Drab to Fab: How SoHo Artists Made The Nabe An Art Hub

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January 27, 2021
soho artists

It’s hard to imagine fashionable, bustling SoHo as an undesirable neighborhood, but in the early 20th century it was just that. In fact, as many businesses that had once operated there left it largely vacant, some referred to this section of lower Manhattan as “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” Thankfully, New York City’s artists saw potential. In the late 1960s, drawn to the large, affordable spaces, a community of SoHo artists converted much of the area’s lofts into studios and the transformation began. Here’s a closer look at how that happened.

How the SoHo art scene earned its reputation

According to Aaron Shkuda, who wrote “The Lofts of SoHo,” which is a history of the neighborhood as a space for artists, nobody had shortened South of Houston Street into SoHo until the mid 20th century. But as the neighborhood began to emerge as a center for New York City arts, and heavily reported in the news, the media needed a way to refer to it, and SoHo was christened. That was a signal that real change was coming to this section of New York — once known for industry — but now on its way to becoming one of the coolest spaces around.

Donald Judd establishes his SoHo residence

One of the most famous artists to live and work in SoHo was Donald Judd, the pioneering minimalist sculptor. In 1968, he discovered that real estate prices in SoHo were so low that he could purchase an entire five-story building – 101 Spring Street. Judd used the building as both a home and a studio, and created several works specifically designed for it.

Today, the Judd Foundation offers guided tours of the renovated space. Like the man and his art, the rooms are austere and unadorned, but they have a raw energy and a clean beauty to them. Visiting the Judd Foundation on 101 Spring Street will take you back to SoHo in its artistic heyday.

Artists fight for SoHo

At the same time New York’s artists were transforming SoHo, the city was planning to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMAX), a ten-lane highway that would have demolished this area. In response, the local community organized Artists Against the Expressway, ultimately helping to defeat the construction plans and preserving the unique cast iron architecture of the neighborhood. Julie Finch, a dancer and the wife of Donald Judd, was a key figure in this fight.

Many SoHo artists moved their apartments and galleries to Chelsea

Once the artistic bonafides of SoHo had been established, property prices began rising. For some artists, the rent increases became too much in SoHo. Several prominent galleries, such as Montserrat Contemporary Art, decamped further north in the city, to Chelsea, which has become an artistic center of its own.  However, even after moving, many galleries retained aspects from their SoHo lineage. SOHO20, a gallery and non-profit dedicated to promoting women artists, has kept the SoHo name in its title even as it has moved, first from SoHo to Chelsea, and now to Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Visiting art galleries in SoHo

Boasting more than 15 art galleries, SoHo provides a place to see and appreciate art throughout the neighborhood. Often occupying ground-level spaces with large windows, these spaces are an attraction even for people without the budget or inclination to purchase art. Since galleries are set up like a small, carefully curated museum, many New Yorkers enjoy stopping in at galleries as part of any trip to SoHo.

Today’s SoHo has much to offer residents and visitors alike. But it owes its history — and very existence — to the pioneering artists who started it all.

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