It went thataway: the art scene that just won't stand still

No city does cutting-edge galleries and installations quite like New York. But, says Philip Hoare, it's a moveable feast and you need to know where to find it

Ever since the Museum of Modern Art's premises in central Manhattan closed temporarily in 2002, cultural tourists to New York have been joining a pilgrimage of hip kids and Upper Eastside dames whose Converse-sneakered or Jimmy Choo-shod feet have bravely forsaken the high-rise-strewn granite island for the city borough of Queens.

Ever since the Museum of Modern Art's premises in central Manhattan closed temporarily in 2002, cultural tourists to New York have been joining a pilgrimage of hip kids and Upper Eastside dames whose Converse-sneakered or Jimmy Choo-shod feet have bravely forsaken the high-rise-strewn granite island for the city borough of Queens.

Such an expedition is far more trepidatious than any transpontine trip for a Londoner going south of the Thames. There's a lurch of disconnection as the subway tunnels under the East River, to reappear in an apparently godforsaken zone memorably recorded in the work of the photographer Rudy Burkhardt, whose post-war scenes of Queens recall the episode in The Great Gatsby when the protagonists drive through the wasteland that separates jazz-age New York from their hedonistic playgrounds on Long Island.

Here, MoMA spent $30m converting a former staple factory into a two-year home for its collection. It was the equivalent, noted The New York Times, of buying an apartment to live in while your town house was being gutted - only here the apartment housed some of the greatest works of art of the past century, from Rousseau to Beuys and Warhol.

Disgorged into this nether region, foreigners gathered warily - as if seeking safety in numbers - under the elevated train tracks before crossing the highway and gaining the familiar sanctuary of a world-famous art collection and, of course, its attendant café. The more intrepid visitor to this terra incognita makes a further trek: to the MoMA- affiliated P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. This is a former school building whose winding white-painted classrooms and glazed corridors now house video art and, at the weekend, the Saturday "Warm-Up" from 3pm till 9 pm, with DJs and general hanging out. So much so that The New York Times remarked, "If art is your main interest, it might not be a good idea to visit P.S.1 on a Saturday afternoon. The music booms off the courtyard walls and the hallways and galleries can fill up with people. Still, it is gratifying to realise that some of them came to dance and then stayed to look ..."

But this November, Manhattan dames will breathe a sigh of relief as MoMA reopens on West 53rd Street in fabulous new headquarters, revamped at a pretty price of $850m. In the meantime, New York's artistic topography has altered irrevocably. In the 1980s, the scene centred on the warehouses and lofts of SoHo (South of Houston Street), a downtown area overshadowed by a thousand fire escapes and every other building a cutting-edge gallery. But now the restaurants and shops have moved in, and hotels such as the SoHo Grand - artfully designed to look like an industrial loft-space - cater to well-shod visitors who drift through its sepulchrally deluxe lobby with the gleanings of the upmarket shopping mall that SoHo now is. Here you're more likely to share the lift with a supermodel than an artist, on her way to its rooftop suites to party with such Manhattan celebrities as Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Moby.

Art shifted its focus instead to Chelsea where, from West 29th to West 18th Street, warehouses now accommodate prestigious gallerists such as Matthew Marks and Paul Kasmin.

A few blocks down, gentrification has turned the former Meat Packing District into a retail and eating opportunity for the achingly fashionable. Here, in an area roughly equivalent to London's Smithfield, the Soho House (a UK import) was joined this year by the egregiously modern architectural addition that is the Gansevoort Hotel.

So much for the rich kids. Avant-garde New York has already moved on to Williamsburg, an area of Brooklyn just beyond Dumbo (acronym for another upcoming area - "down under Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges"). This is a truly surreal adventure, even for a Hoxtonian such as me. You emerge from the L train at Bedford Avenue into what looks like a post-apocalyptic cityscape. The main drag resembles the funkier edges of the East Village but the graffiti-strewn streets running off it (where the galleries and most fashionable restaurants and shops are) have the ambience of a metropolis in an advanced state of decay. Car workshops abut houses seemingly clad in PVC; elderly women, their eyes turned cataractic in the sun, sit out on rickety plastic chairs in mockery of the lack of green spaces. There is little to be seen of the Hasidic Jews who once populated the area; the road is being dug up; the smell of asphalt hangs in the air.

But interspersed with these blue-collar dwellings are cavernous galleries with art priced at thousands of dollars. One of the first to stake out a claim on Williamsburg was Jessica Murray, who's been here for seven years now. The concrete façade of her gallery looks more like a nuclear bunker, but inside, you'll find work not only by local but also international artists. Go to Williamsburg on a midweek afternoon and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Turn up on a weekend (the third Friday of each month is a good bet - many galleries are open till midnight), and you'll be treated to a parade of hipsters wearing T-shirts from the local designers Brooklyn Industries (with the area's trademark water towers reproduced in camouflage print) and checking out the latest art volumes in the Spoonbill bookstore.

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, the New Museum of Contemporary Art - established in SoHo in 1983 when its art scene was at its height - closed this spring with a suitably blockbusting final show by the cult director John Waters. With its move to the historically dissolute and dangerous Bowery - the skid row that was once home to McGurk's Suicide Hall, where, in the 19th century, despondent prostitutes went to kill themselves by drinking carbolic acid - comes the latest signifier of another new art zone. "We're trail-blazers," says the museum's director, Lisa Phillips.

One steamy afternoon, the museum's PR, Chelsea Scott, took me on a tour of the new site. It sits next to the Sunshine Hotel - the kind that rents rooms by the hour - with the Bowery Mission to the down-and-out close by. But soon this vacant parking lot will exude an angular white assemblage of Post-Modern boxes, teleported into a street better known for supplying restaurant fittings.

The new building, designed by the Tokyo architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, will cost $35m - little more than MoMA spent on its staple factory. Yet when it opens in spring 2006, it will be a permanent site, and inevitably, it will change the character of what lies around it.

Indeed, it already has. Perhaps to prepare its unwitting neighbours for the oncoming hordes of fashionable New Yorkers, the New Museum commissioned five artists to set up site-specific pieces in the locality. These include a bright yellow periscope erected by Julianne Swartz on the façade of the Sunshine Hotel, enabling passers-by to engage with the inhabitants on its third floor. There is also Narnian construction in a martial arts emporium where, having given the shopkeeper the correct password, visitors push through a curtain at the back of the store into a cupboard built out of packing-cases. Here, video screens issue instructions by the art collective Flux Factory for impossible missions to be undertaken in the area. A third artist, Marion Wilson, has solicited contributions from the Bowery Mission clientele (one donated his newly cut dreadlocks) which she touts round the streets on her "art-vendor cart" - rather like a tramp wheeling his or her worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley.

Perhaps there's a kind of decadence to this aesthetic appropriation of run-down neighbourhoods. In Hoxton, I've witnessed a similar transformation - from the early-1980s recruiting ground for the National Front to a street whose residents now include Jarvis Cocker and the YBA painter Gary Hume. It's a familiar inner-city dynamic of our age: art blunts the grit, and smooths the way for the bourgeoisie. It has happened in Berlin, where former East Berlin is the only place to go; while as John Waters comments, in Los Angeles, they've run out of places to colonise: "There isn't a bad neighbourhood left."

Typically, and exasperatingly, the Bowery scene has already happened, says Waters; the condominiums (at $1.3m each) are going up even before the New Museum has arrived. Nor should you go to Williamsburg to discover the next big thing. The fickle finger of fashion now points to the lower West Village, between Houston and Christopher Streets. Here Gavin Brown's Enterprise gallery - generally regarded as the art barometer - has relocated from Chelsea to a site at Greenwich and Leroy. Brown "always chooses a neighbourhood that's inconvenient", says an insider. "It means that people going there really want to go there - they're not stupid tourists." That rules out the rest of us, then.


How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9850; is offering flights for £199 if you book before 28 September for travel between 25 December and 30 April. Otherwise return flights cost from £314. The SoHo Grand, 310 West Broadway (00800 7646 4726; offers rooms from $343 (£190) per night.

Where to go

MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Blvd, Long Island City, Queens (001 212 708 9400; From 20 November it returns to 11 West 53rd Street, New York. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens (001 718 784 2084; New Museum of Contemporary Art, Prince Street and Bowery (001 212 219 1222;;

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home