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Jack Shainman, the veteran New York dealer recognised for championing such influential artists as El Anatsui, Kerry James Marshall and Toyin Ojih Odutola, unveiled plans in 2022 to expand his eponymous gallery’s footprint with a new location in Tribeca’s historic Clock Tower Building. On 12 January, the ambitious project, at 46 Lafayette Street, will debut with an immersive exhibition by the Irish photographer and film-maker Richard Mosse, beginning the next chapter in Shainman’s storied four-decade career.

“It has been a longstanding desire to have a venue where we can mount large exhibitions to keep up with the ambitions of our artists,” Shainman, who has been headquartered in the Chelsea gallery district since 1997, told The Art Newspaper on a recent tour. He and his spouse, the painter Carlos Vega, who oversees the project’s logistical and creative aspects, had been searching for several years before discovering the landmarked building, originally designed by Stephen Decatur Hatch and completed by architecture firm McKim, Mead & White in 1898.

Shainman laughs, remembering the first time he and Vega toured the building with their real estate agent. “We really tried to keep a poker face,” he says. “But there’s a video, and you can hear us screaming. The space really seduced us. Generations don’t even know this exists!”

Jack Shainman has been a fixture in the New York gallery scene for four decades

The new gallery occupies 20,000 sq. ft at the eastern end of 108 Leonard Street, a block-long Italian Renaissance Revival building that was once home to the New York Life Insurance Company. The entrance at 46 Lafayette Street opens onto what will be the primary exhibition space: a former Beaux-Arts bank hall with 29ft-high coffered ceilings, arched windows and towering white marble columns. Monumental staircases ascend to the mezzanine and second floor, earmarked for offices, as well as additional public exhibition spaces and private viewing rooms.

Majestic architecture

Shainman reportedly acquired the Clock Tower space for $20m and was anticipating making up to $4m worth of renovations. Overseeing its renewal and preservation is the Málaga-based architect Gloria Vega Martín, the couple’s niece, whose on-site work has included removing some of the interior walls between enclosed spaces to create interconnected pathways for more fluid movement.

Even after two and a half years of renovations and numerous consultations with New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Shainman says he remains captivated by the building’s majestic architecture and intricate detailing—a sharp contrast with his West 20th Street gallery’s pristine white walls and rectilinearity. He currently plans for the Clock Tower space to host four major long-term exhibitions a year.

More than anything, we wanted this space for how it will allow our artists to realise their visions without encumbrance

Jack Shainman, gallerist

“More than anything, we wanted this space for how it will allow our artists to realise their visions without encumbrance,” he says. “We so adore our Chelsea home, but we often find ourselves limited by what we can physically fit into the space. Being able to give our artists free reign to create, without spatial confines, is the strongest benefit we can imagine.”

A long road

Shainman’s instincts and boundless enthusiasm have been paramount to his success. His lifelong passion for contemporary art began in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where at a young age he began collecting works by students at Williams College. His fervour for discovering and acquiring art persisted into adulthood, and in 1984, Shainman co-founded his first gallery in Washington, DC with his then-partner, the painter Claude Simard.

In 1986, the pair moved to New York to open a gallery in the East Village, followed by moves to Soho and then Chelsea. Their global search for artists started in Europe, with then-rising talents such as German sculptor Isa Genzken, and later expanded to Africa and the Middle East as well as the US.

By the time Simard died in 2014, Shainman and the gallery had built a strong reputation for nurturing the careers of emerging and mid-career artists who confront weighty, socially conscious themes. The dealer’s programme now counts as one of the most respected in the world, pairing the work of late visionaries such as Barkley L. Hendricks and Gordon Parks with living artists such as Nick Cave and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The Clock Tower Building is not Shainman’s first foray into transforming historic buildings into ambitious exhibition spaces. In 2014, the gallery established The School, a 30,000 sq. ft outpost in a former high school in the upstate New York town of Kinderhook, devoted to showcasing expansive, multi-disciplinary projects. “With such positive responses to our shows [in Kinderhook], we almost felt obligated to continue to expand within the city as well,” Shainman says.

His Tribeca expansion has coincided with a period of uncertainty in the art market, but the dealer sees such turbulence as an inevitable part of growing a gallery over the decades. “The timing is more a matter of opportunity than a strategic decision. Of course, we can never predict what will happen in the future and what challenges we will face,” he says. “But we can control our approach to the unexpected.”

On this point, Shainman is practicing what he preaches when it comes to the Clock Tower site’s architectural and logistical obstacles, such as limited blank wall space in the main exhibition hall and several restraints on renovating, due to the building’s landmark status. He sees these as chances for innovative solutions. “What’s exciting about the space is that it’s always going to be transforming,” he says. “The challenge of creating temporary structures to exhibit artworks of all different mediums is stimulating. There are so many possibilities”

To kick off the 2024 programme, Shainman will show Mosse’s immense video work, Broken Spectre (2018-22). Spanning a 20m panoramic screen in the gallery’s central space, the film delves into the challenges facing the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Chronicling the impacts of deforestation and industrial expansion from 2018 through 2021, it weaves together narratives of environmental degradation, human impact and non-human conflicts. The gallery will close for a second phase of renovations in March, with plans to reopen in September to show a new body of work by the celebrated interdisciplinary artist Nick Cave.

Will Shainman be done expanding at that point? Perhaps a comment he made about the scope of his artist roster will apply here, too: “Well, I’m not looking, [but] always looking.”

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