Hurricane Sandy

Mourning Chelsea: New York’s Art District Goes ‘Raft of the Medusa’ Post-Sandy

How long will restoration take?
dsc 0101 Mourning Chelsea: New York’s Art District Goes ‘Raft of the Medusa’ Post Sandy

Repair work underway at 303 Gallery on West 21st Street. (The New York Observer)

Overnight, Hurricane Sandy transformed most galleries in far West Chelsea from exhibition spaces into construction sites, but on Saturday, Postmasters, just east of 10th Avenue on 19th Street, momentarily set aside the chaos to dip into the old-fashioned, pre-Sandy mingling spirit for which the neighborhood is known. In very few Chelsea galleries, at that moment, would such an idea even be possible, as they tended to be dark, gutted and smelling of mildew, but Postmasters was relatively lucky, and though its basement had flooded, the water stopped just feet from its door. Co-owner Magdalena Sawon made pots of mulled wine that filled the air with citrus and spices, and Newsweek’s art critic, Blake Gopnik, brought bread.

About two dozen people traded stories of waterlogged cars and long walks to find fresh food. Artist Holly Zausner, who has lived around the corner since 1979, said the blackout flashed her back to the West Chelsea of yesteryear, before the art world arrived in the mid ’90s. “It was a desert, just prostitution and drugs,” she said. “It was really nothing. When you saw people, you thought they were muggers.” The galleries had helped build a neighborhood. The question nobody asked was: what would happen to it now?

Rebuilding has already begun, though some will be on their feet sooner than others. Usually the streets are quiet during the week, but immediately after the storm, they bustled. Moving trucks lined both sides of the streets in the 20s between 10th and 11th Avenues, accompanied by small streams of water that flowed into drains from hoses inside the galleries. The soundtrack to all of this was the steady hum of generators that powered suction devices, and saws cutting away wet walls and exposing tangled networks of wires.

The lion’s share of New York’s contemporary art galleries—200 of them—call this tiny strip of land on the West Side home, and as is well known by now, they were hard-hit by the storm surge of the Hudson River. Large crews of men worked this past weekend at galleries like 303, Haunch of Venison, Paula Cooper and David Zwirner, which postponed shows set to open last week until January. Still, Matthew Marks plans to open his next show, of sculpture by Charles Ray, this coming Friday, Nov. 9, right on schedule. There’s more optimism in Chelsea right now than you’d expect, but while the speed of its recovery has already been impressive, the neighborhood still faces many hurdles before it’s business as usual, and the effects of Sandy will touch the art world for months—maybe years.

Those who did have power, like Ms. Sawon at Postmasters, felt they had to give a little back. “We didn’t get hit the way other people did, so it’s almost kind of a guilt level that gets you,” Ms. Sawon said, explaining her Saturday gathering. Her colleague Ed Winkleman’s gallery basement, like many of those on West 27th, had turned into a swimming pool. Her artist Diana Cooper had been storing about 20 major works in a Tribeca space. “Basically her history is destroyed,” she said. “I have to convince her that, you know, art goes on, life goes on, and the new work is always the drive and the excitement, but it’s beyond imagining how fucked up this is.”

It’s a common misperception that an art gallery is a license to print money. Galleries can appear as though they are sitting on millions—because of the sleek architecture, or the directors who act as though they don’t need the business—but that’s often just window dressing. Many are mom-and-pop operations. The most recent recession was tough on them, and the flood has stretched many budgets.

Leo Koenig, who owns an average-size gallery on the north side of 23rd Street, which was heavily hit by flood waters, said his usual monthly operating costs were in the six figures, making the $50,000 charge to re-Sheetrock and re-drywall a major headache if the insurance doesn’t come through. The Kitchen, on 19th Street, pegged its damages at around $500,000.

Running a gallery, even an established one, is often a hand-to-mouth business. More than one Chelsea dealer admitted to being eager for collectors to pay for works they had said they’d purchase before the storm, so that they could get money for repairs and float until they’re open for business again.

Tanya Bonakdar described the neighborhood as “on its knees” and in need of some kind of assistance. Her landlord has refused to pay for the extensive damage done to her 21st Street gallery, and as of Friday, she hadn’t yet been in touch with her insurance company, Chubb. “Twenty years, I’ve paid them, and I’ve never made one claim,” she said. “The first time something does happen, I can’t even get them on the phone.”

“As much as there are Gagosians,” she added, gesturing at the outpost of that gallery across the street, “there are a lot of small businesses here. We don’t all have the ability to sell one painting and cover the costs like other people do. I don’t have an uptown gallery I can use, I don’t have a gallery in London I can use.”

(Gagosian Gallery went ahead with its scheduled Cy Twombly opening last Thursday at its uptown headquarters. “I have no desire to go down there,” Larry Gagosian said at the event, taking a break from talking with collectors. He’d seen the photos of his Chelsea spaces and that was enough. “It’ll just depress me.”)

Flood insurance is notoriously difficult to obtain for most buildings, almost like terrorism insurance. Will Rijksen, a spokesman for the American Insurance Association, said that, nationally, only 14 percent of properties in flood zones have it. And it’s still so early that galleries don’t know what the major defense will be when it comes to the companies trying to wiggle out of responsibility, whether the damage will be classified as storm-related or possibly an act of God. Earl Bateman, a real estate broker who works with many galleries, said such coverage certainly wasn’t standard in any lease he’d ever seen and thought it was unlikely that a smaller gallery with a shorter-term lease, like five or seven years, would buy top-notch insurance.

Claims adjusters roamed the streets throughout the week, checking in on clients. “They’re all being really nice right now,” one dealer whispered, as art handlers carried paintings to waiting trucks bound for dry storage. Anna Kustera, who has a modestly scaled gallery on 21st, was optimistic about her agent covering damages. “Art galleries pay a lot of money for insurance,” she said. “We pay high premiums, we get good policies—hopefully. This is the time when we need it.”

But not all dealers have insurance to fall back on. Newman Popiashvili Gallery, which is located just below street level on West 22nd, did not have flood coverage. “We thought we knew how to deal with water issues,” partner Marisa Newman said. The gallery had flooded even when Hurricane Irene came through last year. They had elevated everything high in the gallery for Sandy, but it hadn’t been enough to save art and computers. Ms. Newman commandeered her parents’ uptown apartment to repair art, and returned other work to artists.

Ms. Newman’s landlord is helping her find a temporary space and has assured her that her gallery will be habitable by Jan. 1. “He looked at my face and knows part of me just doesn’t want to be back where all the tragedy occurred,” Ms. Newman said. “I don’t necessarily know if I want to come back.” Her immediate concerns were saving art and finding a place for her next show.

As we were going to press on Tuesday, the Art Dealers Association of America announced that it will provide grants and loans to galleries in Zone A, including those that are not part of the organization, from an initial fund of $250,000. New York’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Kate Levin, said in a telephone interview that most galleries, if they need assistance, could qualify for emergency funding or loans from the city as part of its post-Sandy small business recovery program, though no special programs have been started for the arts.

“I’ve had a lot of talks with smaller galleries where the landlord situation has not been very optimistic,” Commissioner Levin said, “but right now we’re encouraging dealers to document the damage with photos, especially with regard to the artworks, as their replacement, being one-of-a-kind objects, is much more difficult.”

The art situation in Chelsea now is a delicate one. Most dealers don’t want to discuss it, or dismiss discussion by saying that there wasn’t much art in the gallery, that it was all in a warehouse, somewhere, safe. It’s impossible to say how many ground-floor galleries had a large amount of art in the gallery during the storm, but walking down the street last week, triage was a common sight, as were stacked piles of crates that, presumably, sorted works by damage and value.

Replacement value is a tricky thing with art. Supply is limited, and it’s preferable to have the unique object rather than the money it’s worth. It’s an investment. For many dealers, artworks in inventory—those they own—become the way they pay for expansion, or just staying in business. They can also constitute the equivalent of a pension.

“The art world has dropped its
iPhone in the toilet,” said one director who asked not to be named. “Now it has to decide whether or not it wants to fish in there and get it out.” He thumbed in the direction of his gallery. “I’ve got a bunch of Warhol’s drawings of people nobody knows sitting back there, and you can bet they’re going to be saved,” he said, meaning they will take precedence over less valuable, more interesting pieces.

“Hoo-ray!” he added, with sarcasm.

“I’d heard people say they’d lost 80 percent of their inventory,” said Michael Jenkins, partner in Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery, which saved all of its Mark Bradford show partially because Mr. Jenkins had waded into the gallery during the storm on Tuesday night to check up on the works. Zach Feuer said some 550 works were damaged in his gallery on 22nd and estimated their value to be in the millions of dollars.

AXA art insurance president and CEO Christiane Fischer said on a conference call on Saturday it had some 300 clients in Chelsea and Lower Manhattan, and that galleries make up around 85 percent of those clients. AXA has already visited around 70 percent of the 300, and it expects the checks to go out this week. The first checks go to those with the fewest works to evaluate. The dealer Ed Winkleman said his art insurance policy may have a Zone A exception he’s looking into, something he never thought about when his gallery was in Brooklyn.

There would not have been a good time for Sandy to arrive, but it blustered in at one of the busiest times of the year for New York art dealers. There are certain moments during every year when collectors from all over the world descend on New York—March, for the Armory Show; May, for Frieze New York and the first of the twice-annual major auctions; and November, for the second round of those auctions. Galleries plan some of their most important shows in these periods, and while Sotheby’s has moved its Impressionist and Modern sale to this Thursday, the contemporary auctions remain on a firm deadline for next week.

Another important date on the calendar is next month’s Art Basel Miami Beach fair, where 40 Chelsea galleries will offer work and hope to make a large percentage of their annual sales. “It’s too early to say what the impact on the show will be, because so many of our galleries are still assessing their overall situations,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, who is coming to New York this week to speak with galleries directly. “We are expecting to be very flexible with the participating galleries that were affected—at a minimum, that could range from extending long payment plans to helping galleries in redesigning their booth architectures completely, because the artworks they expected to show were destroyed.” Any gallery forced out of business will not have to pay a cancellation fee, the full cost of a booth.

Chelsea, as an art neighborhood, also faces less tangible challenges to recovery. The very notion of a functioning gallery district relies on there being a critical mass of galleries, and openings.

“I think people’s spirits are definitely affected, and the art market is an emotional market,” said dealer Alexander Gray. Although his gallery is on the second floor of a building on 26th Street, and therefore minimally affected, his staff was working from his home in Midtown, where there was consistent power, on a table normally only used for Seder and Thanksgiving. (“And there is a lot of gratitude here!”) “We connect with artwork that we have feelings about; we connect with galleries and dealers we like and clients that we have relationships with. I think it’s a very different market from the stock market and the real estate market, so it could be activated by goodwill, or also activated by people feeling loss or grief.”

What does the hurricane mean for Chelsea in the long run? Most of the good space was taken long ago by now-established galleries and what’s left is expensive, so you get the sense that it’s a struggle for the smaller galleries to be there in the first place.  If we can expect future Sandys thanks to global warming, and the art crowd naturally assumes that we can, the neighborhood might be in for a shift.

“I think you might see a big demographic change,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Not tomorrow, because people have leases, but it might make people think about whether or not they want to stay here. If I was looking at one of these Chelsea spaces and it had a basement, what would you feel you could use it for? Wouldn’t it make you think twice?”

“It does make you wonder if that coveted ground-floor space will remain so coveted,” Mr. Winkleman said with a chuckle. He’d been cleaning out his own flooded basement on 27th, which had filled to the brim just a few days ago, and wore a homemade headlamp of tiny flashlights attached to his baseball cap. His lease is up in 2014, and he will consider moving then.

“Every time you have a new lease, you have to consider that,” he said, “Everybody does. Will this influence it? Probably, to some degree. Because this,” he paused to gesture to the trap door that leads to his basement, “is no fun.”

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Many dealers compared the atmosphere to the uncertainty after 9/11. But collectors came back then, and galleries survived. Ms. Newman almost signed her first lease in September 2001, but the terrorist attacks delayed that. “The gallery has known its share of disasters, and we’ve continued,” she said. “So I think we’re going to continue. That’s my goal.”

“It does make you rethink how you’re going to operate,” Ms. Kustera said. She speculated that dealers will prepare more aggressively in the future. “I have no intention of moving out of my space,” she said. “You move someplace else, and a fire breaks out.”

Asked why he still expressed optimism as he stood in the wall-less space that used to be his gallery, amid ruined files and useless computers, Mr. Feuer shrugged. He stopped texting and set down an iPhone intricately attached to a generator that was running out of gasoline.

“Because we’re going to rebuild,” he said. “And hopefully we won’t have to battle the insurance companies, and hopefully they’re going to pay for most of the building, and then we’re going to sell some art.

“You know, being an art dealer,” Mr. Feuer said, looking over his glasses, “isn’t the worst job in the world.”

Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.