Six years ago Joanne Mayhew of Pittsburgh followed hundreds of unknown, unconventional artists to Manhattan’s scummy East Village in search of low rent. There she made the smartest decision of her life: She took on the funny name Gracie Mansion (after the New York City mayor’s residence), quit painting and became one of the first art dealers to set up shop in the burned-out, druggy area. Today both Mayhew’s struggles and the East Village’s unrelieved scuzziness belong to the dim past. Gracie Mansion peddles her neighbors’ work to rich private collectors and the world’s best museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Inspired in part by her swift success, new East Village galleries are opening faster than anyone can count: Nearly 100 of them form the world’s newest artists’ ghetto and serve as a magnet for style-conscious youth everywhere. Several nights a week, seedily chic hordes cluster on neighborhood streets waiting to squish into gallery openings to socialize and maybe see some art.
This year the lively, eclectic—if sometimes amateurish—style championed in the East Village has become an international hit. Museums are sponsoring shows that highlight the work of Grade’s stars: the cheery cartoon-like drawings of Rodney Alan Greenblat, 25, for example, and the multicolored mosaics of beads and tubes of Rhonda Zwillinger, 35. “Unquestionably the East Village has shifted the mainstream of art,” says Patterson Sims, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “And Gracie Mansion is its most substantial force.”
Gracie, 39, who is surprisingly down-to-earth, doesn’t own the mink she wears at left, and her martinis are rarely served by her husband-partner, who goes by the surrealistic name of Sur Rodney (Sur). But their wild openings have made it fun and fashionable again to be an artist. Gracie has put on exhibits in a rented limo, in an abandoned beauty parlor and in the tiny bathroom of her apartment. Her latest gimmick is to raffle off a car to those who bought one of a series of $500 paintings by Mike Howard. Her other innovation is pricing. In one shop, all the art costs under $200. In her main gallery, even works by artists who sell regularly to museums go for less than $10,000.
Though critics complain that East Village art is more of a marketing coup than an aesthetic one, artists beg to get into Grade’s galleries. “There’s a goofiness here that I feel a part of,” says painter Judy Glantzman, 29.
Gracie and Sur, a one-time window-display designer, work 10-hour days to keep that carefree image alive. The job is made no easier by an invasion of yuppies, who—thanks in part to Grade’s success—are gentrifying the old neighborhood and even driving the artists out. But as the crowds swell in her gallery, Gracie Mansion’s future in the art world looks like smooth selling.