The first thing you noticed walking through the streets lined with art galleries in Manhattan’s Chelsea district Wednesday was the constant, undulating roar of generators, and the hoses, in clumps of three or four, snaking out of just about every gallery, from which cold water that had come flooding in from the Hudson River now gushed into the street. But if you peeked into the darkened galleries — no one here had electricity — you got a sense of the toll that Hurricane Sandy has taken on the district, an important part of the arts economy.
Gallery owners and employees — some calm and philosophical, some too distraught to speak — spent Wednesday sorting through the artworks that had been hanging on their walls or were packed in their storage rooms, separating those that were irrevocably damaged from those that stood a good chance of being restored. Some owners described themselves as lucky, having suffered less extensive damage than their neighbors. But scarcely a gallery was unscathed.
“We were expecting a foot of water, and we got four,” said David Zwirner, who was about to mount an exhibition of works by Luc Tuymans and Francis Alys at his gallery. “There was a lot of damage, but it would be impossible at this point to say how much. I have a feeling that many of the pieces can be restored.”
Zwirner said that he had “prepared diligently” and had moved much of his art to his warehouse in Queens, which he said was untouched.
“But the gallery itself was hit hard,” he said, despite his having piled up sandbags in the hope of keeping the water out.
Besides artwork, he lost computers, furniture and flat files that had been stored on the ground floor.
Across the street at Chambers Fine Arts, a gallery that specializes in contemporary Chinese works, Jeff Schweitzer walked across the main gallery room, where a handful of large paintings were drying in the middle of the floor. He pointed out that because four stairs lead up from the entrance to the gallery floor, the water level in the gallery was only about two feet.
“The stuff on the walls was OK,” he said, “but the work we had in storage was lost, although it’s possible that some pieces can be restored. In a lot of cases, once the pieces are stretched, they’ll be fine.”
Two buildings west, at the large space run by Klemens Gasser and Tanja Grunert, the scene was one of complete devastation, partly because the main showing space was at the basement level. Upstairs, at the street-level part of the gallery, large pieces leaned against the walls, and workmen cleared out debris.
“We put everything upstairs,” Grunert said, “but we had five feet of water at street level.”
She said that she had storage facilities elsewhere, too, but had not had time to check their condition.
Gallery owners declined to speak in terms of the number of works destroyed or the financial value of the pieces that were lost, partly, they said, because they simply won’t know until they do complete annotated inventories.
“I haven’t even seen everything yet,” Zach Feuer said. “But I would say that perhaps 2 percent of my inventory escaped damage.”
Feuer pointed to a five-foot water line on his wall and noted that the gallery sloped down in the rear — something other owners pointed out about their own spaces — so the water was deeper in the back, where many have storage and office space.
“When I got here, I found things that were in the back room were up against the front window,” Feuer said.
Tony Coll, the property manager for the building that includes Feuer’s gallery, as well as the Franklin Parrasch Gallery and the CRG Gallery (it is the former home of the Dia Center for the Arts), said that artworks aside, the storm caused damage to the building that would have to be dealt with before many of the galleries could get back to business.
“For starters, we have no power,” Coll said, “and there was potential damage to the electrical systems. We will also have to repair damage to interior walls and doors, and exterior glazing.”
He expected the costs for his building to be about $200,000.
Feuer was not alone in noting the force with which the overflowing Hudson filled space. Rachel Churner, who opened a gallery, Churner & Churner, a year and a half ago, said that water rushed so violently into her basement storage that it tore shelves and cabinets from the walls and piled them up at one end of the space, destroying work that had been put in waterproof boxes and bags and put on high shelves.
“We must have had at least five feet of water in the basement,” Churner said. “To be honest with you, we’re not even sure yet what happened down there.”
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s just not going to be salvageable,” she said, adding that among the pieces destroyed were works from her own collection. “The fury of the water was tremendous. We were definitely caught off guard.”
Like most other galleries, hers will remain closed at least until the power comes back on and probably for many days after that.
“Then we’ll start our mammoth insurance claim and try to go from there,” Churner said.
Larry Gagosian, the superdealer with galleries at three locations in Manhattan, said he had been coping with downed phone lines at his gallery on Madison Avenue and had not had a chance to visit his two Chelsea galleries.
“Thank goodness we had warning this was coming because we moved a lot of art high up on the walls before the storm,” he said.
One owner, Andrew Freiser of Fredericks & Freiser, said he felt lucky and noted that a border of electrical tape around his doors and windows had reduced the amount of water that got into the space.
“Who’d have thought?” he said, pointing to a four-foot water line on the outside of his door, and a one-foot water line just inside. “We were very lucky.”
Many galleries, like Elizabeth Dee, were trying to find locksmiths to help them get into their galleries, which were sealed shut behind powerless security gates. (Late Wednesday, workers were able to get into the gallery, where there was some water damage but none to art work, Dee said.)
And at least one business in the area, the nonprofit art book shop Printed Matter, has taken to Facebook in the hope of getting art fans to help in the business of cleaning and salvaging.
“The basement of Printed Matter was severely flooded during the hurricane,” a note on the store’s Facebook page said. “We could definitely use some extra pairs of hands if anyone is in the neighborhood and can spare a few hours to help.”