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01.14.2014
Editorial> What About Cultural Resiliency?
Alan G. Brake makes an argument for protecting West Chelsea as a gallery district.
David Zwirner's Chelsea gallery designed by Selldorf Architects.
Jason Schmidt

The damage from Hurricane Sandy continues to resonate in New York. While devastated families and ruined homes grab the headlines, the economic impacts are complex and far reaching. One sector that could be drastically reshaped is the rarified world of art galleries. Far West Chelsea in Manhattan has solidified its position as the dominant gallery district in the city, and many galleries have commissioned architecturally significant spaces by leading firms, including Deborah Berke Partners, Selldorf Architects, Gluckman Mayner Architects, and Adjaye Associates, among many others.

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the neighborhood, damaging the physical spaces and destroying countless works. Most have since reopened, but a second wave of damage is headed for Chelsea. One gallery owner recently told me that fine arts insurance premiums have skyrocketed, and that many insurers are not extending policies to ground floor or below grade galleries. The blue chip brand names—Gagosian, Zwirner, et al.—that own their locations will survive. Smaller galleries that rent their spaces will likely be devastated. These galleries are an essential element in the city’s cultural ecosystem, and smaller spaces provide venues for emerging artists (and sometimes architects) who will later show in more established galleries or museums.

The character of Chelsea will inevitably change, but likely not for the better if the galleries close or decamp for another neighborhood. New York’s galleries have migrated from many different neighborhoods over the decades, but in this ever more gentrified city it is difficult to imagine where they would end up next (remember when Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had a gallery scene?). If SoHo is the clearest precedent, New York will end up with more of what it doesn’t need: high-end boutiques.

The city’s garment industry has organized around preserving its footprint in the five boroughs, arguing that local clothing manufacturing is essential to maintain New York as a fashion capital. Time will tell if they can succeed, but they have set a precedent that others in the cultural community could follow.

Worrying over the future of New York’s art galleries might not seem like a high priority in the populist de Blasio era, but if there is one thing we have all come to learn in this constantly changing city it is that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Alan G. Brake