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

To say that Hurricane Sandy was a powerful storm would be to make the understatement of the century. As the fiercest weather event to happen to the tri-state area in over 100 years laid waste to the coastline with 80 mph winds and three foot surges, massive areas of New York City were plunged into unthinkable conditions. A major transformer at 14th exploded in a flash of light, likened by many across the river to a mini- atomic bomb detonation, throwing everything below 39th street into darkness.

In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, those trapped in buildings without electricity and unable to leave their homes due to age or disability, waited in darkness for volunteers to come with food, water, and medicine. Meanwhile in the Far Rockaways, a fire engulfed what would later be determined to be over 80 homes, with bridges and roads all but washed away. While the water began to rise, submerging whole cars and entire subways stops, many of the careful arrangements homeowners, businesses, and others had made in advance were all but moot.

When it was finally safe to come out Tuesday, New Yorkers were left with a picture of utter devastation. Though the infrastructure of NYC will take weeks, if not years, to rebuild, the city’s artistic community is facing its own unique and incalculable losses. These extend not just to established galleries and arts institutions, but also to smaller collectives and DIY spaces, whose entire livelihoods were potentially lost during these 48 hours.

One of the hardest hit areas of Manhattan was arts epicenter Chelsea, where gallerists and storeowners returned to the area post-storm to find flooded basements and archives, paintings floating in pools of stagnant water, and structural damages beyond repair. On 23rd Street, gallery owner Leo Koenig told GOOD about what greeted him when he first arrived.

“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.

“We’ll be fine," he said. "But we’re letting everything dry off. We don’t have electricity or heat right now, or even really garbage pick up here. It’s devastating. It’s going to be a lot of work, but we’ll be okay."

Closer to the water, many galleries weren’t so lucky. At Bortolami on 20th, the atmosphere was significantly more somber, as assistants and archivists surveyed the watermarked space. "Some things can be recovered," said a gallery representative. "We have a conservator working with us, but some things unfortunately can’t be, like works on paper. But as you can see, everyone on the street has 30-foot bins. The amount of trash is just enormous." Nearby a few pensive handlers unrolled and laid down large sheets of prints, searching for potential damage.

Walking around Chelsea felt more like a trip to the city junkyard than what had just last week been one of the most glamorous neighborhoods in the city. Stacks of ruined canvases, frames, and chunks of drywall leaned against trees, as swarms of well-dressed interns, gallery assistants, and construction workers all labored tirelessly to tear down sheet rock, salvage remaining works and fixtures, and comfort their overwhelmed bosses. Though many of the larger galleries may be able to recoup their loses, some of the lesser known face a very ambiguous next few months, as flood insurance seems to come rare and sporadic in these parts.

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.

Though nearby galleries have their works insured for thousands, many of Printed Matters’ pieces are sold by concession from artists based internationally, who will now be directly impacted by the effects of Sandy. The space itself is in no real danger of vanishing, but it's facing a financial crisis. "We’ve sent certain stuff out to be freezed as a preventative step against molding, but it’s going to be a long process," said Jenkins. "We’re going to need a lot of support. We’ve taken a major hit. But we’ll still be here.” His optimism is due in no small part to the sheer volume of friends and volunteers who have reached out over the past week to help, some even walking several miles from Brooklyn to sort through the refuse.

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.

“No one expected this," said Powers. "We prepared, but you can’t prepare for three feet of water. We lost a lot of our inventory, especially needed for the upcoming holidays. Some of it we can replace, but some of it is out of print, or extremely rare. We had one of the last editions of John Coplans’s works from just before he died. Just gone. We found some of our inventory blocks away in the park. It floated out with the water.”

On a brighter note, many of powerHouse’s distributors have generously stepped in to replenish the shop’s stock so they won’t have to incur any additional financial loses. "When we reached out to our suppliers, we couldn’t believe their generosity," said Powers. "Some of these places are small and need this stuff themselves to get by. NuVue, Harper, Houghton, Snow + Graham, Penguin, these are just a few that have given us support. We couldn’t be doing this without them.”

Many of the artists themselves will also shoulder the worst brunt of the storm. In the river-facing area of Greenpoint, artists returned to their spaces to find entire bodies of work lost. Many studios that line the Newtown Creek, a site used for years as a dumping ground for toxic waste, are doubly tasked with a clean-up of potentially dangerous proportions. This was illustrated last week as a suspicious yellow smoke started emerging from the sewers on Kent Street, later to be put out by a local fire crew.

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.”

Once a thriving gallery space, now only the concrete and brick base remain. As Strohbeen showed us from a tell-tale line etched into the walls, the waters had risen over five feet, reaching just below his shoulders.

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.

In Red Hook, Gallery Brooklyn has generously lent out its space to Portside New York, and its director Carolina Salguero to create a base where her organization can hand out pamphlets and help-line numbers to local artists and residents, letting them know where they can get assistance and financial aid. Next door, another gallery offers free acupuncture to help alleviate some of the stress.

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.

“I'm an artist myself, and I have had my own art projects and installations damaged and destroyed before, due to both intentional misdeeds but also due to weather," said Sarmiento. "I know how it feels to see one's hard work damaged or destroyed, and many times being promised compensation for the damage or destruction but that compensation never actually coming through. I want artists to know what rights they have vis-à-vis galleries, landlords, and insurance claims.”

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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