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Chelsea's Damaged Galleries Push to Reopen

By Jessica Campbell | November 12, 2012 9:24am | Updated on November 12, 2012 9:30am

CHELSEA — The David Zwirner Gallery opened its doors Friday for the first time since Hurricane Sandy — but to get there, patrons will have to walk past the many flooded storefronts that once comprised Chelsea's vibrant art scene.

Shuttered galleries, ravaged and torn by Sandy, line Chelsea’s blocks between 10th and 11th avenues. The luckier ones, like David Zwirner, are starting to open their doors. Others will be closed for weeks; some might be closed forever.

At David Zwirner on West 19th Street, the floodwaters rose chest-high and power was knocked out. Staff began working to empty, clean and rebuild one of the three gallery spaces over the past week, even before electricity was restored.

The opening show — six walls of film featuring Diana Thater's footage of Chernobyl's "zone of alienation" — originally wasn't scheduled until early next year, but it was pushed up to launch the gallery's reopening.

“What this work is dealing with is the man-made environment versus the natural environment, so it's especially poignant that we have this now,” said Julia Joern, Zwirner’s gallery director.

Other galleries have also been working tirelessly to repair the damages inflicted by the storm, and the competition for contractors has been tough. 

Scott Briscoe, a gallery associate at Sikkema Jenkins & Co on West 22nd Street, said that his space was inundated with a couple feet of water during the storm, damaging the walls.

To reopen quickly, the gallery opted to patch and paint over the troublesome spots and save more extensive repairs for later. Neighboring galleries weren’t so fortunate, Briscoe said.

“I think it's going to be hard for some galleries to come back from this,” Briscoe said. “I think it will kind of change the landscape of Chelsea.”

Gallery owners eager to preserve the diversity of that landscape have stepped up to help out their colleagues. The Art Dealer’s Association of America (ADAA) started receiving tens of thousands of dollars of unsolicited donations from members immediately after the storm.

"Really what these pledges signify is that even though some galleries have the resources to recover quickly from an event like this, a lot of them really value their colleagues who are in more vulnerable positions,” said Lily Mitchem, ADAA’s director of communications and programming.

The fund has collected $250,000, and ADAA has already started doling out grants.

The first recipients, announced Friday, are Wallspace, Bortolami Gallery, Derek Eller Gallery and Printed Matter, Inc., which received grants based on the severity of damage the shops sustained.

"A lot of the urgency in our response was getting people to the point where they're able to operate their businesses again,” Mitchem said. “The longer that you're not able to run your business, the harder it is to recover.” 

Joern, Zwirner's gallery director, noted that it is not just the artists and galleries that have suffered from Sandy, but also Chelsea's entire art industry. Framers, truck drivers, painters, contractors and the thousands of other auxiliary workers have all been effected, she said.

“There’s a whole industry around art,” Joern said. “We want Chelsea to be the vital place that it always has been. We really want Chelsea to survive.”

Briscoe, of Sikkema Jenkins & Co, said Chelsea’s community is irreplaceable for art lovers.

“People see the art world in Chelsea as all commodities and investments,” Briscoe said. “But for people who love art, this is precious and something that people have a lot of emotional connection to.”