Chelsea Galleries Begin Recovery Work

Photos by The New York Observer

The northwestern edge of the blackout in Lower Manhattan right now is West 30th Street, right where the Chelsea gallery district begins. To the north, business hums along as usual. To the south, police officers in bright yellow jackets direct traffic, and claims adjusters walk the streets. The only businesses open in West Chelsea are hot dog stands and halal carts.

On the day after the storm, it appeared that many West Chelsea galleries had been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, but dealers are only now beginning to ascertain the extent of the damage, as they pump basements clear of water and examine inventory.

This afternoon, dealers with spaces on the ground floor of the Tunnel Building on West 27th Street were removing artwork from their pitch-black galleries. When the storm surge came, water seeped through their front doors and flooded their basements. Some of the area’s nearby residents have been lucky—Jeff Koons’s studio on 29th spent two days preparing for the storm and had the rising water stop just feet from their doors—but others have been less fortunate.

Outside Derek Eller, Adrianne Rubenstein, an artist and assistant director at the Lower East Side’s James Fuentes gallery, was using a cloth to dry a large painting of a nude James Dean. “This is literally one of my favorite paintings,” she said. “I love this painting.” Since Sandy appears to have spared Fuentes, like many galleries on the Lower East Side (save for the fact that there is still no power there, grinding business to a halt), she was helping out friends.

The painting of Mr. Dean is by Keith Mayerson, who had been at the gallery all day helping Eller and his staff clear out work. He was wearing purple gloves and a scruffy beard, and a handful of his paintings were propped on walls and cars along the block.

“Just pour fresh water on it,” Mr. Mayerson told Ms. Rubenstein cheerfully. He turned to The Observer. “Luckily, you know, oil and water don’t mix, and so if I put fresh water on the top of the paintings and dry them horizontally, hopefully they’ll dry okay.” Though a number of his drawings had been destroyed when the gallery flooded, he was remarkably composed. “I have to be Buddhist about it,” he said, and then went to go move more artwork.

On Tuesday, right after the storm, many of the basements on West 27th Street had been filled right to their very tops with water. Even work that had been elevated a few feet off the ground had been drenched with water.

Further west, Jeff Bailey was beginning to take stock of the damage. “I’m going to protect what’s good, figure out what’s salvageable and postpone the next show,” he said. He had set down work throughout his gallery to see what had survived. He lifted a framed gouache on paper that had been caught in the water, and the frame fell apart in his hand. “I haven’t found a single work on paper that is okay,” he said.

It’s too soon to say definitively when anyone will be back in business, power will have to come back on first, but Michael Gillespie of Foxy Production said they were aiming to reopen after Thanksgiving. He’d mounted a miniature flashlight on his baseball cap in order to see in the dark gallery, and was carrying dry work to storage.

Dumpsters, garbage bags and piles of wood now line the streets of Chelsea. Scott Zieher of ZieherSmith was waiting for 30-foot dumpsters to arrive on 20th Street. He and his neighboring dealers had placed an order for five of them. Some collectors had come by yesterday and today bearing sandwiches, and he had been carrying out bags of waterlogged papers. When the water rushed in, even works high on heavy pallets were tossed around the gallery. He estimated that about 200 pieces had been damaged in the storm. “This is heartbreaking,” he said. “We lost art, we lost the library. The history of the place got gutted.”

Closer to 10th Avenue on 20th, Jack Shainman and his staff were also working to empty the basement of work, which was still being pumped. It had flooded when water poured in through an elevator shaft. “I have enough gas to last about four more hours,” he said, looking over at a pump. It was a concern voiced by many dealers. “If you have gas,” Mr. Shainman said. “Bring it to Chelsea.” (Manhattan has few gas stations, and now even fewer with power. At a Hess on 44th Street, two lines of cars extended more than a block down 10th Avenue late this afternoon.) Hank Willis Thomas, whose show is now on view at the gallery, had been by earlier to help Shainman and his staff clean up.

Outside Printed Matter, wet file folders and cardboard boxes were lined up on 10th Avenue that had been soaked when the bookstore’s basement flooded. “This is Printed Matter’s history here,” its director, James Jenkins, said. “There are files that go back to when Lucy Lippard started it.” They were looking into document recovery services. If you act quickly enough, it’s possible to save even badly waterlogged files, he said, but they were having trouble finding a contractor after the storm.

Yesterday Printed Matter had asked for volunteers to help clear its drenched basement, and a number of people showed up this morning to assist. “It’s been awesome,” he said. “People actually walked over from Brooklyn to do the job. Now we’re focusing on saving what we can.”

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