Saltz’s Devastating Tour Through Chelsea’s Ruined Art Galleries

Workers mop out the Gagosian Gallery as a Henry Moore sculpture stands in a puddle behind them. Photo: Jerry Saltz

I live downtown, in the part of Manhattan without power. Like many, my nights have been long, dark, cold, and unnervingly quiet. With no Internet access, cell phone, or news I was antsy, and felt the urge to wander. On day two, wondering how the galleries in Chelsea had weathered the storm, I seized the opportunity to leave my apartment and head west. And when I got there, my art-heart sunk.

Widespread devastation was in painful evidence in scores and scores of ground floor galleries between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. Almost every ground floor gallery had been inundated with four or more feet of water. All of the many basement storage facilities were flooded. Computers and desk equipment were wiped out. Reams and reams of irretrievable historical material stored in notebooks and gallery files were washed away, destroyed. Sculptures, crates, furniture, and paintings floated inside water-filled galleries, ramming walls and other works of art. Whole shows were destroyed. Desks floated free. Glass doors had shattered from the pressure of the water inside the galleries. Walls already reeked of mildew or had rotted through.

Damage to art has been far-reaching. I had to turn away when I saw Belgium painter Luc Tuymans going into David Zwirner to inspect a waterlogged painting of his. I watched outside Printed Matter as box after box of their own printed editions and titles were brought up from the basement and thrown into dumpsters. All lost. Outside, on almost all sidewalks, there were massive piles of cardboard, plastic, and crates. Inside each of these containers had been artworks that had been soaked. I saw stunned gallerists un-framing works on paper, setting them out to dry on any available surface. Other dealers in work boots pushed crates out of spaces, onto the sidewalks, straight into dumpsters. One woman drove in 50 five-gallon containers of gas from upstate to fill the many pumping generators. Volunteer restoration experts went from gallery to gallery to inspect works, separate the salvageable from the lost. It was an art MASH unit. I saw paintings being carried from Friedrich Petzel’s flooded 22nd Street space to dry storage in his new space on 18th Street. From the outside it looked as though a bomb had gone off inside 303 Gallery. Ditto many other galleries. I saw torrents of water rushing out of Gagosian’s cavernous 21st Street space. When I ducked under the door I saw a large lone Henry Moore sculpture standing in inches of water. A sub-ground level space on West 19th Street, filled as if it were a swimming pool, had paintings floating in more than fifteen feet of water. 

I asked dealers if they had insurance. Most have it for the work. Some have it for flood damage. Most don’t have any insurance other than on the art. This could spell the end of many galleries small and large.

Many ridicule Chelsea galleries as flesh-eating pariahs. I think they’re part of our life blood, the collective organism that in many ways makes New York one of the most thriving centers for art on earth. These ridiculed and reviled galleries are places you can go for free, run by strange people with visions who want to help artists by showing and selling their work. It’s become an international pastime to attack these galleries simply for being what they are: large and commercial. I love them. All. More than ever.

Walk through Chelsea in the next couple of weeks as clean-up and repair continues. Notice that some spaces look so wrecked that it’ll be extraordinarily hard for them to get back on their feet. Many galleries will somehow have to try and rebuild while getting through the next couple of months of not being open or being able to show or sell art, all while still paying rent and bills. Even the most cold-hearted gallery bashers should wish the best for all these galleries. Every one. Palaces of art and mom-and-pop shows. Right now, along with much of our beautiful city, Chelsea galleries are going through hell. A huge part of the New York art world has suffered a colossal blow. Thinking about New York without its density of galleries is like not being able to think about New York at all. Grim.

Saltz’s Devastating Visit to Chelsea Galleries