This post is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian
Unlike today’s art market, American artists of the early 19th century had few galleries to represent them. While many art dealers were setting up shop in Manhattan’s wealthier areas, their focus was on representing elite European artists and serving the privileged social classes. As such, early American artists maintained a living through self-promotion and their personal networks.
All of this changed drastically during the middle of the century, when New Yorkers saw the construction of 15 West Tenth Street in 1857, which was later renumbered as 51, but is most commonly known as the Tenth Street Studio Building.
The first of its kind in the City, the Tenth Street Studio Building was conceptualized by architect Richard Morris Hunt and built by James Boorman Johnston. It provided artists with large, clean work areas and plenty of natural light, a vast improvement over the poorly-lit and disorganized spaces artists had grown accustomed to.
What made the Studio Building unique was the deliberate inclusion of a central exhibition room two stories high; surrounding the exhibition area were artist studios that were each interconnected by doorways. The Studio Building’s exhibition space provided artists with the opportunity to show their work and, more importantly, schedule regular artist receptions where visitors could find entertainment and view art. These lavish receptions impacted an artist’s social network greatly and added to the Studio Building’s desirability, which ultimately helped define Greenwich Village as the foremost bohemian locale.
As styles and tastes changed, the Tenth Street Studio Building began to attract more modern artists, and the building remained a vital artistic center in New York City until its demolition in the 1950s, nearly a full century after it was built. A number of important artists would come to share space here, either concurrently or in succession; they included Albert Beirstadt, John LaFarge, and Alexander Calder to name but a few.
Today, Manhattan’s creative hubs mirror current real estate trends, and as such, these areas are in rapid flux. Nonetheless, one is able to draw many parallels between the groundbreaking Tenth Street Studio Building and the receptions held there with the way current artists work in shared loft spaces and the open studio events and gallery walks that art admirers continue to enjoy today.