In New York City apartment buildings where collective decision-making can cause months of tension, there is little that highlights the potential divide so clearly as choosing paintings for the lobby.
Where Neighborly Agreement Is Scarce, Finding Consensus on Art in the Lobby
Published: December 10, 2012 in The New York Times. Photograph by Fred R. Conrad
The spaces are often teeny and the prices are generally enormous, but perhaps the most irritating feature of living in New York City condominiums and co-ops lies past the wallet and outside the apartment door: collective decision-making among dozens, even hundreds, of neighbors.
The board found a creative solution for decorating the elevator vestibules, though the lobby of the building is bereft of artwork.
Selecting a potted plant to put outside the entrance can require months of discussion and leave a residue of tension for years. But nothing is so likely to highlight the limits of consensus than the deeply subjective choice of what to hang in a common space — art.
Up and down the streets and avenues of one of the great art capitals of the world, the lobbies and hallways of even the most lavish apartment buildings are lined with demure landscapes, or lazy black-and-white photographs, whose highest virtue is that they will offend no one. But several buildings around the city have managed a more creative approach.
One such building is 350 Bleecker Street, a co-op in Greenwich Village with about 110 units that has set up a rotating gallery that essentially allows shareholders to skip the decision-making process.
“When we started to discuss what the lobby would look like, I said the only thing I care about is that there should be art on the walls,” said Robinson Holloway, a former sportswriter and a painter who was on the building’s most recent lobby design committee.
“That dropped like a little bomb into the conversation,” Ms. Holloway continued. “Everybody said, ‘That’s impossible,’ because no one can agree on art.”
So for the past six years or so, the lobby has hosted a new show every six weeks. The building displayed work by Nina Boesch, who made pictures entirely out of MetroCards, and sold 42 pieces during that six weeks, both to building residents and to people who saw the art through the lobby’s glass wall and came in to inquire.
The current exhibition, called “Sugar and Fat,” is by Pamela Talese. It includes paintings of doughnuts and a fudge tart.
And then there was a show in which paintings of flaming shipwrecks lined the walls. That was less popular than some other shows.
“If you like it, you can buy it,” said Armanda Squadrilli, a building resident who is a senior vice president at the real estate firm Douglas Elliman. “And if you don’t like it, it’ll be gone in a few weeks.”
Ms. Holloway selects the works, makes little labels for them and usually holds a modest party in the lobby to inaugurate each exhibition. Her only requirement is that she can get the art on the walls, and that it is different from the show that came before. With expenses like gas and label paper, it costs the building only $750 a year, and about five hours of Ms. Hollaway’s time per artist. In return for doing all the work, she makes decisions on her own.
“We probably won’t have a Schnabel in our lobby, but we get a lot of fun things,” Ms. Holloway said. “And every six weeks, the building talks about art — even if it’s to say, ‘Ooohh, that other one was better.’ ”
Marjorie Hilton, an interior designer who has worked on several lobbies, said the art was only the most difficult piece of what was always a fraught puzzle. Once, Ms. Hilton recounted, the residents of a building complained about a piece of art she selected for the lobby because they did not like the color red. Today, she said, she will turn down a job if the lobby committee comprises more than three people.
Even if a building’s board members are capable of reaching a swift consensus, they will soon encounter an equally intractable problem. The good stuff is not cheap.
But at 251 West 19th Street, a condominium in Chelsea, they have found a way around those huge prices. When they could not afford to buy, they decided to rent.
This fall, the building mounted nine large photographs, one on the wall of each elevator vestibule from the second floor up to the 10th, from a series called “Lost in My Life” by the artist Rachel Perry Welty. Each picture shows Ms. Welty obscured by the detritus of everyday life — a sea of colorful twist-ties in one photograph, and rows of receipts or a blanket of price tags in others.
Ms. Welty is represented by the nearby Yancey Richardson Gallery, which specializes in fine-art photography. The Ms. Richardson for whom the gallery is named has lived at 251 West 19th Street for more than 30 years, with her husband, Mark, the president of the condo board.
Mr. Richardson saw the art at his wife’s gallery and flipped for it, he said, so he tried to persuade the board to buy a few pieces. But the building had had a costly couple of years, which included performing maintenance on the facade and redoing the lobby — the old lobby was alternately described by two apartment owners as “ugly” and like “a border crossing.” The building even had to tear down and rebuild a penthouse in response to a lawsuit. Mr. Richardson failed to rally enough support to buy the pictures, and the gallery’s photos sold out.
But Mr. Richardson did have success persuading his wife to lease the artist’s proofs to the building for five years. He says it costs about $15 per month for each of the building’s 44 units.
“A lot of people who have this kind of art in their living room are very, very rich people, but this is not a very, very rich building,” said Leonard Steinberg, a managing director at Douglas Elliman who owns an apartment in the building that he rents out. “They are enjoying art of a caliber they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
With the hallways taken care of, the board turned its attention to a bare wall at the back of the lobby — which, as it happens, proved to be difficult. So while board members battled over it, Mr. Richardson said they decided to make it an accent wall in the interim.
“We tried a bunch of colors, and we got notes stuck up there going, ‘I hate this color!’ ” Mr. Richardson said, with a remarkable degree of good humor. “Anonymous stickies. So we kept changing it until the notes went away.”
Today the wall has settled into a fiery reddish orange. The board has yet to decide what to do about the art.