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New York art market flooded, literally

November 14, 2012

Many art galleries in Chelsea, which is on the far west side of Manhattan, were flooded as the storm hit New York.—AFP Photo

NEW YORK: New York's Chelsea, a hub of the global contemporary art market, became the world's most glamorous disaster zone during superstorm Sandy, suffering millions of dollars in flooding damages.

Even two weeks later, many of the 400 or so galleries crammed into the small neighbourhood are struggling to get back on their feet.

Like all of lower Manhattan, Chelsea was blasted by hurricane-strength winds and stripped of electricity during Sandy, but most damage came from flooding.

A neighbourhood famous for its minimalist lofts and chic residents now resembles a construction site. Windows that are cracked or lined with safety tape remain a common sight, and shards of glass crunch underfoot.

At the Jim Kempner gallery, large-scale photographs have been laid out to dry. At the influential Larry Gagosian gallery, stylish young women employees greet visitors in protective face masks.

Near 11th Avenue, the high-water mark left by the grimy floods rises to shoulder height. “I was expecting 20 centimetres of flooding, not a river in the middle of the street,” gallery owner Leo Koening, 35, said, adding he was lucky because, while his space was flooded, he'd managed to get all his artworks out in time.

At David Zwirner, “our space was flooded at chest heights, including our offices and storage space,” spokeswoman Julia Joern said. Some of the damaged works can be restored, but not the “watercolours, which were too fragile.” Other galleries fared even worse, especially those that stored art in their cellars.

Several, including Sonnabend and Pavel Zoubok, are closed until further notice. Joern estimated costs to the art scene in the “millions and millions” of dollars.

Axa Art insurers alone say they already face $40 million in claims out of about $1 billion insured in Chelsea. Other insurers, such as Dewitt Stern Fine Art, also have losses, and some galleries are not even insured.

Making matters worse, the natural disaster came right ahead of the big autumn contemporary art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's.

“A lot of collectors are in town. It's never a good thing to be closed on auction week,” Joern said.

The industry group Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) said it would make emergency grants and loans available for galleries in the flood zone, including Wallspace, Bortolami Gallery and Derek Eller.

“The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is unprecedented,” ADAA spokeswoman Linda Blumberg said.

Gallery owner Tanya Bonakdar, who saved her artworks but will have to repair the flooded ground floor, said she hopes the insurers will pay up.

“It is a first time I put out a claim in 20 years,” she said. “All Chelsea is affected. Galleries in Chicago or Los Angeles are watching to see if insurers are going to stand by us or not.

“It will have an impact on the future of this market.” Some galleries, like Mathew Marks or David Zwirner, have reopened the latter holding its first post-Sandy exhibit focusing on man's role in natural disasters.

“We wanted a positive momentum,” Joern said.