New York City’s art districts—Chelsea, with its hundreds of galleries, as well as the Lower East Side and Red Hook—have many distinctions: they’re neighborhoods where anyone can see important art for free on almost any day of the week, they’re places where newcomers are embraced and established artists are celebrated, they’re a vital part of the city’s cultural infrastructure. They also happen to be low-lying. In the days since Hurricane Sandy hit the city, the drawbacks of that topography have been in stark relief. But now, with the first wave of gallery reopenings and a major funding resource made available, recovery has begun to seem possible.
On Nov. 6, the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) announced a relief-fund program that would provide up to $10,000 each for galleries that were flooded or otherwise damaged by the storm—and, in a push to assist smaller galleries and encourage others to contribute to the $250,000 endowment the ADAA has put aside for the cause, TIME has learned that major gallerist David Zwirner will announce a pledge to add $50,000 to that fund.
“Chelsea is, for better or for worse, the center of the international art world, and it’s really been wiped—not wiped out, but wiped,” says Julia Joern, director of marketing at David Zwirner’s gallery, whose Chelsea spaces were flooded. “But we’re super committed to Chelsea.”
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The devastation experienced in that neighborhood was not fully anticipated by gallery-owners and artists: Gallerist NY maintained a detailed live-blog of the storm’s impact on the area, and the suddenness of the damage is striking. Announcements leap from a snarky event-postponement post at 10:30 a.m. on the morning the storm hit, to a post about a Red Hook gallery that is “dealing just fine with that neighborhood’s flooding” an hour later, to news of water spilling out of the Hudson River onto Chelsea streets at 2 p.m. to—by the next morning—reports of major flooding. A week later, stories in the New York Times and elsewhere questioned whether recovery would ever be possible.
The ADAA relief fund won’t be enough to fix everything, acknowledges the organization’s executive director, Linda Blumberg, but it will be fast and easy way for gallerists to get help in the overwhelming first days of rebuilding. “It became immediately clear to us right after the storm that our constituency had been hit in the worst way, decimated,” she says. “What we felt at ADAA was that the main thing was to restore as quickly as possible those gallery spaces so that they could re-open and, frankly, speed was absolutely essential because the longer water or mold stayed in the galleries, the worse the damage.”
The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs has been helpful and disaster and insurance funds will ultimately be the galleries’ main resources, but the ADAA’s one-page application and lack of red tape will, Blumberg hopes, allow the first funds to be disbursed as early as tomorrow, Nov. 9, to hold over those affected while they wait.
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Blumberg says that the ADAA did not solicit contributions to the relief fund, but that the response from gallerists worried about their less well-off colleagues was immediate, something she attributes to awareness of the delicate nature of the the area’s artistic ecosystem.
At David Zwirner, for example, the first post-Sandy installation will open on Nov. 9. It’s a video project that had been intended for a January showing but was moved up because it would be possible to exhibit it in the single room of the gallery that has been prepared to open. The rest of the gallery will open at a later time, as crews go east-to-west through the space, clearing out wet drywall and repairing the rooms. (The installation, Diana Thater’s “Chernobyl,” was not chosen because of its subject matter, says Joern, but is “doubly relevant” now, with themes of natural and man-made disaster.) The worry, for Zwirner, is that other galleries will not bounce back so quickly.
“We more established galleries want to help the younger galleries and more emerging artists to survive and stay in Chelsea. Our fear is that smaller galleries might have to close,” Joern says. And there’s also the fear that nobody who didn’t live through the disaster has noticed what happened: “I guess what’s surprising to us is we feel like there’s this story that’s not out there. If the New York City theater district was hit, everyone would know, but somehow this art world thing has stayed in the art world.”
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But there are some things a relief fund can’t fix.
For one thing, the threat of a repeat disaster looms. Elan Wingate, director of Gagosian Gallery, one of New York’s most prominent galleries, says that their Chelsea locations were “very lucky” to escape with less than a foot of water inside the galleries and had the happy coincidence to have planned an exhibition of outdoor sculpture that was designed to handle inclement weather. “Fortunately, I can call [the damage] cosmetic,” Wingate says. “I’m saddened over what I see with my neighbors—then again, what I’m saddened by is looking out onto the street and seeing shards of drywall and plywood, and we did the same.” But, despite that luck, Gagosian is investigating moving control panels higher up on walls and installing weatherproof roll-gate doors.
And of course, even when the drywall goes back in, not all of the art will have made it through, despite efforts by conservators (whom Businessweek calls “overwhelmed” by the influx of work in need of repairs).
“It’s painful to throw out what can’t be salvaged. When you talk about art, you’re not talking about a manufactured item. It’s not like you can go back and make more,” says the ADAA’s Blumberg. But she says she’s still hopeful. “I don’t think there’s a doubt that this community is going to come back. I hate to sound maudlin—I’m very practical and I’m very focused on the realities—but the fact is I’ve been really touched by this sense of community.”