Hurricane Sandy and the Future of the New York Art World

Head above water

On Tuesday, October 30, the day after the lights went out in downtown New York, the futuristic architect, utopian draftsman, and 72-year-old Cooper Union professor Lebbeus Woods joined the other great paper architects in the sky. Among his vast legacy of seemingly outlandish radical projects was a famous drawing of Lower Manhattan. In it, he conceived of a city girded by massive dams that held back the Hudson and East rivers and turned Manhattan into a giant fort. Like the world's first printed image of a rhinoceros made by Albrecht Dürer in 1515, Woods's piece today looks both incredibly fantastical and bizarrely up to date.

"I'm not interested in living in a fantasy world," Woods said four years back when quizzed by The New York Times about the far-fetched nature of his design. "What interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what would happen if we lived by a different set of rules." Two weeks ago, the rules changed drastically with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Now comes the part where New Yorkers of all stripes—including architects, artists, writers, and other cultural producers—begin adjusting to those rules while helping pen other ideas that might result in our metropolis becoming a better, more visionary city.

Not a tragedy on the order of the 41 New Yorkers who perished from Sandy's ravages, the forced displacement of 40,000 city residents, or the loss of entire neighborhoods—images of Breezy Point recall photos of the Dresden firebombing—Gotham's visual-arts sector nonetheless suffered a massive blow. From artists' studios to downtown galleries to new sites for museum construction (both the 9/11 Museum and the West Side Whitney were flooded), the city's art sector received a brutal kick to the temple. A map of the city's evacuation zones gives an idea of how crippling a thumping Sandy delivered: Along with a disproportionate number of the poor (and, ironically, not a few luxury waterfront condo owners), New York's art world overwhelmingly crowds around the lowest elevation points of Zone A.

The cleanup at Zach Feuer Gallery
Michael Neff
The cleanup at Zach Feuer Gallery

Chelsea, for one, was hit especially hard (also seeing heavy damage were DUMBO, Greenpoint, and Red Hook). Walking through Chelsea after the storm proved, by turns, both inspiring and heartbreaking. While neighbors helped out neighbors—some art-rescue efforts resembled barn raisings—livelihoods that once seemed secure or relatively so were washed away by a storm surge that flooded galleries, knocked down walls, devastated storage areas, and submerged thousands of works of art.

These losses, though, which are in the uncountable millions, pale next to the human costs involved. Starting with carpenters, art handlers, framers, registrars, assistants, artists, and, of course, art dealers themselves (many operate what essentially amount to mom-and-pop stores), these nonlethal tragedies befell actual flesh-and-blood people with real jobs—not Bravo Work of Art bimbos. As one affected gallerist, Zach Feuer, put it succinctly last week: "Chelsea is the center of America for contemporary art. This is a big cultural loss." It is also, I repeat, a communal catastrophe of soul-wrenching proportions. (A word about art dealers here: While a few at the upper reaches of the art market have spent the past decade remaking art in the image of a rich man's loophole, the vast majority of dealers, large and small, do what they do out of a genuine love of art, despite the fairly modest chances that they will enjoy a comfortable living.)

But if Sandy doled out storm damage in largely equal doses, 21st-century capitalist economics took care to allocate existing financial resources according to principles other than quality, fairness, or need. The result: a group of middle-tier galleries and art spaces around the city already hit hard by the recession that might not recover from the effects of Sandy unless significant relief efforts are undertaken (collectors and larger galleries, take note). Among these spaces is DUMBO's Smack Mellon, a beloved not-for-profit space that took on six feet of water and consequently lost art, material, and their entire artists studio program, walls included.

Another severely affected veteran space is the walk-down 22nd Street Newman Popiashvili Gallery—a terrific outfit that saw much artwork and equipment submerged under five feet of Hudson River muck. Among the worst hit are the five neighboring Chelsea galleries—Derek Eller, Foxy Production, Jeff Bailey, Wallspace, and Winkleman Gallery—that make up the corridor that runs along the south side of the Tunnel Building on West 27th Street. Seeing the bone-tired principals and their friends in wet hazmat suits still piling sodden art onto the sidewalk five days after the storm passed seemed, to this writer at least, the very definition of the word misfortune.

Still, there was also resilience in that example, as well as in the many others witnessed around New York's traditional dog-eat-dog art world. MOMA, for instance, stepped up to offer critical help to inspect or save flood-damaged artworks ahead of visits from the insurance companies and FEMA. MOMA P.S.1 director Klaus Biesenbach spearheaded ongoing volunteer efforts for even needier folks out in the Rockaways. And then there are the tens of arts organizations—among them the newly established Art Dealers Association of America relief fund, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts—that have presented emergency-aid possibilities for artists, not-for-profits, and affected galleries.

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