Sandy's Other Victim: Art Galleries

Art galleries in Chelsea were devastated by the flooding in New York City during Hurricane Sandy. According to just one insurer, the cost to Chelsea exceeds $40 million in lost or damaged work.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's going to take a long time for New York to fully recover from Superstorm Sandy. The lower Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea was especially hit hard. It only covers about a square mile, but it's home to more than 200 of New York's art galleries.

Many of them were flooded by the Hudson River surge caused by the storm. And as Jon Kalish reports, this one single area may have incurred some of the costliest damage in the tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Construction crews are busy along West 24th Street ripping out water-soaked drywall and putting up new sheets. ARTnews editor Robin Cembalest has been riding her bicycle around the neighborhood in the weeks following Sandy.

ROBIN CEMBALEST: Mostly it's construction crews wearing hazmat suits, taking out Sheetrock and garbage. I've seen a lot of broken, busted, shattered artworks on the sidewalk and a lot of sadness.

KALISH: On West 23rd Street, the basement of Jim Kempner's art gallery was flooded big time.

JIM KEMPNER: My new business cards say that we're on the corner of 23rd and the Hudson.

KALISH: His gallery is actually about a quarter mile from the Hudson River. He figures he lost close to a million dollars in art altogether. Kempner sent the works he hopes can be salvaged to a conservator in Manhattan. In Queens, conservator Gloria Velandia has 500 paintings and prints damaged by Sandy in her lab.

GLORIA VELANDIA: Definitely there are millions of dollars worth of art in my studio. How many million, I have no idea.

KALISH: Velandia has rented additional space and hired more conservators to help with the influx. They're working nights and weekends to cope with the workload. Velandia says the experience has been heartbreaking. She points to a watercolor worth $350,000 and explains that the stains the floodwater left on the paper are called tidemarks.

VELANDIA: Some of the tidemarks may be minimized, but at least I know that a lot of the bacteria is not there anymore, and the work can be flattened safely. So the undulations that you see on the paper right now, those can be corrected and the paper can be flat again.

KALISH: But she says some of the stains will likely remain. Nearby, a blue patch of corroded bronze is visible inside a small hollow million-dollar sculpture covered in gold.

VELANDIA: The gold patina is very stable, but we found corrosion right here. So you can see what the water and the salt did and how it compromised the metals.

KALISH: The sculpture and the watercolor were insured. In fact, the AXA Art Insurance Corporation has policies covering $1.6 billion worth of art just in Chelsea. CEO Christiane Fischer estimates her company alone will pay out $40 million to cover thousands of damaged or ruined artworks. She says that when there's a clearer sense of just how big the losses in Chelsea are, there may be changes in the way insurance companies cover galleries.

CHRISTIANE FISCHER: Now that we have seen that the floods may not only be two or three feet but six, seven feet, I think that definitely going forward, there has to be a different way to prepare for those storms before the storm hits.

KALISH: In other words, insurance companies are likely to shift more of the burden on to galleries. Nobody I talked to is considering moving out of the Chelsea art district, but the coveted ground floor exhibition spaces may not be as desirable as they once were. As one gallery owner put it, the second floor is the new first floor.

EDWARD WINKLEMAN: We will certainly never put anything in the basement again, now that we know a 14-foot surge is feasible.

KALISH: Edward Winkleman's gallery is in one of the ground floor spaces and has still not reopened.

WINKLEMAN: Whether or not we would move, I mean, not immediately. No. We have a lease. But I think when the lease is up, yeah, certainly, this will play into our thinking.

KALISH: The Art Dealers Association of America has established a quarter-million-dollar fund to help galleries to get back on their feet, and some have already reopened. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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