Three months after Hurricane Sandy, normal life still remains a distant prospect for many affected by the storm. Just ask Chelsea’s vibrant art community—what’s left of it, that is.
In the midst of the storm, Sandy’s winds carried large amounts of water from the Hudson River into the streets between 10th and 11th avenues, an area that a close-knit community of contemporary and modern art galleries, private collectors, and bookstores call home. The floodwaters from the storm ravaged entire gallery spaces and their contents, destroying invaluable works of art, archives, and computers.
Art insurance companies continue to face large claims in connection with the destruction of artworks and the funding of conservation efforts. On Nov. 12, Bloomberg News reported that AXA, a French insurance company, received $40 million in claims. On Dec. 28, the New York Times stated that a Reuters report estimated that losses could reach a staggering $500 million.
At this point, larger, more well-known—and therefore better-financed—galleries seem to be more or less back on their feet. Chelsea’s smaller, up-and-coming establishments, however, continue to struggle.
Two weeks ago, as I walked Chelsea’s streets and peered into gallery windows, I saw construction workers in gutted rooms that once held creative masterpieces. Likewise, in the CRG Gallery, the Zach Feuer Gallery, and Postmasters, where there were once intricate sculptures and displays of raw talent, I saw tables of torn, soggy, broken, or otherwise damaged artwork waiting to be restored. It was a devastating look at the realities of Sandy’s aftermath in a community that once served as a hub for art lovers in New York City.
But it’s not as if these galleries didn’t take precautions. Julia Joern, a representative from the David Zwirner Gallery on West 19th Street, says her gallery had moved works to a warehouse off-site and placed sandbags outside the doors of the galleries to keep water out in preparation for the storm. Nonetheless, six feet of water managed to flood the well-established gallery and destroy its drywall as well as works of art, computers, and files on its ground floor. The gallery has spent the past several months “gutting and rebuilding” its space. During this time, the gallery’s employees worked late hours each night through their holiday vacation, and they continue to spend much of their workdays filing insurance claims and getting in touch with conservators. Some galleries have been
forced to completely cancel exhibitions and events, which has adverse effects on business.
The Postmasters Gallery was slightly luckier, as its location on West 27th Street prevented the floodwaters from reaching higher than the basement level. Magdalena Sawon, the gallery’s owner, recalls watching water creep up to her gallery’s front wall and then recede back into the streets. Like Joern, whose location further south put her gallery in more danger than Postmasters, Sawon had wasted no time in preparing for the storm. She and her employees had “diligently moved artwork from the basement to the upper floors.”Despite this gallery’s favorable location and her meticulous preparation for the storm, she lamented the permanent loss of her uninsured archives, which she could not remove from the basement. Ultimately, it seems these galleries were unable to prevent the loss of art and destruction of gallery space that took place during the storm.
Sawon also notes that Sandy’s aftermath has revealed “discrepancies between the ‘high tier’ and ‘low tier’ galleries.” Many well-established galleries have flood insurance from companies such as AXA and The Arts Insurance Company of America; these galleries have received generous damage compensation. The better-established and insured galleries in Chelsea had large, well-equipped crews helping to restore the spaces immediately after the event, while the lower-tier galleries simply had workers “in galoshes cleaning up.”
At Printed Matter, a small nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting artists’ publications, volunteers are the sole source of help. The small space lost 9,000 books from its archive and sustained over $200,000 in flood damage. Without flood insurance, this small company has been relying on volunteer efforts and relief funds to help clean the soggy inventory out of their basement.
Nonetheless, the faith, resilience, and ongoing efforts of the people in this tight-knit community to revitalize the art world of Chelsea have proven to be, unlike the canvases and drywall destroyed in the storm, enduring. Gallery representatives’ willingness to advocate for their colleagues’ efforts to restore their galleries, as well as their praise for their art insurance funds, demonstrated the collegial nature of the art world and the strength of gallery-to-gallery bonds in the wake of the storm’s damage.
Despite the devastation, the gallery representatives I spoke to were neither bitter nor complaining. After Joern described the unfavorable working conditions that her gallery employees have faced since Sandy, she also mentioned how lucky she felt that she had not lost family in the event. Other gallery representatives, including Sawon of Postmasters and David Clements of Chamber Fine Arts Gallery, spoke with a sense of composure and optimism.
Indeed, in the wake of such loss, the camaraderie of the people who make up the Chelsea art scene only continues to strengthen. While Printed Matter faced irrevocable damage, the relief efforts by aforementioned volunteers and other arts organizations have been heroic. As stated by Executive Director James Jen- kin in a public announcement, Printed Matter received “a humbling show of support from artists in the community, local gallerists, ex-employees, present and former interns, passersby, our non- profit peers, and other volunteers.”
Additionally, Joern went to great lengths to express her compassion for the small gallery. She spoke about the connection between a gallery and its artists. After the storm, “artists were here [at David Zwirner Gallery] and helpful” in clearing things out from the flood and trying to salvage damaged works. The Art Insurance Company of America has recently set up a fund to “provide grants and loans to galleries” in the Chelsea area, even to galleries that are not mem- bers of the organization.
The destruction of art may have a permanent impact on the larger art community, including the viewer. According to Lucy Hunter, who currently works as a research assistant to an art historian working on the biography of artist Barnett Newman, “Works of art have lives of their own.” A work of art, whether created with oil paint, marble, tempera and canvas, or bronze, is subject to change and alteration over time. Throughout the lifespan of a work of art, the way in which it changes gives it life, allowing it to benefit both the viewer and the artist. Works of art accumulate a cultural legacy over time, and through conservation these works can provide future generations with historical insight. From this perspective, the unexpected destruction of a work can thwart a work of art’s potential to develop to its fullest capacity, depriving viewers as well as destroying the precious work of the artist.
While galleries are now getting back on their feet and returning to business, the emotional aftermath of Sandy will take much longer to repair than the physical damage of the storm. Nonetheless, it seems as if the communal support of the indi-viduals that make up the Chelsea art scene has expedited the recovery process as much as possible, and will be the vital element that keeps the spirit of the community alive. Here’s to hoping that the artists who were devastated by the loss of works can soon resume their creative pursuits, share their talents with the world, and reinvigorate the devastated cultural community of the Chelsea art scene.