Sandy vs. New York Art World: Photos Show a Creative Community in Crisis Sandy vs. New York Art World: Photos Show a Creative Community in Crisis

Sandy vs. New York Art World: Photos Show a Creative Community in Crisis

by Laura Feinstein

November 17, 2012

“First of all, there was standing water all over Chelsea, just out in the street," said Koenig. "I could see from outside [of the gallery] there looked to be at least two feet of water. When I opened the doors, it all just poured out. It turned out to be 28 inches. It left a line across the entire space." Though badly damaged, Koenig was lucky in that none of the artwork inside was ruined, and the gallery will be able to reopen after renovations.


One institution in Chelsea profoundly affected by the storm was independent, nonprofit space and alternative press Printed Matter—which since 1976 has been at the forefront of contemporary art books and rare printed works. Printed Matter's original catalog featured pieces by Kathy Acker, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, and Laurie Anderson. Executive Director James Jenkins arrived at the store the day after the storm to find water up to the ceiling in the cellar.

“I couldn’t even see the water at first, there was just so much stuff that had risen to the top," said Jenkins. "Papers and materials, everything that was down there.” Once the water receded, he was left to survey the destruction of decades worth of limited edition works, most irreplaceable, the only remnants of a NYC long since past. If paper and organic materials are wet for more than 48 hours, they’ll have to be thrown out; and the scene outside Printed Matter, day after day, has been an abattoir of art, as the owners of the DIY space work around the clock to see what they can and cannot salvage.     

Across the bridge at the emerging creative hub of Dumbo, home to legions of Brooklyn start-ups and emerging entrepreneurs, the scene was also grim. At powerHouse Arena, an independent press and publisher that also houses an in-store gallery, CEO Daniel Power recounted the complete surprise of the devastation.

In South Brooklyn, as the banks of Gowanus Canal—one of the nation’s most polluted waterways—overflowed into nearby Red Hook, toxic water poured into ground levels of homes, businesses, and one of the largest clusters of artist studios in the boroughs. When we arrived, workers at the Van Brunt Piers in protective suits were getting ready to start the long and arduous task of clearing out the area. We were told that these piers were one of the hardest hit by the storm, having had water assault them from all three sides. Among those on Van Brunt suffering critical damage were the studios of the Brooklyn Waterfront Arts Council. Created in 1978 to assist emerging artists in advancing their careers, BWAC is the largest artist-run organization in Brooklyn, and an entrenched fixture in the Red Hook Community.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, in all my time here,” said BWAC President John Strohbeen. “It just tore open the doors and stripped our walls.”

Though FEMA and the city have promised a certain amount in loans in the coming months, many organizations are taking it upon themselves to generate the capital they need to push forward. At powerHouse an upcoming benefit will hopefully bring in valuable revenue. Many others have begun offering donation micro-sites on their homepage where supporters can leave badly needed donations. 

For artists seeking to recoup their losses from inadequately prepared art spaces, or with limited insurance, lawyer Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento has generously stepped up to offer free legal advice for those in need. 

While this disaster has certainly showed the rust in the city’s overall infrastructure and call-and-response system, it’s also revealed the type of grit and caring that’s at the true heart of New Yorkers. As volunteers of all ages line up across the area to help everywhere from food banks and shelters, to invaluable community spaces and artists’ resources, a broader picture emerges of a citizenship willing to stand and offer a hand during a time of unprecedented loss. 

Photos courtesy of Laura Feinstein and Printed Matter

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Sandy vs. New York Art World: Photos Show a Creative Community in Crisis