Tribeca’s Clock Tower Building is no stranger to illustrious tenants. In past lives, it was the home of the New York Society Library, the precursor to both the city’s mammoth public library system, and the Library of Congress. Then there was the Clocktower Gallery, an art institute created by P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center—which later merged with the Museum of Modern Art uptown to become MoMA PS1—founder Alanna Heiss. Jack Shainman Gallery continues that legacy with its latest outpost, The Hall, which opens there today.
Completed in 1894 by McKim, Mead, and White, considered the godfathers of Gilded Age architecture, the palazzo-style building is pure ornamental splendor: a preponderance of marble, Corinthian columns, and gilded ceilings. For the New York Life Insurance Company, its commissioning tenant, the building was a showpiece of the young city’s financial might. The Hall’s grand opening will take place in September with a new exhibition of sculptures by Nick Cave, but it soft launches tonight with Broken Spectre, a video installation by Richard Mosse that chronicles the destruction of the Amazon at the hands of greed and corruption.
Footage of the Amazonian ecology, both thriving and aflame, is shown alongside imagery of the forest’s Indigenous inhabitants, and plays out on a 60-foot LED screen. The Hall was a deeply intentional choice for Broken Spectre’s New York debut: the New York Life Insurance Company buoyed slow sales during its founding year of 1845 by branching out to the South to insure enslaved people as property. As the policies surged in popularity, the company grossly benefitted from its financial stake in enslavement before discontinuing the policies in 1848. Shainman and painter Carlos Vega, who are partners in business and life, spoke with Surface about the transformation, and how Shainman hopes the artists he represents engage with it.
How did you wrap your head around making this Renaissance Revival space a home for contemporary art?
CV: We knew right away that it would be a stunning venue for viewing art. I view it as an advantage that we can present contemporary art in the context of classic, timeless architecture. We want the building to work in dialogue with the art in interesting ways. The beauty and grandeur of The Hall certainly does that.
There have been some challenges, especially as we try to navigate the line between making the building new and vibrant while honoring its architectural history—namely, the building’s lack of wall space. But we look forward to those challenges and see them as an opportunity to find innovative install solutions. In the case of The Hall, we’re working on creating a system of temporary and movable walls so each artist can adjust to their own vision.
How will the gallery engage with the site’s history? As the Times pointed out, the New York Life Insurance Group “once insured the lives of enslaved people as ‘property.’”
JS: The building’s history is very important, and we want to allow our artists to engage with it directly. For some of our artists, it wouldn’t make sense for their practices. For others, it would create an interesting dialogue and build a deeper layer for their works to be understood in the context of the space’s historical significance. To that end, we’re leaving it up to them. It’ll be a journey of discovery for us all, but it’s something we’re always open to.
The gallery’s Kinderhook property, The School, was also a massive architectural undertaking. Can you fathom ever expanding the gallery into a turnkey space?
JS: I wish we were able to acquire a turnkey space, but I don’t think it exists for us. In our experience, when you take on a new space, a huge part of it is imagining what’s possible. If you’re taking over a space from a previous gallery, there’s always a desire to make it your own—to give the space your unique identity and accommodate your specific needs. We enjoy the challenge of it all, but it’s hard to imagine acquiring another space while we’re in the thick of everything with The Hall. I can’t even contemplate any more challenges! But then again, opening a gallery somewhere near a relaxing beach does sound nice…