Citizen of Tribeca | Spotlight on the Hal Bromm Gallery

Because this site focuses on the news, businesses that have been around for a while – and that make this neighborhood special – aren’t getting the coverage they should. The Spotlight series is a feature for GOs.

Hal Bromm opened his eponymous gallery here in 1976 – the first strand of DNA for what is now a true Tribeca Gallery District. He started in Franklin in 1976, moved to 10 Beach, then moved to 90 West Broadway in 1978, where he has been ever since. To see now: a solo exhibition by Lucio Pozzi entitled “Time and Again: 1974/2018/2021”. He also served on CB1 for 12 years, chaired the Council of Historic Districts, and established the Knowlton Township Historical Commission in New Jersey.

What brought you to Tribeca?
I had friends in Soho and looked around but I liked this neighborhood because it wasn’t really a neighborhood. I loved that it was kind of no mans land. A friend had taken a floor in a cheese warehouse [10 Beach] – $ 250 per month for the fourth floor. I took a floor there and stayed there for nearly five years. At one point the owner of the building told us he had terminal cancer and had to sell the building and asked if we all wanted to buy it. It was obvious to me, but everyone was in a panic because they were used to being renters. So I bought the building myself by borrowing money from someone I knew. Eventually I co-operated the building and everyone bought their floor for $ 20-25,000.

How did you get started in this business?
I worked for an architectural firm and did all the interiors for the board members and executives of Exxon (then Standard Oil of New Jersey) as they moved into a new office tower that ‘they had built. In 1973, I left the architectural firm and created my own design firm at 10 Beach, specializing in space planning, interior design and artistic consulting. I received an offer to run a civil design firm in London for two years and when I returned here in 1975 I brought in the work of a group of young British artists whom I knew through David Hockney, who I met through Henry Geldzahler, who was curator at the Met. He was a regular at the Odeon in its early days. A great character.

When I was coming back to New York, I said to the whole group, why don’t you give me a job and I do a show in my loft? They did and I did. It was called New London in New York. And that was the first show I put on. Friends who saw this said you should have a gallery. And a guy said there’s a great space on Franklin, you should rent it. And I did.

The only downside was that it was the top floor of a five story building. The deal was that the elevator operator would bring people if he was there. One day a famous art critic came to see the show and the elevator didn’t come, so he went up five flights of stairs. And there he was, out of breath, and I said we had to get out of here. I started to explore the neighborhood and this building [90 West Broadway] had a sign for rent for the top floor. Here the view was better and there were two automatic elevators.

Why here?
I never thought of going anywhere else until the ’80s when the East Village was kind of on fire and there were a lot of exciting artists exhibiting there. I decided to open a gallery there to complement this one, but I never gave up being in Tribeca. When we opened, there was a space called Franklin Furnace run by Martha Wilson, which was a non-profit, artists-only organization. Eventually a bunch of other galleries came along – Art In General, Soho Photo, PPOW. But I was Tribeca’s first shopping mall.

What are you known for?
I would say we are known for our new cutting edge work – showing people what was going to happen. This is what we did in the East Village. In the 70s, we show minimal work. Now we have someone like Joey Tepedimo, a self-taught artist. We are always on the lookout for new arts. [In the 1980’s, Bromm gave shows to several up and coming East Village artists, including David Wojnarowicz, Russell Sharon, Luis Frangella and Judy Glantzman.]

In 1981 I did an exhibition of Keith Haring – it was the first commercial exhibition he did in a gallery. The work was quite magnetic. I had seen his work in the metro – he was drawing pictures on the metro billboards. After the advertising time was up, they would put black paper on the board and Keith would come up with a piece of white chalk and make pictures, then jump off the train and jump into the next car and do some more pictures. No one knew where these drawings came from. He also liked to draw pictures on found objects – he would find things on the street, paint them and draw on them.

For our 30th anniversary show, we featured four guys, all of whom died of AIDS early in their careers.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
The people. The artists, the collectors and the people I work with. But also art, of course. You don’t get into this business if you don’t like art. In 1974, I spoke to Paula Cooper. And she said, “Hal, don’t expect to make money. But I ended up making some money.

Today’s art world is so different. Art has become a commodity – it is an investment, a status marker. But for a lot of young people, at the bottom of the market, they can buy things that are better than hanging a poster.

Was there one that escaped?
When McGovern ran for president [in 1972] for $ 500 you can purchase a print of Warhol with the face of Richard Nixon and under the hand of Warhol wrote Vote McGovern. So I collected $ 500 and bought one. I wish I had it again.

You always regret what you didn’t do and not what you did. There was a client who came up with a handsome Rothko and asked me to sell it and I said of course. I would like to keep it. There was a bit of Kooning. There was a Cy Twombly. What is the size of my collection? Too big.

Tell me a good customer story.
Edward Albee was one of my favorite clients. I met him through friends – we were all neighbors. He was just awesome. He was rather irreverent and very direct. One of the first things he said was, “I generally don’t like art dealers. He preferred to work directly with artists if he could. He collected anything and everything – his tastes were really broad. But everything worked.

[In 1984, Bromm formed “The Committee for the Washington Market Historic District” whose goal was to preserve the buildings and squares that formed the old Washington Market, eventually lobbying the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the area a historic district. The Tribeca West Historic District was adopted in 1991, followed in 1993 by Tribeca North, South and East.]

A year later, I asked if he would help with a fundraiser for the Historic Districts Council. We were thinking of having a theater night and I asked him if he would come to a small cocktail party. He said he hated cocktails but came anyway. He also signed the Dear Neighbor letter to protect the area. He and Bob De Niro and Jim Rosenquist all agreed to sign him. The press loved the fact that all of these people signed the letter.

Where do you eat / drink here?
When people come from out of town, I always revolve around Lynn at the Odeon. I took people to Racine. Marc Forgione did a good job. I like his cooking. I miss the women who had Kitchenette. Frenchette Bakery is a favorite. And Batard is very good.

What does the future hold?
I wonder. I have told other dealers about their legacy plans and a lot of people don’t. I will do it as long as I can. If you like it, you will keep wanting to do it.

What did I not ask for?
What is my favorite color? All. It is probably sufficient.

Coda
As noted above, Bromm is also an advocate for preservation, and his first foray into protecting the neighborhood was at the intersection of Hudson, West Broadway, and Chambers – what we now know as Bogardus Plaza. .
When I moved here in 1977 the Frederick Hotel was an SRO (single room occupancy) and Bogardus Triangle had five trees and trees full of broken bottles. I said, “This is our neighborhood. You have to take care of it a bit. So we planted bulbs and we got the guys hanging out there to stop throwing bottles and being stakeholders and surprisingly it worked. Years later Carol De Saram got a grant to turn the circulation triangle into a garden and it was the birth of the Bogardus Observation Garden. At one point I encouraged her to join our little group and she made it what it is today.

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