If Chelsea were to abruptly sink into the Hudson this fall, the city’s main art scene would be south of Houston again. The New Museum of Contemporary Art won’t open at 235 Bowery until December 1, but it’s already anchoring a scene that’s scrappier and more eclectic than the West Twenties. Behind the twenty-odd downtown galleries that will be competing for your Saturday are hardened Soho nonprofit veterans, heat-seeking Williamsburgers, uptown art advisers, “It” girls, and one big Chelsea dealer (so far).
It’s not the first time the museum has filled this role. When it opened on lower Broadway in 1983, director Lisa Phillips recalls, “the area was almost dangerous. We really helped to attract galleries and retail, and we thought, Let’s do that again.” Inside the shimmery new building will be a theater, three full-floor exhibit spaces, and a glass gallery dedicated to founder Marcia Tucker. The first show, “Unmonumental,” is an on-trend look at assemblage, that homely approach to artmaking. It perfectly fits this stretch of the Bowery, where all the condos in the world can’t quite erase the shabbiness. “It has such a different character from Chelsea,” says Phillips. “I don’t think it will ever be like that.”