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

How long will restoration take?

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.

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