Soirée Henzo: A Grassroots Assault on Chelsea’s Elitist Gallery Culture

Written by J. Scott Orr & Nicole ABE Titus
Photography by Nicole ABE Titus

On a Thursday night in late November, a line formed outside an event space on W. 25th in the heart of the Chelsea Art District, snaking its way eastward for almost an entire block. This in itself was hardly unusual in a neighborhood known for spectacular gallery openings that can attract hundreds of art lovers and collectors on any given evening. But this particular line and the exhibition they were waiting to consume was different: it was at once an art opening, a party and an assault on Chelsea’s art establishment.

This wasn’t the only show on offer in Chelsea that night, far from it, but it was by far the biggest with close to 2,000 guests and the most diverse, measured by age, gender, race, experience, or pretty much any other metric. But there was unity in that diversity: a shared desire to display their art while confronting the entrenched elitist gallery network that is largely closed to unconnected, emerging artists.

Welcome to the latest incarnation of soiree henzo, the brainchild of jake henzo, the Pittsburgh transplant who has grown this gathering of creative outsiders from a small group meeting in his former East Village apartment into a monthly showcase for the work of hundreds of little-known NYC artists many of whom have never had their work displayed in a gallery, let alone at a Chelsea event space like this.

That henzo, who eschews the use of capital letters in his name and that of his branded products, would bring his flock of artist followers to the heart of Chelsea for a monthly one-night stand is an act of such audacity, ingenuity and vision that soiree henzo may itself be the most important work of art to emerge from the New York underground in years.

The art, in short, was as diverse as the crowd. 

The latest show included work by 150 artists, hung everywhere in the 5,000 square foot space, with its 20-foot-high walls. There were brightly colored abstracts hanging next to portraiture and other figurative works. There were street art inspired caricatures, neo-expressionist musings and clever pop art creations. There were oils, acrylics and watercolors. The art, in short, was as diverse as the crowd. There was a bar in one corner, a dj in the back. There was live painting, dancing, hugs and fist bumps, even a few remarks. 

It is hardly lost on henzo that the space he rents, Lavan Chelsea, is located right across the street from Pace Gallery and a few blocks from other elite heavyweights like Gagosian, Hauser and Wirth, and David Zwirner. That, in fact, is the very point. For this kind of insurrection, it may well be all about location, location, location.

Our mission is to support creative individuals on their journey from declaring ‘I love this!’ to making ‘this’ how they support their ideal lifestyle.” – jake henzo

Our mission is to support creative individuals on their journey from declaring ‘I love this!’ to making ‘this’ how they support their ideal lifestyle. Again everything is tied back to this clearly articulated vision – and that includes goals,” henzo told UP Magazine.

Artists are charged neither a submission fee, nor a hanging fee. If their work sells, and some does, a piece of that income goes to help support the enterprise. For henzo, it’s all about community: that’s why he calls it a soiree, which implies a shared experience rather than an opening or exhibition that suggests a display by one party for the entertainment or enlightenment of another.

“It’s a beautiful thing.” – Bronx artist _midartz, 

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Bronx artist _midartz, who had a piece in the last soiree. “The energy, the diversity. This event provides an opportunity for emerging artists to display their work in a real gallery and not just anywhere, but here in the middle of Chelsea,” he said.

“This is only the beginning. This event is going to challenge the art world to open up for emerging artists,” added artist Jonathan Shannon, who also had work on display.

For henzo, the road to Chelsea began over two years ago when he happened upon an interesting volume in a used book store: Billy Kluver’s “Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930,” which was described by Publishers Weekly as “a lavish, information-packed look at the people and places of an important, exciting era in art history.” From that book, henzo was inspired to create his soiree to foster community in a new important, exciting era in art.

“I purchased the book and read it while working part-time at an art gallery. The book had interesting photos…, but what stood out to me most from reading the vignettes was the importance of connection at the cafes and rotondes,” he said. 

“Soiree henzo started out in my old east village apartment on St Marks and 1st Ave.” – jake henzo

“Soiree henzo started out in my old east village apartment on St Marks and 1st Ave. It was a social gathering with seven friends and a name. The first soiree henzo didn’t have art for sale. It didn’t have live music. It didn’t have live painting. It really was just interesting people talking in a physical, shared space,” he said.

From there, the soiree moved to bars, coffee shops and a new apartment in Brooklyn with a backyard. Since its encroachment on the rarified Chelsea neighborhood, henzo has become more and more focused on the business end of things, trying to crack the code that will allow the sale of artwork to fund soiree henzo’s leap to yet another level. 

“We see art sales as the main vehicle for providing support to individuals in our community.” jake henzo 

“In the immediate, we see art sales as the main vehicle for providing support to individuals in our community. We sell art during soiree henzo-produced contemporary art exhibitions and between shows on,” he said. To that end, henzo has enlisted a new sales team that is seeking to connect artists with collectors.

“We are driving art sales during and after our shows at an increasing rate. One interesting finding is our online capacity to generate art sales in the period immediately after exhibitions end. We are excited to lean-into these efforts given our small team’s vast digital expertise,” henzo said.

While henzo hopes his soiree continues to grow over time, he promises that it will never lose sight of its original mission: “It really comes down to supporting artists and creators in our community in multiple ways. And that is way easier said than done. 

“We have the most-diverse community in New York City.” – jake henzo

“We have the most-diverse community in New York City and with that comes its challenges, but also the beauty of what we are doing….With this diversity also comes great opportunities to provide immense value through communal learning and experiences,” he said.

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine

Nicole ABE Titus is a photographer, writer, artist, gallerist and collector.

Instagram: @avantgardeabe