs and apples on the front and addresses, phone numbers and descriptions for the galleries, along with subway and bus routes included on the map inside.

Roberto Ragone, of LES BID, said art is a good measure of whether a neighborhood is flourishing and can also draw further economic development.

“The younger crowd helped reclaim this area as an evening destination,” Ragone says. “Now we’re hoping galleries will help bring people here during the day.”

Copies of the map are available on his web site, gallerybarnyc.com and on the BID’s web site, lowereastsideny.com, where future gallery hoppers can also request hard copies be mailed to them for free.

The design was intended to be “art obvious.” Rubell initially wanted to use Andy Warhol’s work, but ran into copyright issues. “We needed something with mass recognition that was also legal,” he says.

Rubell admits the map alone isn’t going to bring much more traffic to the galleries in the burgeoning art area. But he’s looking forward to the Wednesday night tours and in the process of placing the map in hotels and teaming up with Big Apple Tours, which is offering guided tours of the galleries for free by appointment.

Rubell and Boyd acknowledge combining art and drinking is common, but they try to distinguish their place by having white walls and being open all day and taking the gallery aspect seriously. Rubell also acknowledges he’s not the first to make a map including Lower East Side bars, but he says he didn’t think other map makers have done a good enough job communicating with the gallery owners and making the map accessible to everyone.

“We’re not the first ones to do things down here,” Boyd says. “We just want to do it right.”

Currently, Gallery Bar is showcasing black and white photos depicting people rebuilding their lives in New Orleans after three years after Hurricane Katrina taken by photojournalist Michael M. Koehler. One image captures a dirty brick wall with a cut-out of a map of the United States symbolically missing all states east of Texas and South of Virginia and behind the bar, an image of a crooning guitar player in the street hangs.

Rubell says he meets with artists all day and tries to pick works that are affordable but also will be good investments, as he hopes the artists’ careers will soon launch. The space has the added challenge of displaying work that won’t seem dwarfed by its size or disappear when the space fills at night.

“It’s about what people can envision on their living room walls,” says Rubell. Laughing, he adds, “That is, if you’re the kind of person who likes to see images from struggling cities on your wall.”

For a self-guided tour, go to gallerybarnyc.com or lowereastsideny.com for maps.

For guided tours, meet at Gallery Bar at 120 Orchard St. at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. The first tour will be Dec. 1. Call 212-529-2266 for more information.