The art world is a convivial place, and often an evening of shuttling from one gallery opening to another is followed by a mass sojourn to the neighborhood watering hole to compare notes, gossip, and flirt. While any bar will do in a pinch, one type of venue rises above the rest: the art bar. Scattered through art scenes around the world, and often invisible to the uninitiated, these bars—epitomized by dealer/artist Gavin Brown‘s late and lamented Passerby in West Chelsea—exist as clubby insider hangouts that generally were conceived to cater to specific art cliques.
These bars flourish in ecosystems like New York’s Lower East Side, an area rich in both artists and art scenes, but they tend to be transient ventures: with a few notable exceptions, they exist only until the artists/owners in question become too successful, win residencies elsewhere, or get bored (or broke). Artspace‘s Dylan Kerr bravely donned his David Attenborough hat to seek out the specimens that are thriving right now.
Location: 132A Eldridge Street
Associated Artists: The graffiti writer-turned-street-artist Moody (aka Mutz) has a few pieces inside, including his well-known Coca-Cola ad riff, along with a dolphin-themed mural by BK FOXX outside. The mural changes on a bimonthly basis and has featured works by Sweet Toof, Lady Pink, and several more.
Concept: Located directly across the street from Woodward Gallery, it serves as both a bar and a project space focusing on street art.
Clientele: Hard to say, since when we went in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday it was just us and the bartender (who was easily the nicest and most personable individual we encountered all night).
Signature Drink: Lots of good cocktails; we were intrigued by the “Seasonal Shrub,” which uses fruits preserved in vinegar and sugar—a colonial American tradition, apparently—as the basis for a rotating cast of drinks.
Decor: Interesting juxtaposition of street-art cheekiness with red velvet curtains, roses, and candles.
Playlist: Nondescript lite rock.
Anonymous Quote: “She literally willed herself to live… that’s so dope.”
Location: 87 Rivington
Concept: Speakeasy located in the back of the Lodge Gallery; a bouncer sits at the door of the otherwise standard white-cube space, which you have to walk through to a semi-hidden door revealing the dimly lit and far more ornate bar in the back.
Associated Artists: We walked through a group show featuring George Boorujy, Lori Nix, Kate Clark, Doung Young, and more on our way to the bar. There were a few prints on the walls in the bar, including an interesting de Kooning, but for the most part the art seemed confined to the gallery space.
Clientele: Well-dressed couples (think polos and loafers), fitting the overall vibe of the space.
Signature Drink: Their most notable offering might be the prosecco they have on tap.
Decor: Speakeasy chic, with brick walls offset by crystal chandeliers, taxidermied critters, marble tabletops, and glass display cases filled with candles and ephemera.
Playlist: Dad rock.
Anonymous Quote: “It’s 9:40 p.m. and I already have too many boyfriends.”
MAX FISHLocation: 120 Orchard
Concept: Started in 1989 by the artist Ulli Rimkus as a retreat for the rough-and-ready residents of the still-sketchy Lower East Side, Max Fish’s original location on Ludlow was a fixture of the Manhattan art scene until it closed in July 2013. While the new location on Orchard can’t completely fill that void, it nonetheless preserves much of the original’s charm.
Associated Artists: Many over the years, including Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, and Shepard Fairey.
Clientele: By far the most mixed crowd of the night, with plenty of ear gauges and Hawaiian shirts to go around.
Signature Drink: Cheap beer, baby.
Decor: Eclectic to say the least; unclear where the art ends and the kitsch begins, but we like it that way. The pool table and pinball machines seemed popular.
Playlist: Punk and reggae.
Anonymous Quote: “Did you just compare your love life to Vietnam
Location: 21 Essex
Concept: A slightly younger, more contemporary update of the Max Fish “for-artists-by-artists” bar model, Beverly’s is especially cool because it actually curates exhibitions in the space—and elsewhere, since it’s become a favorite bar for art fairs like Mexico City’s Material to import.
Associated Artists: Owned and operated by the artist Dan Sutti, the bar has had shows with Artie Vierkant, Em Rooney, Christina Tufiño, and a bunch more cool young artists. The exhibitions change fairly regularly.
Clientele: Often described along the lines of “soul-crushingly hip,” the place is usually packed and super fun despite totally living up to this reputation. I have dim memories of actually dancing here, which is maybe the most effusive praise I can give a bar.
Signature Drink: Beverly’s is made for the beer & shot combo.
Decor: Besides the (mostly video) art, pink neon and pineapples. One fond recollection is of their fog machine blasting vapor, which made the smoke detector go off, which made the bartender poke it with a stick until it stopped. This happened several times.
Playlist: Loud dance hits from the ‘80s and contemporary hip-hop.
Anonymous Quote: “I’ve been praying that someone would put on ‘Rhythm of the Night’ for like 45 minutes.”
Location: 96 Orchard
Concept: Owned and operated by dancers (think Performa, not Rockette), they specialize in late-night DJ sets on the weekends and decent food and drink the rest of the time.
Associated Artists: Owners Jessie Gold and Elizabeth Hart are artists in their own right, and they’ve done installations for some of the nearby galleries with fellow artists like Lucky DeBellevue and Daphne Fitzpatrick.
Clientele: Fairly standard LES bar crowd: quietly drunk, with skinny jeans and baggy vintage sweaters.
Signature Drink: Known for their cocktails; I liked the “Ginger Rogers,” made with tequila, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger syrup.
Decor: The bricks, lighting, and brightly patterned bar top do a lot of the aesthetic work, along with the Naomi Fisher mural on the back wall. Other touches include a victrola, a disco ball, and cut flowers.
Playlist: Good disco.
Anonymous Quote: “Oh my god, I’m sending this to all four of my friends.”
Rome. The Caput Mundi. The ancient seat of the Republic, then the empire, then the church, which gave us the Renaissance. “You must serve her,” Marcus Licinius Crassus declaimed in Stanley Kubrik’s Spartacus. “You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must… love her.”
But while for centuries Rome maintained hegemony over both temporal affairs and the exalted arts, in recent times its creative denizens have found themselves living in a museum of previous accomplishments, forced to wallow nostalgically in the pomp of the past—an attitude exemplified by Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. Now, however, there seems to be a new drive to reinvigorate the city’s art scene by turning the spotlight to the contemporary moment. These efforts came refreshingly into flower over the weekend with the debut of GRANPALAZZO, a new pop-up event that took place in the prestigious countryside premises of Zagarolo’s 16-century Palazzo Rospigliosi, just outside of Rome.
A detour from pessimism about the city’s cultural vitality, GRANPALAZZO set out to demonstrate the will of professionals in the Roman art scene to make the city a hub for contemporary art in Italy—though one rooted in the city’s glorious cultural history. (The palazzo itself, once owned by the Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, is distinguished by its elegant domed ceilings and frescos of hunting scenes, the Battle of Lepanto, and other august subjects.) “We all love Rome,” says Paola Capata, the owner of Monitor Gallery, who co-founded the event with curator Ilaria Gianni, gallerist Federica Schiavo, and the events manager Delfo Durante. “We decided to be committed to the city, and to give it everything we have to offer.”
Above all, GRANPALAZZO was a recognition of the fact that Rome, against all odds, has been evolving as an increasingly potent draw for the international contemporary art scene. Artists, curators, and other tastemakers are lured to the city by glamorous residency programs in institutions such as the American Academy in Rome, the French Academy, and the British School at Rome—often with collectors in tow. Now, eight years after Gagosian opened an outpost in Rome (primarily to cater to Cy Twombly, who lived outside the city), the dealer Gavin Brown has also announced plans to bring his vanguard-leading gallery to Trastevere. The city’s art scene, in other words, is slowly starting to take part in the international artistic discourse.
Overall, though, the infrastructure remains largely absent, and the galleries are mostly young—the kind that you see in the emerging “spotlight” sections in art fairs. The key players, inaugurated in the mid-2000s, include the galleries Monitor, T293, Lorcan O’Neill, and Federica Schiavo; the magazines/publishing houses NERO and cura; and the newspapers Exibart and Artribune.
The city has also benefited from the launch of new private art initiatives, such as Matèria Gallery and the Fondazione per l’Arte Contemporanea. The former was opened a few months ago by the Roman photographer Niccolò Fano in the once-working-class neighborhood of San Lorenzo to feature a program of photography and printing-related exhibitions. The latter, located in Mandrione, is a foundation established last fall by a young Rome-based collector couple Ilaria Bozzi and Flavio Ferri to present site-specific installations. Both spaces are away from the city’s noisy historical center, and a short distance from the streets of Pigneto, the city’s equivalent of Williamsburg.
It’s in this emergent context that GRANPALAZZO is rooted—and the fluidity of the scene could be read in the nature of the pop-up event itself, which refused to define itself as either an exhibition, a pop-up event, or a cosy small-scale fair. Featuring 18 artists brought by the same number of galleries, “GRANPALAZZO is a new and different experience,” Capata explains. “It was first conceived as an art show, and all the artists involved were supported by their own galleries to realize and show the works. The artworks were all for sale, and collectors could interact directly with the galleries over the course of the weekend in order to ask questions and make potentially deals in a smooth and relaxed way, without the pressure that normally you find at art fairs.”
Visitors encountered that laid-back atmosphere already in the silent and peaceful walk from the ancient gates of the village of Zagarolo to Palazzo Rospigliosi, a road distinguished by views of the forested valley that leads down to the town, as well as flower-decorated alleyways running off the path. Two fuchsia drapes bearing GRANPALAZZO’s logo hung down from the central windows of the palazzo’s façade to a greet new arrivals, and on Saturday morning a crowd of curious locals—accustomed to visiting the palace for seasonal wine events and village feasts—mixed with the black-clad jet-setters of the art world.
“Why are all these people speaking English in Zagarolo?” may have been a question running through the heads of locals, and the answer could be found in the multinational spectrum of the galleries taking part in the event, most of which flew in from abroad. Participants included the Zürich-based gallery BolteLang (which featured the sculptor Vanessa Billy), London’s Josh Lilley Gallery (Benedetto Pietromarchi), Amsterdam’s Stigter van Doesburg (Amalia Pica), and Karlsruhe’s Weingrüll (Sascha Pohle). Among the Italian exhibitors were the Milan-based Zero… (Giorgio Andreotta Calò), P420 from Bologna (Riccardo Baruzzi), and Galleria Tiziana Di Caro of Naples (Damir Oćko).
“We chose among some of the most interesting, serious, and consistent artists and galleries in the contemporary art scene,” says Ilaria Gianni, the co-founding curator. Walking around GRANPALAZZO, one could perceive an electric buzz in the air—the happy mood of likeminded talents brought together by a common cause. Asked why she was drawn to take part in the event, Ilaria Leoni, of the fledgling nomadic gallery Ermes, she said, “We immediately embraced the project because of our high regard for the quality of the initiative and its organizers.”
More than a conventional fair, where the drive for sales can obscure the art behind dollar signs, GRANPALAZZO genuinely gave the impression of a site-specific exhibition project where commerce took the back seat—and with each room hosting just one or two installations, the dealers were free to wander around chatting and meeting people here and there. Clearly, the participants were embracing the basic marketing concept that building strong relationships between buyers and sellers is a more successful long-term strategy than the hard sell.
“The great thing about GRANPALAZZO is that a curator has worked with all of the artists and the galleries involved to establish a relationship based on an intimate viewing experience and promoting a conversation,” said Josh Lilley, owner at the eponymous gallery in the London’s Fitzrovia neighborhood. The art scene of Rome, and Italy more broadly, felt newly relevant after touring the event. Its general vibe of sprezzatura was a potent part of its charm. As Capata says, “It was really important to us that our public appreciate the cosy and intimate dimension of our project, framed in a really different way compared to all the other contemporary art events around the world.”