Downtown Manhattan’s galleries and bars have started to hum again after almost two months of silence brought on by coronavirus. With most artists working from home while their dealers operate on the internet and the bars that serve them surviving on to-go drinks, the scene is figuring out its new normal along with the rest of the city. Last week I caught up with some of the people still working behind it.
In recent days, Flats Fixed reopened with tacos, cocktails and beers to go. Bartender Marcel Varela told me the previous Friday was “very busy” and that he was happy to be back to work. “I’ve worked in Union Square for 18 years, most of it at Republic before they closed. I feel like I’m an institution here.”
Nearby lives Solas Studio owner Liam Cotter, who was heading out to his office in Flatiron, where he has been making and selling prints of artists’ work through his online Stay-at-Home sale. “We’re giving all the profits after the cost of prints, which start at $35 and up,” Cotter told me. “Any artist is free to submit their work to the site and we’re excited to have people like SAMO legend Al Diaz on the roster to bring us attention.” During the crisis, Cotter has sold 10 prints by photographer David Vega, whose exhibition he hosted in February.
Walking to Soho, I met up with another art dealer, Irv Ortega, who was working at C.J. Yao Gallery on Greene Street to finalize the sale— a big one, especially during the pandemic— of an original Keith Haring piece from 1982. “I have to sit down to do the authentication and handle the specifics of it being an international sale.” Haring’s isn’t the only work he’s representing. “I’ve got new stuff by mixed-media artist KAWS and original flower paintings by Andy Warhol.”
Another one of Ortega’s artists, painter Shaun Lee, was also downtown and drove up in his Dodge Challenger so they could carpool back to their homes in Queens. “I’ve been mostly by myself in Jamaica and it’s good to be back out here,” Lee told me. “Like, I haven’t seen Irv in two months. Been busy, though, I’ve been working on four commissions during this whole thing.”
Hanging out with them was Soho native Max Strautmanis, who had lived his whole life in the neighborhood and manages the Chrome Industries store in nearby Nolita. He’s bummed after losing his job of seven years with the messenger bag company. “I’ve never been on unemployment in my life, but because I had a steady job it wasn’t too much of a problem,” he said. “I don’t know when I’m gonna go back to the store but Chrome is still online and right now they’re expanding the pro deal to all the [working] riders out there.”
While we talked, a gorgeous 1966 Ford Ranch Wagon pulled in and the giant car had the vacant block all to itself. Its owner, artist Dylan Egon, told us he restored it 10 years ago and had it painted in the colors of the Shelby racing team. Egon was in the neighborhood putting up his wheat-paste posters on boarded-up storefronts in tribute to the COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey. “I made this design to honor those lives lost and we’ve been selling prints of them to raising money for those affected.”
Egon’s posters shared the plywood with portraits produced by the Inside Out Project, honoring people working during this recent pandemic. Some featured police officers that were working in Soho. At one point, an Officer Torres walked by and recognized his co-workers. Torres said he normally works in the Movie/TV Unit of Traffic Control Division but was currently aiding the local precinct. “I can’t wait for that industry to start up again, but the film crews are gonna have to make changes too,” he said. “I mean, for example, craft-service snacks are going to have to all be individually wrapped, and they’re gonna have to eat lunch in shifts.”
Looking for a drink, I followed Strautmanis over to the Lower East Side where Ludlow Street standby Iggy’s Keltic Lounge has been serving to-go drinks out of their front window since the start of the bar closures. Longtime bartender Nina explained that there was a tense truce between the heavy police presence and the behavior of cooped-up drinkers. “We have to be super aggressive about keeping people away from the front and across the street. The NYPD and fire department have been awesome but they don’t hesitate to stay on top of us. Our best customers are the dogwalkers because they just take their drinks and keep on moving.”
I finished up my night by running into street artists AZEL and Armando Nin, who were also walking over to Iggy’s for a drink. Having been laid off from a visual merchandizing gig for a department store, Nin has been documenting his free time on a 20-year-old Hi-8 video camera. “Everything’s washing away right now,” the LES native told me. “This is giving the city back its edge. And look, I don’t even know who the president is, really. Now, when I watch the governor, though, I have so much love for the city. And I talk to all the old people that are walking around right now. It’s crazy, New York’s gonna change, but maybe just a little bit.”
Photos by Nick McManus.