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A Climate Change in the Art World?

Written by Robin Cembalest Posted 11/13/12
Art News

The benefits are in formation, online fundraisers have launched, and the first emergency grants have been delivered. A week after Hurricane Sandy, gallery-goers were back in Chelsea, picking their way around rubble, shattered glass, and dealers who were still hauling damaged art out of their basements.

In the new reality, several Chelseas coexist: there’s one of power suits; and another of rubber boots, hazmat suits, and no power at all. Pace, Cohan, Kern, Anna Kustera, and Magnan Metz reopened, along with a growing list of spaces that due to geography or luck escaped serious damage. Others are relying on improvisation: Gasser Grunert ³ is opening Thursday in a 20-foot rental cube truck in front of the gallery’s space at West 19th Street; Michael Rosenfeld, a new transplant from 57th Street, has set up shop on the mezzanine level of its new (flooded) Chelsea quarters at 100 Eleventh Avenue and has started seeing clients by appointment. Various galleries have also reopened, but their phones don’t work.

Others won’t be back anytime soon. Ed Winkleman, one of several 27th Street gallery owners who need to detoxify their basements urgently, doesn’t expect electricity for a few more weeks. He’s looking for a generator.

As for how many galleries wouldn’t return at all, no one was ready to say.

The demise of some of the art community’s more fragile, underinsured and undercapitalized ventures might be one painful consequence of the hurricane, which wiped out studios, inventories, and infrastructure. A more hopeful legacy might be a newfound engagement of the art world with the real world–if, that is, the level of volunteerism inspired by the storm continues. And if more people from cultural sphere engage in the response to climate change as protagonists, rather than merely as commentators.

By all accounts, the unprecedented hurricane inspired an unprecedented amount of donations of material, labor, and expertise. In studios, nonprofits, and galleries in Chelsea, downtown Manhattan, and low-lying Brooklyn neighborhoods like Dumbo, Red Hook, and Gowanus, friends, conservators, insurers, lawyers, construction workers, and numerous total strangers materialized to help pump, dig, wash, dry, detoxify, and decode the arcane language of claims and loans and grant applications.

MoMA’s conservation department, Heritage Preservation in Washington, New York’s Cultural Affairs Department, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, along with a long list of other organizations, private and public, came forth with resources; various foundations, including Warhol, Joan Mitchell, and Pollock-Krasner, targeted funds for the flooded. Last Friday the Art Dealers Association of America awarded the first grants from its $250,000 Relief Fund (fortified with $50,000 donations from David Zwirner and Mitchell-Innes & Nash), to three hard-hit galleries–Wallspace, Bortolami, and Derek Eller, along with the venerable artists’ bookstore Printed Matter. More grants are forthcoming by Friday, according to ADAA executive director Linda Blumberg, who is also looking for office and sales space for displaced dealers. Last week, about 90 gallery representatives attended a forum the ADAA hosted at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where representatives of insurance companies offered advice on how to move forward. Among them was Christiane Fischer, president and CEO of AXA Art Insurance, which insures 300 risk locations in Chelsea, including 83 galleries. She estimates the losses of its clients in the neighborhood to date at $40 million.

Beyond the two Chelseas was the tale of two cities exposed in Sandy’s aftermath. Powered by various trends in the art world—the influence of the Occupy movement and the rise of Rockaway surf culture among them–the art community did more than embrace its own. Alone and together, its members set out to marginalized neighborhoods, helping with the recovery effort and going door-to-door inside powerless housing projects with food and supplies.

Wielding Facebook, Twitter, and a list of boldface-named supporters, MoMA PS 1 director Klaus Biesenbach organized busloads of volunteers (including famous friends like Madonna and Michael Stipe) to distribute donations, dig out cars and basements, erect shelter tents, and coordinate other relief efforts. Such efforts say “that the art world understands it’s not in a privileged bubble,” comments Biesenbach, who bought a house last year in Rockaway Beach after being introduced to the area by artist-surfer friends like Doug Aitken, Tom Sachs, and Dustin Yellin. “We have to understand it’s all one city.”

Another part-time Rockaways resident, Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl, has been working with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a partnership of community members who promote public waterfront access. Before the storm, the museum had scheduled an exhibition of student artworks made of beach garbage in a collaboration between the Alliance and the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. Most of the works were damaged in the storm, but the one that survived will be showcased in a benefit the museum is staging for the alliance this Sunday. “Of course it’s called Washed Away,” says Jeanne DuPont, the executive director of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, noting that this project bears a melancholy similarity to the current scenario in the Rockaways, where it has become difficult to distinguish piles of donations from people’s washed-away belongings that litter the streets. (After conservation, the Washed Away works will appear at the Queens Museum as planned, probably early next year.)

While the museum has sent teams to aid with urgent needs, there is also a longer-term benefit in helping a local group that has been working on the ground with communities across the peninsula, Finkelpearl says. “They’re not going to leave with the Red Cross in a month,” he comments. The event, which is free (donate what you can), will feature music by DJ Rekha, along with bartending by Duke Riley, on-the-spot portrait painting by Ellen Harvey, along with performances, food, film screenings, and more.

Many other benefits, editions, and sales to benefit Hurricane victims are in the works (Artinfo has a partial list here). Independent Curators International (ICI) is giving a portion of proceeds from the auction at its November 19 fundraiser to the ADAA’s Relief Fund. Creative Time, which held a sand-castle building competition in the Rockaways last summer, is working with Paddle 8 and NYFA on a benefit for hard-hit arts groups.

What kind of climate change will the storm cause in the art world? “I don’t think we’ll even trust putting a piece of cardboard in our basement any more,” says Winkleman, echoing many of his colleagues. But for the majority of dealers, the migration of storage is but another intimidating expense in a nerve-racking and heart-rending saga. What’s clear is that the next time around, dealers won’t be preparing for a two- or three-foot surge, but a six or seven-foot one. “Now there’s a different worst-case scenario,” says AXA’s Fischer.

Along with rebuilding the art world comes the question of how the art world can be part of the process to create a city of the future that can face climate change.

“A 100-year storm doesn’t mean it will happen in 100 years,” says Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, whose 2010 exhibition “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront” is receiving renewed attention in the wake of the storm.

For “Rising Currents,” teams-in-residence at the museum presented projects that anticipate sea-level rise resulting from global climate change in the New York area; the public was invited to debate and discuss them. Now, Bergdoll would like to revisit those proposals. He wants to bring the architecture and design community together with developers, officials, and others to shape climate-change-ready New York, where strategies like wave breakers, oyster reefs, and wetlands can act as lines of defense.

“I don’t want to have yet another panel discussion,” he says. “I want something that takes it to yet another level of effectiveness. I’m trying to figure out what that is.”

Walter Meyer, a landscape architect and designer, is working with the Waterfront Alliance and several other local nonprofits on a fundraising project called Power Rockaways Resilience. The goals are to deliver power now in the form of solar generators and to enhance resilience for the future by developing projects for phytoremediation (using plants to leach out pollutants), creating dunes, and developing other strategies to protect the land from storm surges.

Another priority is recreating the boardwalk, the symbol and spine of the peninsula, which connects its diverse communities and provides a staging ground for the concessions that bring economic activity to the area. An elevated wood boardwalk, Meyer notes, is no longer tenable, because its elements can become projectiles during storms. Meyer and his colleagues are devising ideas for a provisional boardwalk on the beach surface, where temporary concessions can operate out of solar-powered shipping containers.

“We’re growing this by the hour,” he says.

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