Community Comes First at Ethan James Green’s New York Life Gallery

Artist-run and artist-led, this Canal Street space isn’t interested in being just another traditional gallery.

A bright gallery space with paintings on easels
Installation view of ‘Sleeping Beauties,’ New York Life Gallery, 2023. Photography by On White Wall, courtesy of New York Life Gallery

There’s graffiti on the door of 167-169 Canal Street, along with its address in bold red block letters on the glass and, behind that, a long set of stairs cascading upward. I’m buzzed in, and I wind my way up five flights to a brick space painted white. Light from New York’s gray winter sky floods in through the windows overlooking Canal and Elizabeth streets below and the skylight above. I’m standing in New York Life Gallery, where the latest exhibition is in flux.

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The gallery was founded in 2022 by photographer Ethan James Green—whose work has graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, W and countless other publications—with the idea of organizing the creative energy that already flowed through the space. It was previously (and occasionally still is) his photography studio and a place where visiting friends and colleagues would often begin to collaborate on their own. Green’s goal was not to create yet another traditional art gallery but to create a space that was artist-run and artist-led, community-forward, accessible and inviting.

Many of Green’s philosophies about running an art gallery come from his own experiences as a photographer. “The artist always knows best” when it comes to creating a show of their work. “I’ve worked on books. I’ve worked a lot in the commercial space, the editorial space. And in two of those, there’s a lot of compromise that has to happen and you have to really pick your battles. But in those moments, I have had things come out, your name’s on it, and it’s not representing you and it’s just a very frustrating thing,” he says. “I’ve been so particular about my work since the beginning, that not allowing someone else to do the same would feel just wrong.”

A photo of seagulls swarming on the beach
Daniel Arnold, ‘Coney Island (15th and Riegelmann Boardwalk), 2018, Chromogenic print, 45 x 30 in (114.3 x 76.2 cm). © Daniel Arnold, courtesy of New York Life Gallery

Photographer Daniel Arnold, whose work has been positively reviewed by outlets as diverse as The New York Times and MTV, had a successful show at the gallery in late 2023—his first ever. He had never shown his work previously precisely because he hadn’t found a space that really represented him as an artist. He remembered a decade ago seeing galleries in Los Angeles that felt, as he says, “clubhouse-y,” with a communal energy, but he rarely found that in New York, having shown only twice before. “It feels like in those ten years that has changed so much, and you can bypass, I don’t want to alienate anybody but, like the kind of corny elitism of known galleries and do something that feels communal and collaborative,” he says.

His experience at the New York Life Gallery had the community vibe he was looking for. “I’ve avoided galleries,” he explained. “Not that they’re banging down my door or anything, but something like this that feels like sort of a family situation is so much more appealing. It feels so much safer and so much more interesting, to be more experimental and not just show my most efficient, greatest hits that will sell the most.”

A self portrait of a shirtless painter painting
Leroy E. Mitchell, Jr., ‘Self-Portrait,’ 1949, Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 in (51 x 66 cm). Image courtesy of New York Life Gallery

Green and gallery director Caroline Kelley arrive at exhibition ideas by instinct and by chance, working with artists both emerging and established, with archives and estates. “We’re just kind of going with the flow,” Green says. “Everything that we’ve done so far has been really organic. At the end of every show, the next show reveals itself, whether it’s someone walking in, whether it’s a discussion with someone at an opening or some programming.”

Their first show, featuring the work of late artist Steven Cuffie, came to be because Green’s friend Marcus Cuffie asked to use Green’s scanner to digitize their father’s photography archive. Green loved the work Marcus was scanning, and the work became the subject of the New York Life Gallery’s debut exhibition in October of 2022. Similarly, when artist and illustrator Drake Carr asked to use Green’s studio space to draw people, the output became a gallery exhibition in early 2023.

He and Kelley feel no need to rush to conform to a typical hamster-wheel-esque art world schedule, and that has been liberating. “There’s a certain freedom to starting a gallery because you don’t have to have a roster of artists, you don’t need necessarily to do these shows that are two months on, a weekend install, another two months,” Kelley says. “What’s the rush?”

On view now is “Salon,” an “expansive synthesis of New York Life Gallery’s collection” that features work from the gallery’s previous shows: photography from Cuffie’s archives, illustrations by Carr and selections from their group show of 20th-century painters, in addition to Arnold’s work. The gallery is currently open Thursday through Saturday, from 12 to 6 p.m. or by appointment.

A bright gallery space with photos on the wall
Installation view of ‘Daniel Arnold: New York Life,’ New York Life Gallery, 2023. Photography by On White Wall, courtesy of New York Life Gallery

The theme of accessibility remains strong in this way, but also in the gallery’s production of zines. They’re a way to purchase a publication featuring an artist’s work that are, of course, art on their own, and can be more affordable. One features previously unpublished black and white nudes by photographer Victor Arimondi, originally shot in the 1970s; another a collection of Carr’s drawings made on-site and behind-the-scenes images taken while they were being produced. The next one they’re working on is called “Hot Guy,” featuring tintypes of attractive men from the 1800s.

“Our mission is just to make art more approachable,” Green says. “I started collecting myself three years ago and I love it. I would like more people our age to start to test it out. We have a range of works that are available. Some of them are much more affordable than others. We hope to be a gallery that people can come to to start collecting. This could be your first stop and we’ll walk you through it.”

Community Comes First at Ethan James Green’s New York Life Gallery