“Companion Species (Speech bubble)” by Marie Watt

Foot traffic to Lower East Side art galleries is usually stagnant during the summer months, and it has been even more so during the pandemic. Marc Straus, owner of the Marc Straus gallery on Grand Street, decided to do something about that. He partnered with other galleries in the neighborhood and last Thursday, more than 45 of them opened in the evening to showcase their exhibitions. 

According to Straus, “The art business is far more impacted than people know.” In March, the New Dealers Alliance, a downtown-based nonprofit supporting small and mid-size galleries, released a petition calling for government relief programs for struggling galleries. “If no action is taken,” the petition warned, “these businesses will not survive and many artists and art workers will be left without a support system.” NADA also set up grants for small galleries across the country, and is now accepting a second round of applications for grants up to $5,000

These efforts have not been enough for Lower East Side galleries like Lesley Heller or Larrie, which permanently closed in April and July after being in the neighborhood for many years. “We always had trouble paying rent,” Larrie’s owner told Forbes. “It escalated really quickly with COVID.” Although there are no official reports on how many galleries have permanently closed, a Google Map search indicates that there are at least five other galleries “temporarily closed” in the area, like Scaramouche and IFAC Arts, among others. 

“We want to bring a lot of people into our galleries, and have people visit as many galleries as possible,” Straus said of his L.E.S. Third Thursdays initiative. “Online events are not the same experience. I’m also a collector and it’s hard for me to buy something I can’t see in person.” 

“Turtle Island” by Marie Watt

Straus compared the current slowdown in the industry with the art market collapse in the 1990s. According to him, many talented and promising young artists back then couldn’t regain visibility after the crash, and he is worried that might happen again with new artists entering the industry now. 

In August, Straus first partnered with Miguel Abreu, another owner of a contemporary art gallery in the area, to open late on the third Thursday of the month. They started approaching other owners directly; by September, 30 other galleries eagerly joined in. 

As a Lower East Side native, Straus believes the area has a strong community of galleries that foster a sense of welcome, compared to other neighborhoods with post-industrial galleries. “Chelsea has great galleries, but it’s sterile compared to everything down here. To me, this remains an area where [artists] come in and take risks.”

The opening reception on Thursday celebrated the solo gallery show of Marie Watt, a Native American artist from Seattle. Although her work has been on view at The Whitney Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery and in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it was the first time she had a solo exhibition in the Northeast. 

Watt’s themes include mythologies and history from her heritage, interwoven with references to international politics and pop culture. She also includes perceptions of close family members to represent the interconnectedness of her tribe, the Seneca Nation of Indians. “In the Native community, we acknowledge our relatedness, which includes extended family, nature and animals,” she said. 

“This is her first [solo] show in New York and it almost sold out, which wouldn’t happen without having events like the one we set up,” Straus said, referring to Third Thursdays.

Israel Meza Moreno, known as Moris, is also having his first solo exhibition with the gallery. Moris lives and works in a cartel-run area on the outskirts of Mexico City. His work represents urban issues and marginalized communities. 

“Artists are struggling now and making work no one has asked them to make,” Straus said. “If they can find a gallery to hear their voice and give them a platform, then they have a shot.”

Straus’ plan is to continue “L.E.S Third Thursdays” until November and resume in January.