New York’s Chelsea art galleries soaked by Sandy

— Thursday is the customary night for art openings in Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood that’s home to the city’s biggest concentration of galleries.

But this Thursday, the black-clad scenesters were replaced by men in white hazmat suits and surgical masks, and the only buzz came from generators.

Chelsea is one of the many neighborhoods ravaged by super storm Sandy when it made landfall Monday night. Although the human tragedy here pales next to the horrors in Staten Island, where at least 19 people have died, the storm delivered a serious blow to New York’s contemporary art world, damaging dozens of gallery buildings and many artworks they were designed to protect.

Two days after the floodwater from the Hudson River had receded, the usually chic neighborhood remained in disarray, with drywall, plywood and wet sandbags piled up next to 6-inch deep puddles. As indicated by the flood lines evident on building exteriors, nearly every ground-floor gallery in the district suffered some damage.


In the hierarchies of the Manhattan art world, having a ground-floor gallery south of 25th Street is considered a sign of success, prime real estate that serious collectors could enter en route to blue-chip spaces like Gagosian or Matthew Marks without taking a single stair or pushing an elevator button.

Now the downside of the once-enviable ground-floor spaces in Chelsea has become clear, with galleries farther south and west generally hit the hardest. 303 Gallery on West 21st Street and 11th Avenue looked like a war zone. On 19th Street, employees bundled against the cold and clutching cups of coffee were frantically at work outside the space owned by dealer David Zwirner, which was flooded by 4 feet of water. One woman, perhaps out of frustration, smashed a ruined telephone with a hammer.

On Thursday afternoon Leo Koenig was removing soaked drywall from his two galleries on West 23rd Street. Because he and his staff had prepared diligently by moving artwork off the ground, the damage he sustained was mostly to his gallery. He said he lost only a few pieces of “sentimental value” and is now “in a race against the clock” to eradicate mold and mildew.

Speaking of the damage to neighbors, he added, “I knew it was going to be severe, but this is a catastrophe.”

Just a block south, on West 22nd Street, Zach Feuer was hit much harder. His gallery played host to the first solo show by artist Kate Levant on Oct. 19, featuring several works on paper. Many dealers are not openly discussing their losses pending talks with restorers, insurance agents and lawyers, not to mention artists. But Feuer estimates that 20 of Levant’s pieces — representing at least a year of work — were destroyed when 5 feet of water from the Hudson flooded his space.

Because the gallery, now littered with ruined hard drives and covered in a layer of gray soot, sloped slightly downhill, Feuer’s archives in the back of the space were badly damaged. Upstairs, in an empty gallery lent to him by neighbors, several hundred pieces of artwork were laid out on the floor to dry before Feuer ships them to a conservator in Long Island.

Although he estimated that “nearly all” of his inventory was damaged in the storm, Feuer remained stoic. Asked how he plans to rebuild, he replies with a shrug: “I’ll just keep working.”

Another gallery in the path of the floodwaters was Sikkema Jenkins at 530 W. 22nd St., which opened a major show of Mark Bradford paintings on Oct. 27, the Saturday before Sandy hit. But the gallery and artwork held up better than most.

Based in Los Angeles and home now (“I think I got the last flight out”), Bradford reports that his gallery left his paintings — which run as large as 10 by 16 feet — hanging on the wall but swaddled them in industrial-strength plastic wrap. He also tends to hang his work high. He thinks both factors may have helped.

“I fully expected there to be some damage, but the works were fine,” Bradford said. “It was amazing. After a hurricane sometimes you’ll see a whole street taken out and just one house standing — it feels a little like that.”

Blake reported from New York and Finkel from Los Angeles.