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

How long will restoration take?

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.

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