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Chelsea After Sandy: MoMA Talk Sheds Light On Restoration Process As Galleries Recover (PHOTOS)

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A peek inside Zach Feuer gallery on 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.
A peek inside Zach Feuer gallery on 22nd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.

"I have thousands of architectural documents, some over a hundred years old, and they've been submerged in water for days," a man told the audience this past weekend at an event held at The Museum of Modern Art, aimed to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy's unwelcome vist through New York City and its many museums and galleries. The man asked whether freezing the work would stop mold from growing. Experts from the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) were there to give advice to befuddled artists and gallerists.

Kala Harinarayanan from the American Museum of Natural History cautioned against entering places that have been damaged due to the storm. "The things that are damaged are already damaged," she said. Harinarayanan advised people to "take a deep breath" and make a plan before going into a space, so as not to panic once inside.

Monona Russell, an independent conservationist, told the well-dressed crowd at the MoMA to put on Tyvek suits and rubber boots to enter flood-damaged areas. The no-nonsense, self-described "industrial hygienist" said to make sure not to bring your boots back home with you, because you could track in waste materials and toxins from damaged sites into your living space. For gallery owners, Russell said, "If mold is a problem and your employees are exposed, then you have a problem." In other words, pull up carpet and take down drywall.

chelsea after sandy moma

Caitlin O'Grady, an art conservationist from the University of Delaware's Department of Art Conservation, took on a challenging issue facing many post-Sandy: insurance claims.

She urged the audience to begin the process of gathering documentation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurers -- and to freeze all paper records and receipts, unless there's backup somewhere else. She warned that "you probably have mold" even if you don't see it, and said "once spores form, they can never be completely removed." Salt damage is another factor, she noted. If salts crystallize, they can expand once the space returns to room temperature, which causes further damage to the art work. She advised keeping air circulating when drying out works, and keeping the lights on, since mold likes to grow in the dark.

An anxious looking man glanced at those beside him, pushed his hand up, and asked, "We have a studio next to the Gowanus [Canal]. How do we clean this up?" Members of the audience looked at each other. Russell, the independent conservationist, sighed. "It's contaminated water at best," she said, and could come with "arsenic, lead, and mercury risks," as well as sewage and petroleum elements.

A visit to the New York art-centric neighborhood of Chelsea after the talk revealed that white dust and piles of garbage now make up 22nd Street. A FEMA rep walked down the block, shook his head, and said to his partner, "This whole street is damaged." On 10th Avenue, Jim Kempner -- of Jim Kempner Fine Art -- helped his crew clean up the mess. "It looks like a warzone," he said, then gestured inside his gallery.

chelsea after sandy moma

"My new business cards say my address is 10th Avenue and the Hudson," Kempner joked. His expression changed, and he continued, "It's shattering, but you look at what's gone on at the shore and how people lost their houses, we're lucky."

Hundreds of works of paper at his gallery are damaged, perhaps irrevocably, and an entire edition he did with the graphic design goddess Paula Scher is completely destroyed, Kempner said. The architects who built the offices went to bed upstairs when Sandy came through and woke up to "over three feet" of "horrible, contaminated water," he described. "We had a generator running for 48 straight hours," he said, "but you had to beg people for gas."

From the look of things, it will be days, maybe weeks, before Chelsea can reopen to the public. However, there is some good news: David Zwirner will reopen this Friday, Nov. 9th, with an exhibition by Diana Thater.

See a slideshow of the area below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section. (See more of Kempner in The Madness of Art, a hilarious new comedy series, here.)

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Chelsea During Post-Sandy Renovations
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Need help with a damaged work of art? Call AIC's 24-hour assistance number at 202.661.8068.

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The Huffington Post is eager for insights from our community, especially people with experience in power, infrastructure and engineering, on the adequacy of emergency preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy, and the degree to which past disasters have informed adequate planning and construction. Please send a note to sandytips@huffingtonpost.com with insights and suggestions for the important questions that need to be asked of relevant private sector and government officials, and point us toward stories that need to be pursued.

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