The High Line Nine, a rectangular building nestled under the High Line in Chelsea that houses nine art galleries, was gearing up for a busy year before the pandemic.
“We had a full traditional exhibition schedule for the fall,” said High Line Nine manager Christina Maxwell. “We had a full house with typical art galleries, design and furniture tenants, all of which have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.”
Maxwell, who was promoted to her role in mid-March — right as COVID-19 hit — was determined to find a way to keep the artistic heartbeat of the neighborhood alive and show the resilience of New Yorkers in these uncertain times.
“I think this is a time when everyone needs a little bit of hope that things are just on pause and they are not over forever,” she said. “The art world has always been a source of connection and a source of aspiring to brighter days and better things. We wanted to find a way to create that.”
The gallery partnered with art advisory firm Sugarlift on a concept that would allow it to highlight artists in an innovative, coronavirus-friendly way.
They came up with the idea of a residency program for New York-based artists that runs from July 1 to Aug. 15.
Sugarlift provided a list of 15 artists that was narrowed down to five: Nicolas V. Sanchez, Vicky Barranguet, Casey Baugh, Luke Baggott and Tony “Rubin415” Sjöman.
In order to bring the exhibition to life, High Line Nine and Sugarlift set each artist up in their own glass-enclosed studio. Art enthusiasts traversing through the gallery would be able to watch the artists work on new projects that speak to the theme of “reimagination.”
Sugarlift, which runs an online art marketplace, suggested the exhibit be elevated beyond a storefront concept by adding QR codes to each gallery. Once scanned via mobile phone, customers are directed to Sugarlift’s website, which provides information on each artist and allows them to purchase their works.
Artwork ranges from $300 to tens of thousands of dollars. Sales have been “under $10,000” so far, according to Hana Foster, head of advisory at Sugarlift, who noted that the residency is less about selling art than giving artists a chance to garner new contacts and become comfortable selling their art online.
Nonetheless, Foster attributed slow sales to the challenge of selling high-priced art to customers off the street, as well as the fact that the free exhibit is just being discovered.
Foot traffic in the gallery, which runs along 10th Avenue and has an entrance on 27th and 28th streets, has been improving since the High Line reopened to limited guests in mid-July. While the exhibition’s hours are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, there’s “steady flow” of traffic between noon and 5pm, when most artists are working, High Line Nine said.
As for sales, those have been picking up, too, Foster said, noting that less expensive pieces under $1,000 are “selling like hotcakes.”
That’s been true for Nicolas V. Sanchez, a Mexican-American artist whose small, lifelike ballpoint pen portraits have been commissioned by the likes of Brooke Shields, Liev Schrieber and Padma Lakshmi for portraits.
The artist jumped at the chance to do the residency program, after a full schedule of art shows, exhibits and business travel was wiped away by the pandemic.
“When that opportunity is taken away, artists are hit financially and they are not able to connect with art lovers and sell their work,” he said, explaining that High Line Nine gave him a unique opportunity to experiment with his craft.
The gallery set up a photoshoot with Ballet Nepantla, a traditional Mexican dance group, on the roof of the Zaha Hadid building across the street, Sanchez painted the dancers as they performed in watercolor, a new medium for the artist. Sanchez is using the watercolors as inspiration for the 20-foot canvases he is painting in oil during the residency.
For street artist Rubin, whose colorful geometric works can be seen on the sides of buildings in Manhattan, Queens, Jersey City and Washington, D.C., the program has been a lifesaver. The artist lost his studio due to the economic fallout of the pandemic and he had to move his workspace to his three-year-old daughter’s bedroom.
Meanwhile, for Vicky Barranguet, a Uruguayan abstract artist, the residency has reignited her creative flame after months of feeling depressed under quarantine-lockdown in her Harlem apartment.
“In the beginning I stopped painting,” the artist said, from her High Line Nine sun-flooded studio last week. “This has been such an amazing push to work.”
Surrounded by several colorful large-scale canvases she painted in the last four weeks, Barranguet is now on a tear and has a surplus of inventory and new contacts.
During the residency her work caught the attention of Brian Brooks, an award-winning choreographer and dancer, who lives in the neighborhood. One day, after hours of watching Barranguet paint, Brooks asked if he could collaborate with her.
He returned the next day with a camera and filmed himself interpreting the strokes of Barranguet’s paintbrush as the artist moved nimbly across the large-scale canvas, wildly applying colors.
The duo posted the performance to their personal Instagram accounts and plan to work together again.
“I loved it,” Barranguet said of the collaboration. ”I always had this idea of people dancing in front of my paintings.”