Next month, one of the most anticipated groundbreakings in the city is set to take place at the corner of 57th Street and the Hudson River. There, the Durst Organization will sink its shovels in preparation for Bjarke Ingel’s unusual apartment pyramid. Before that fanfare begins, another triangular structure has quietly risen on the lot, only the latest project to occupy the not-quite dormant site. The giant white tent is this year’s home for nomadic SCOPE art fair.
“I was hoping if we built it, they would come, and so far, they have come,” Alexis Hubshman said. “This is easily our best year yet.”
It does not hurt that the tent is just a block north of Pier 94, where the Armory Show has camped out for the past few decades. “I would be lying if I said that the convenience of it wasn’t important,” Mr. Hubshman said.
SCOPE will not be able to pitch its tent here next year, as the lot will be an active construction site, but for both the fair and the Durst Organization, it has been a happy marriage. “I thought it was a great idea,” Douglas Durst said in an interview. “A vacant space doesn’t look good and it attracts problems. It doesn’t do anybody any good sitting empty, so if it gives a benefit to someone else, we’re happy to do it.”
The recession has left the city with hundreds if not thousands of vacant lots, stalled sites and empty storefronts. While few landlords have been willing to take the risks, a handful have thrown their support behind the pop-up shop or the temporary art installation. On a grander scale, some developers are giving up entire sites to interim uses, from the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgusburg on the nascent plot where a third Edge tower will rise to the Alexandria Center on the East Side, where Tom Colicchio has built an urban garden in the sky supplying his chefs at the Riverpark restaurant next door.
For the Dursts, this is not exactly new territory. “Whenever we have a space we can‘t do anything with, we provide it to the public where we can,” Mr. Durst said.
As far back as the 1970s, the family let an art and antiques market open on the weekends on the site that would become Manhattan Plaza, the affordable artists colony on West 43rd Street in Hells Kitchen. At the West 57th Street site, SCOPE is not the first group to arrive. The Big Apple circus recently turned the site into a sideshow of sorts, where the clowns camped out with their trailers. And before that, Mr. Durst’s daughter Anita brought her arts group Chashama in, when the old Artkraft Strauss building was still standing. She used it as studio space until the building was torn down two years ago.
It was actually Ms. Durst that Mr. Hubshman approached about hosting SCOPE there. He even tried to buy the site, which he said he had had his eye on for some years, after a decade of bouncing around the city.
“When I started my gallery, we were the first gallery in the Meatpacking District, this was 1997,” Mr. Hubshman recalled. “We were too young to immediately get into any of the art fairs. I said fuck that—excuse my French—so we decided to start our own with a bunch of other young galleries.”
SCOPE began by renting out about around 20 hotel rooms at the Gershwin near Madison Square. Then, the fair was in May, timed to all the spring auctions. In 2004, it was the first thing into the Gansevoort Hotel, even before the guests, where it took over 80 rooms. “There was art, performance, music, film, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and great energy,” Mr. Hubshman said.
A few years later, he outgrew the hotels and moved into Damrosh Park at Lincoln Center, until their renovations forced him out. Last year he wound up at the Massive St. Johns building in Hudson Square, a little far from the action for his taste. For next year, he said he has a few option in play in the city, some in the neighborhood. “This has been our biggest year ever, so I really hope we can come back to this spot,” Mr. Hubshman said.
Whether it will be another unconventional space seems unlikely. Mr. Durst thinks more developers should be doing their part to enliven the dormant parts of the city, even as they refuse. “Not enough people want to take the risks,” he said.
There is one thing he will not take a risk on: the SCOPE art fair. “I drove by with my grandson the other day,” Mr. Durst said. “It looks nice from the outside, but I asked him if it was any good inside. He said no. I trust his judgment as an art critic.” He then added that his grandson will turn seven years old in two months.