Haves & Have-Nots

How Hurricane Sandy Rocked the Art Galleries in Chelsea

Blake Gopnik talks to Chelsea gallery owners about how the scene will change—and who’ll survive.

Photo by Lucy Hogg

Magda Sawon, owner of the venerable Postmasters gallery in New York, stood and watched last week as the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy crept east of Tenth Avenue in Chelsea, reached the giant garage door that is her gallery’s front wall, kept rising until disaster just lapped at its base—and then receded after merely filling her basement with water. “We watched the f--ker come, inch by inch,” she said, “but not a single work of art was lost.”

This fortunate survivor, who lives behind her space and was a rare eyewitness to Sandy’s advance, was speaking on the Saturday after the storm, as she prepared a mulled-wine party for flood-soaked neighbors and colleagues. The hundreds of art dealers in Sawon’s neighborhood make up the largest concentration of galleries the world has ever seen, and up and down the area’s 20 square blocks, floors were being mopped and basements pumped. Just five days after the disaster, acres of wet drywall had already been ripped out and replaced with fresh sheets. Dumpsters overflowed with Sandyfied mess, since few galleries had had Sawon’s luck: at the height of the surge, spaces farther west had become swimming pools.

But despite the repairs going on all around her, Sawon worried that, overall, the effect on the art world might be profound. “It’s the collapse of the middle class, extrapolated to the gallery world,” she said. She was voicing a thought heard from many of her peers: that international megadealers like David Zwirner and Larry Gagosian will pull through just fine, and that the tiny baby spaces will find a way to survive, but that the gallery scene’s middle—“where the most interesting art happens,” according to Sawon—may get hollowed out. In the days right after Sandy, “you could really see the difference between the haves and have-nots,” said Sawon, noting the teams of hazmat-suited pros who were “polishing the deluxe headquarters of world art” versus the small-time dealers “in galoshes cleaning up.”

Printed Matter, north of Sawon on Tenth Avenue, definitely falls into the galosh gang. It’s a long-standing, much-loved, and very scruffy nonprofit that sells artists’ books—more Brooklyn in spirit, by far, than Chelsea. Early in the week, news of its fate had the whole art world crying. Printed Matter had been storing all its stock and archives in the basement, and when director James Jenkin managed to get in from Brooklyn last Tuesday—he said he was first in line in his car when the bridges reopened—he found the basement “full to the brim” with water and all its contents floating on top.

But already by Saturday, the state of emergency had passed, and volunteers had emptied the basement and got its most important contents to the safety of freezers. (That’s always the first thing to do in conserving water-logged paper.) “It went from Armageddon to just an empty basement,” said Jenkin. “I’m trying to not think about the books that are lost, but about having a chance to move forward,” he said, looking around his wet, filthy, smelly storage cellar—which he cannot afford to abandon. “This will be full again of amazing books.” All nonprofits are “a hustle anyway,” he said, adding that he feels Printed Matter will just have to hustle yet more to recover from this blow. “We’re not rich, but we’re rich in good will.”

Around the corner from him is a concern that is, indeed, rich—and was not thereby spared Sandy’s wrath. David Zwirner’s deluxe gallery fills much of the block on 19th Street west of Tenth Avenue, and the building received the full force of the flood. On Saturday you could still make out a filthy waterline about 5 feet up on every wall in Zwirner’s maze of spaces—or at least on any wall still waiting to be replaced. Workers were working feverishly to restore the business to its former glory. “Only in America can you get a crew of workers to remake a gallery in 48 hours,” said Zwirner, who’d traded his normal businesswear for an ocean-blue fleece. He’d been mounting two shows when the waters arrived, and those of course got ruined. But already he was hoping to have a replacement exhibition ready for the public by this coming Friday—a show about Chernobyl, in fact, by the noted Los Angeles artist Diana Thater. Viewers would be moving “from one disaster to another,” as he put it. Zwirner acknowledged his good fortune: he’s got the resources to put Sandy behind him. (He’s one of few galleries with flood insurance—purchased, he said, after last year’s Hurricane Irene gave a taste of things to come.) “I’m a little more worried about the smaller operations in Chelsea,” he said. “They will be struggling.”

Indeed, Tanja Grunert, who co-owns a modest gallery directly across the street from Zwirner’s, was sitting in misery as a handful of young men drag out ruined goods. Sandy’s timing could hardly have been worse, Grunert explained. Early November is auction season in New York, when collectors converge on the city, and all the smart dealers hope to get a piece of that action. Now they’ve got only days left to get salable art on whatever walls they can salvage, to help cover the costs of Sandy.

A dealer named Edward Winkleman isn’t hoping to be ready in time for the auction rush. He runs one of a row of modest Chelsea galleries on the ground floor of a warehouse west of Eleventh Avenue—and whose entire basement was flooded. “Optimistically, we’re thinking about the week after Thanksgiving,” he said, emerging from his blacked-out cellar, with tiny flashlights attached to both sides of his head. He estimated that he saved about 80 percent of the gallery’s art and will eventually be able to replace floors and drywall ruined by waters that rose from below. (His inventory, at least, is insured. Christiane Fischer, CEO of AXA Art, a major cultural insurer, explained that just about all reputable dealers would have their art holdings covered.) But Winkleman and his peers need dry space almost at once. The dreaded art fairs of Miami launch in early December, and he absolutely has to get his act and art together to be there, to make up for sales lost in his ruined gallery.

This could be one of the most important effects of Sandy—it could make the fairs even more important to galleries’ bottom lines than they already are, while at the same time making it harder for galleries to be ready, financially or logistically, to participate in them. Winkleman, along with Sawon and five other dealers, is in an event in Miami called “Seven,” which is run by the galleries themselves and therefore will require that much more work from him. But even galleries with less sweat equity to pay are likely to find Miami a challenge. Marc Spiegler, a director of the Art Basel fair that is the lynchpin of December in Miami, said that he’s planning to be “very flexible,” in terms of financing and logistics, when dealing with galleries that have been hurt by Sandy—because he knows that success at Art Basel will be even more crucial than usual. Cornell deWitt, who runs the more modest Pulse fair, said that he’s worried about precisely the hollowed-out middle that Sawon talked about: for mid-range art galleries, already struggling from the recession, Sandy could prove to be the tipping point into failure.

Not that any dealer is admitting that, at this point. Derek Eller is Winkleman’s immediate neighbor, and he lost lots of art to the flood in his gallery’s basement. Emerging from the dark, dank depths of his space, he was dressed head to toe in blue Tyvek and looked utterly exhausted. “I’m sure I’m going to crash and start to cry one of these days,” he said. “But I was broke for most of my years in business, and we’ve survived—so we’ll survive.”