What a mess. And I wasn’t even badly affected. Here is my story:
In preparation for the “Frankenstorm” as the media was calling it, I stocked up on the necessities to last me at least five days. Water, canned food, granola bars, Halloween candy, batteries, and chipotle Triscuits (because the grocery store was out of the normal kinds of food, leading me to get wheat Wonder Bread). But this preparation for the storm took place on Sunday. The most important preparation took place on Saturday, at the Cristin Tierney Gallery on West 29th Street in Chelsea, where I work.
Given the proximity to the Hudson River and the warnings about the storm surge, the art handler and I prepared the gallery based on the traditional insurance guidelines. Our insurance broker had even called to ensure that we were ready for the storm, alerting us to raise everything 6 to 8 inches off the ground. We did that. Unplugged our office area, moved things out of harm’s way, and hoped that if water did come into the gallery, the drain inside would save us – the building being an old taxi garage that has a sloping floor and drain in the front.
Then the warnings came that this storm was going to be serious. More serious. More powerful. More destructive than Irene.
Then the storm came, and as I sat on my couch, glued to the news, catching up on my reading, and praying that the tree outside wouldn’t knock into my apartment, breaking windows and taking the power lines with it, I worried about the gallery. Had we done enough?
As the reports came in from Battery Park City, Queens, the Rockaways, Staten Island, the Jersey Shore, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound, we heard nothing of Chelsea. Friends in Stuyvesant Town were under three feet of water. Then lower Manhattan lost power. Still no word about Chelsea.
Tuesday morning came and reports of utter destruction flooded the news. Lower Manhattan was badly hit. The storm surge had ravaged the city, causing transformers to explode and the subways to be inundated with salt water. I decided that I needed to get to the gallery to scope out the potential damage and thankfully, a good friend of mine, Ali Osborn, offered to give me a ride. He works at the South Street Seaport Museum, which suffered from flooding from the storm surge. The entire print shop was ravaged.
And as I was about to get into the car to drive to Manhattan, I received a call from Cristin reporting that galleries on 24th Street had been hit with four feet of water. Panic set in.
Manhattan was a ghost town. No power, no traffic lights, people not sure what they should do with themselves, people using payphones(!), it was something out of an apocalyptic movie.
The drive down 29th Street was hopeful but strange as all the metal gates were down and there were no signs of people. As we pulled up in front of the gallery, I was shocked to see our vinyl sign still attached to the front of the building. I opened up the metal gate to the gallery, trying to see through the darkness if there had been any water and as I walked inside, I was shocked again to see absolutely no traces of water. None. It was a miracle. Our office, our library, and our artwork were all safe.
After I thanked my lucky stars, I walked down to 24th Street to see how they fared. What I saw was a disaster zone. I saw people carrying 8 foot paintings sopping wet and putting them on box trucks while they tried to clear the water out of their space. I heard about multi-million dollar deals that were now off because the works had been destroyed. Unbelievable.
Then I walked home six miles through the apocalyptic downtown, over the crowded Williamsburg bridge, and through the relatively untouched but unable to actually do anything Williamsburg.
When I arrived back at my apartment, it was then that I was able to process and realize the kind of meltdown I probably would have had had our situation at the gallery been any different. The cleanup, the repairs, the insurance claims, the calls to artists about their work. Thankfully, our artists reported that none of their studios had sustained any damage from the storm. So lucky.
On Wednesday, Cristin asked that we meet at the gallery to reconvene and see if our neighbors needed anything. Melanie Baker was so kind to give me a ride into Manhattan, my other carpool buddy being Leonard Lopate. Surreal. A pit stop at Dunkin’ Donuts with power revealed that my normal guys at 25th and 9th Ave had relocated temporarily. My dependence on Dunkin’ Donuts is somewhat embarrassing.
We inspected the gallery one more time and then decided to check on our neighbors. The taxi garage and the fish market were operating on a generator but our neighborhood deli was closed. On the chilly day, we saw the continued cleanup and restoration efforts from 27th Street’s Winkleman Gallery to 19th Street’s David Zwirner. An absolute mess. Basements flooded, exhibitions destroyed, libraries decimated, offices incapacitated. Millions of dollars worth of art, libraries, office equipment, property damage, not to mention archives that were wiped out including Printed Matter and Martha Graham farther south at WestBeth.
And so, as we checked in with our neighbors, we again realized just how lucky we were. As I walked over the Williamsburg bridge again, amidst even more people, I thought about the impact that this storm has had on the city and the art community as a whole. This city is resilient and I know it will bounce back, but in some cases the physical and economic damage is irreversible.
On Thursday, I spent the day reading about the extent of the damage in Chelsea as reported by all the major art critics (listed below). Each story heartbreaking and grounding.
On Friday, I got another ride with Melanie and Leonard. We were able to hook up to a generator to catch up, although we froze a bit in the dark gallery. I walked to the east side to catch the ferry to Williamsburg, waiting an hour before boarding the ship. Lower Manhattan was still without power when I arrived on the Brooklyn shore but I am happy to report that our power came back on Friday night, so we can now, luckily, resume business as usual starting on Monday.
I cannot reiterate enough just how lucky we were in all of this. My thoughts go out to those were not so fortunate and who have been working tirelessly throughout the week to rebuild. This has been a challenging time for everyone and everyone has their own story to share. Thanks for reading mine.
Chelsea Galleries Hit Hard by Storm Sandy, by Brian Boucher, Art in America.
Chelsea Art Galleries Struggle to Restore and Reopen, by Roberta Smith, The New York Times.
Saltz’ Devastating Tour through Chelsea’s Ruined Art Galleries, By Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine.
After the Flood: How Will Hurricane Sandy Change New York’s Art World? By Ben Davis, Artinfo.