Chelsea galleries emerge from Sandy devastation

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The cleanup continues at Eyebeam. (Jonathan Minard)
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As five of Chelsea's smaller 27th street galleries reopened for the first time after Hurricane Sandy on Saturday afternoon, all with brand-new interiors, one might assume that full recovery is in sight for the neighborhood's art spaces.

A crowd ducked in between galleries, many holding warm spiced cider from a cauldron at Winkleman Gallery, who opened with a new show of large-scale, delicate ink drawings by Michael Waugh. At the four neighboring galleries, which reopened with work they'd had up during the storm, the shows appeared virtually untouched.

According to owner Ed Winkleman, floodwaters filled the basement and only came about two feet high in the spaces themselves. Since all of the galleries shared a single building, and since that building is the size of a city block, it had taken four days to pump water out of a fully flooded, shared basement.

He wrote last week over email:

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"The basement had to be completed demolished, sterilized, and rebuilt, including the electricity and the HVAC system. Then the walls and floors on the main space had to be ripped out. Then the rebuilding began. All in all it took 10 weeks."

While the space is near full recovery, he expects talks with artists and conservators to last a few more months. Luckily, though—and unlike many other galleries—Winkleman had moved most of its inventory to higher ground.

Notably, larger galleries like Paula Cooper and David Zwirner had already been fully restored and opened for some time before this weekend, leading many to anticipate early on that damages to smaller galleries and non-profits would only further divide the art world.

But by all accounts, the prestigious organization of blue-chip galleries, The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA)—to which both Paula Cooper and David Zwirner belong—have been neighborhood heroes. The organization has been giving need-based grants to galleries in Zone A, like 27th Street galleries Winkleman, Derek Eller, Wallspace, and Jeff Bailey

"The ADAA, I must say, has been fantastic," Jeff told me over the phone last week. "They were here the first or second day after the storm. Bloomberg even came to visit us because the ADAA said you should come see the galleries, the arts community is a big contributor to the economy." Overall, he seemed optimistic. "My experience was it brought out the best in everybody," he told me.

That warmth was felt at his bustling opening of work by emerging painter Jackie Gendel, who added new paintings which she’s made since October. (The show, pictured above, is titled Jackie Gendel: Revenge of the Same.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nichole Caruso from the nearby gallery Wallspace shared her faith in the community.

“We shared and offered spare generators, gloves, masks, suits, headlamps etc during it all,” she told me last week over email. “The camaraderie in Chelsea has always been incredible, to say the least, and during this time it was no different. Everyone banded together and helped one another where and however they could.” The gallery re-opened its show of Gaylen Gerber’s 20th-century minimalist art and African sculpture painted white and gray.

A block and a half east on 10th Avenue, though, recovery seems farther down the road. Printed Matter reported having lost 9,000 books from its basement and $200,000 in damages. Nonprofit spaces the Kitchen and Eyebeam reported having lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, and 80 percent of Eyebeam's 15-year digital archives were damaged by corrosive flood waters.

According to Eyebeam’s official post-Sandy statement, the restoration will be an opportunity to rebuild stronger, with plans to eventually put the entire archive online. Last week, they opened the exhibition “Eyebeam Resurfaces: The Future of Digital Archiving,” in which curators Lindsay Howard and Jonathan Minard selected rare material from the archives, alongside a demonstration of the restoration process.

“All the material that was damaged...was immediately washed, cleaned as much as possible, and dried a week or so after the Hurricane, so all of that is semi-stable,” said Eyebeam’s executive director Patricia Jones over the phone this morning. She explained the process:

“If it still has a lot of detritus and salt on it, you can not only damage the material [DVDs, VHS, Mini DVs, and digital storage media] itself, but also the machinery and tools you’re using to dry and transfer. We now have a full inventory, but don't know specifics of a lot of artists’ work, and we’re contacting artists to see if they have copies. If it’s work documenting activities here at Eyebeam, we're talking to the staff, most of whom are no longer here, to try and get a sense of the value.”

She continued: “We do know that cleaning the most fragile material that was submerged can run as much as $300 for an hour of material, and we have 5,000 to 10,000 hours. So recovery isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Even with support from friends and arts funders like the ADAA and the Warhol Foundation, one has to wonder if it’s going to be enough; last month, the art insurance companies AXA, Catlin, and R.K. Harrison reported that losses may reach $500 million (though more than half of that amount refers to lost work by Peter Max alone). Eyebeam’s Patricia Jones told me that, while helped by additional $10,000 grants from Time Warner and O’Reilly Media, the organization still waits for Congress to make a decision about federal aid.

The same goes for DUMBO's waterfront non-profit exhibition space and studio program Smack Mellon, which estimated damages of $400,000—a massive renovation cost considering Smack Mellon's space is entirely donated. (Workers are pictured, at right, clearing out Smack Mellon last month.) The organization has received grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation, the ADAA, Richard Prince Studio, Mixed Greens Gallery, and a long list of other foundations and private donors. When consulting FEMA, though, Smack Mellon's executive director Kathleen Gilrain was told that she could only get funding if she already had flood insurance.

"The irony is that only wealthy people or organizations can afford to have it," she told me over the phone. "It's extremely expensive and limited in what it covers. The only people who have it are people with a mortgage, because they have to get it. We're shopping around for it, because the other crazy thing is that if [FEMA] pays us for anything, we have to get flood insurance."

Had they considered moving?

"We can't seriously be thinking about moving, because our space is donated," she told me. "Can we afford flood insurance, being in a designated flood zone?" she wondered. "This is the same problem that homeowners are going through. People just may not be able to afford it or stay in homes that may have been in the family for generations. It's going to completely change those working class waterfront neighborhoods. That's something people have been talking about a lot."