After the Flood

Linda Yablonsky around Chelsea art galleries in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Left: Sweeping the water out of Gagosian Gallery, West Twenty-First Street, where a Henry Moore sculpture show was partially installed before Sandy. Right: Soaked and oxidizing Carl Andre plates drying on the sidewalk in front of Paula Cooper Gallery. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THE NEW YORK art business has been a speeding train for so long that it began to seem as if nothing could stop it, or even slow it down. Then came Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy did it. Knocked out all the power in Lower Manhattan, where most galleries are concentrated. Those in Chelsea took the biggest hit. They didn’t just lose power. Some dealers may lose their galleries as well.

It started on the night of Monday, October 29. At the peak of the storm, the Hudson River breached its banks and surged through Chelsea Piers, sending an extraordinarily powerful, twelve-foot flume of water down every street between West Nineteenth and West Twenty-Seventh. Nearly every gallery in the flood zone between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues took on water—even those that had taken every precaution to prevent that from happening. Suddenly the coveted spaces were no longer those with street-level access but the ones hidden on floors well above it. Yet even galleries with exhibition spaces several steps up got wet. As one dealer told me, “Nothing could have stopped that water.”

Basements were inundated and any gallery with back-room or belowground storage had reason to worry about its art. But first, each had to pump out the water and see what was left. If the art world generally behaves as the exception to every rule, it could not isolate itself from the mayhem this time. Yet in many ways Chelsea got off easy. No lives were lost. Property may be damaged, but it’s not gone—not the way homes and businesses in coastal areas of Brooklyn, Long Island, and much of New Jersey are.

Left: An iron gate at David Zwirner Gallery, 519 West Nineteenth Street, seriously warped by the October 29 storm surge. Right: Andrew Kreps Gallery.

I happen to live in Chelsea, which went dark at about 8:30 PM on Monday and has been out of power, heat, and, in many buildings, also running water ever since. With no traffic signals or street lights operating, going out after dusk has been an eerie experience, but the darkness masked the devastation facing dealers I saw during a tour of Chelsea on Wednesday morning.

Marianne Boesky looked shell-shocked when I stepped into her darkened West Twenty-Fourth Street gallery. The day before, staff had used brooms to push out water that had not already receded—a common sight all over the neighborhood. Now they were beginning to uncrate every artwork in Boesky’s ground-floor storage and move it into dry space for inspection.

At Gladstone Gallery, employees were also moving crated works around a space where the water left evidence of its fleeting residency at about three, maybe four feet from the ground. The story was the same next door at Metro Pictures, where Cindy Sherman was shoring up the confidence of Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, her primary dealers throughout her career, and negotiating with them for the last available Manhattan hotel room (at the Carlyle) where they could take hot baths. While director Tom Herman manned a push broom to sweep out what water remained, the dealers gingerly approached their inventory to check for damage.

Outside, dealer Jay Gorney seemed almost sheepish about Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery’s good fortune to be loading-dock level above the street. At Andrea Rosen, gallery staff were carefully, anxiously, laying out fragile works from a group show that had been scheduled to open this week—a scene I would see repeated everywhere. (All galleries in Chelsea, SoHo, and the Lower East Side are closed either until further notice or until power returns.) On the wall at Rosen’s entrance, I couldn’t hold back a bleak laugh when I spotted the horribly prescient title of the Andrea Zittel show that just ended there: “Fluid Panel State.”

Left: CRG Gallery. Right: Anton Kern Gallery.

Yet Rosen was among those best prepared for such a disaster. Eight years ago, both her gallery and her neighbor Luhring Augustine were flooded, which prompted the dealers to put a five-thousand-gallon tank beneath the gallery and a drain in front of it. It turned out to be small fish for a Godzilla like Sandy. But Brent Sikkema and Michael Jenkins found a way to outwit the flood, at least well enough to spare their current show of Mark Bradford paintings if not the walls beneath them. According to Lawrence Luhring, rather than de-install or raise the large works before the storm, Sikkema and Jenkins put them in plastic diapers strong enough to stave off the water. Clever! Or maybe just lucky.

Luhring himself didn’t have to worry: His gallery’s storage was in its new warehouse in Bushwick. Fortune was with Matthew Marks as well. Though his large gallery on West Twenty-Second took the wave, it didn’t hurt the giant steel Tony Smith sculpture inside it. When I went by, workers had already removed the waterlogged parts of the walls in his gallery next door, and were starting to replace them—something every gallery that flooded will have to do. “Wallboard soaks up water like a sponge,” one man said. “You have to cut it out or risk mildew and mold.”

On West Twenty-First, hazmat-suited workers were cleaning up the awful mess at 303 Gallery. (“We need fans and heaters and dehumidifiers!!” dealer Lisa Spellman wrote on her Facebook page Thursday.) Metal plates from a Carl Andre installation at Paula Cooper were drying—and oxidizing—in the air on West Twenty-First Street, where workers at Gagosian were just beginning to pump out the water still on the floor surrounding a partly installed Henry Moore show. It looked positively apocalyptic from the street. Outside David Zwirner, where the water level inside had reached five feet, the street was piled high with overstuffed garbage bags of detritus and broken office furniture. One steel gate was completely warped by the wave. “Most of the art was elsewhere and didn’t get hit,” Zwirner said, anxiously shooing away reporters. “But the gallery did.”

Many people will find it hard to sympathize with the dealers who have profited handsomely in recent years, dealers who can afford to rebuild quickly and move artworks into new storage facilities. For smaller operations, like those of Nicole Klagsbrun, CRG, Casey Kaplan, and Andrew Kreps, the prognosis is much grimmer. Klagsbrun was on the phone to her lawyer when I saw her. At CRG, workers who had moved its current show of Brian Tolle works to tabletops—only to see the tables later floating like tub toys in a bath—were staring at the large bite that the water had taken out of one wall. And Kaplan was dreading what was to come.

Left: 303 Gallery. Right: Water pumps and generators.

His usually pristine gallery was puddled, stained, and begging for TLC. Though many dealers could not even guess when they might reopen for business, Kaplan said that reconstruction and conservation of the works in the gallery could take till January. “How can I afford to pay my rent, my staff, the conservators, and store the art while the gallery isn’t generating any income?” he asked. That is a question many others will have to face. “We need a lot of help,” Kaplan said. “We need patience. And we need our landlords to support us with a couple of months free rent.”

New York landlords are not known for generosity, so this seems doubtful, and Kaplan was clearly upset. What about FEMA? President Obama has said that the federal government will do everything it can to help small business. Will it come through for galleries? It’s too early to tell. Though art can be insured, as far as I know, New York galleries (at least up till now) have not carried flood insurance.

“Maybe the idea of Chelsea isn’t so good after all,” said Stefania Bortolami, whose gallery was drenched by the flood. She had just taken delivery of a generator supplied by a friend of Anton Kern’s, who drove a pair of them from upstate for each of them. “I paid $2,000,” she said, “and it did not come with oil or gas.” (Without power, nearby gas pumps were not operational.)

Kern’s staff had only begun to dry out the works on paper from his flat files, which looked remarkably unscathed. Like everyone else’s, his computers and servers were toast, and his office had been soaked. Even so, he was planning to reopen next week. “Fuck Sandy,” he said. “It’s imperative to get this back—that’s why we’re all working so hard. The level of commitment has been extraordinary.”

Left: Workers check the condition of every artwork in Jack Shainman gallery. Right: Casey Kaplan Gallery.

At Jack Shainman, director Tamsen Greene brought up another issue: collectors. Many galleries have works on hand that have been sold but not yet shipped. Even though dealers are taking every step possible to repair, conserve, and protect artworks while also repairing their galleries and systems, their efforts may not satisfy all collectors—or artists.

Some artists stepped right to the plate. John Bock was helping at Kern; Nathan Carter at Kaplan, Luc Tuymans at Zwirner. There was also Matthew Higgs lending a hand at Andrew Kreps, whose hallway was piled high with materials dredged up from the basement. Though faces were drawn and showing signs of fatigue, everyone in sight was doing their best to cope: Carroll Dunham was on the phone to Barbara Gladstone, Shannon Ebner to Janine Foeller at flooded Wallspace, which is closest to the river—and which was first on the phone to FEMA.

The havoc wreaked by the storm will no doubt result in big changes to the city’s nineteenth-century infrastructure. Storms, after all, are only growing more intense. So when next week comes and electricity returns, the landscape of Chelsea—particularly the psychological turf—may start to look different. But only if its businesspeople also start to make changes to attitude and behavior, along with everybody else.

No one is invincible. Dealers will have to secure storage on higher ground and sandbag their galleries in advance of threatening weather as if fortifying bunkers, or artists and collectors won’t trust them. It’s hard to prepare for such an angry and unpredictable force as Hurricane Sandy—even for veterans of 9/11 who were ready for everything. Yet some remain optimistic. As Andrea Rosen’s artist liaison Rachel Furnari put it, surveying the unsullied works on the floor, “It just goes to show how durable art really is.” So is the human spirit, where it all begins.