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Chelsea Art Museum Fights for Survival Here and Abroad

By DNAinfo Staff on August 31, 2010 6:32am  | Updated on August 31, 2010 10:23am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — Digital artist Jack Toolin’s new exhibit, “Perfect View,” was supposed to show for a month after opening in early August at the Chelsea Art Museum. But less than two weeks later, the museum temporarily shut its doors.

Now, the exhibit, which explores the impact of GPS technology on our perception of landscapes, sits unviewed most days. It’s a turn of events Toolin said left him feeling “frustrated, disappointed.”

The Chelsea Art Museum is mired in $13 million of debt from refinanced mortgage and interest payments, according to the Wall Street Journal. Its crisis is compounded by founder and director Dorothea Keeser’s risky decision to use the museum’s permanent collection as collateral against a $350,000 loan.

Now, the fight to save the museum is being waged on two fronts. In New York, curator Nina Colosi and others are safeguarding relationships with patrons with special offerings, including an artist's talk by Toolin and exhibition viewings by appointment. In the south of France, German-born Keeser is meeting with foundations, museums and wealthy individuals in a scramble to find a savior.

“I haven’t given up completely,” said Keeser, who guaranteed that the museum would re-open at least temporarily in mid-October for two new exhibitions. “I’m keeping my promises.”

But if the eight-year-old museum does go into foreclosure after Keeser reports to bankruptcy court in mid-September, it won’t find a new home in Manhattan.

“If I lose the building, I will quit New York the same day with everything I ever brought,” Keeser said.

That will be a loss for some members of the art community, who see the Project Room for New Media, where Toolin’s exhibit is on display, as one of a small number of gallery spaces in the city that highlight experiments in digital art. 

“Some places are very art oriented, some are very tech-oriented, but this venue is both,” Adrianne Wortzel, a patron and professor living in the East Village, said while waiting for Toolin to begin his artist's talk last week. “I think it’s a shame.”

Another audience member, East Village artist Jenny Marketou, came in part because she had a personal attachment to the museum, stemming from her own exhibit, "Lighter than Fiction," offered earlier this year.

“It’s something very special for Chelsea,” Marketou said of the gallery space.

Colosi, who curates the Project Room, said she appreciated Toolin’s good-nature and flexibility, given the amount of work that went into the exhibit. It helps that some of Toolin’s work is also on display nearby at Google, where the Project Room is currently collaborating on an exhibition called "We Write This to You from the Distant Future."

Whatever happens next, Colosi pledged that she would continue to find venues to support multi-media exhibitions like Toolin’s.

“Whether there are financial problems or not, the arts have to go on,” Colosi said.