NEW YORK — At the northernmost tip of Brooklyn, abutting the toxic Newtown Creek, sits an old factory building, which is a quiet, yet integral, part of New York’s art world. With studios stretching from the building’s cobblestoned entryway through a long, dark, corridor in the back, 99 Commercial Street has been home to dozens of artists for many years. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the waters of Newtown Creek flooded the building, destroying studios and the lifetimes of work within them.
As artists returned to the building on Tuesday and Wednesday, many found their studios transformed into piles of debris and are now tirelessly working to pump out water, haul trash, and sterilize salvageable tools and materials. The clean-up is slow and the building remains filled with mountains of destroyed art, wet books, and furniture. It’s still unclear whether it will even be possible to continue working out of the studios and several artists have already decided they will leave the building.
ARTINFO visited 99 Commercial Street on Wednesday, and though people were exhausted and in the midst of devastation, the warmth and communality of the building did not waver. While artist enclaves are common in many New York neighborhoods, established communities like this one in Greenpoint are rare. Many artists have been in the building for decades, and the Brooklyn Rail’s headquarters (located on the second floor and unscathed by Sandy) has served as a meeting place for New York’s artists and intellectuals for over ten years.
Though this week’s floods are not the building’s first, they are by far the worst. Artist and Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui lost 90 percent of his work this week. Still recovering from a smaller flood last spring in which his studio flooded with a few inches of water, his current exhibition at Showroom Gallery, titled “After the Flood,” seems eerily prescient (in fact, it opened on Monday, just as the storm was approaching New York). Rachel Beach, a wood sculptor whose studio was completely devastated by Sandy, was wearing a face mask and rain boots as she attempted to clean out her studio. “It’s like a death,” she said to ARTINFO as she looked around the piles that filled the space of her previously pristine studio.
One resource that’s come through for artists in the past few days is the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), which has a 24 hour hotline to answer questions about salvaging work, and over 100 volunteer conservators in the field to help artists and organizations in emergency situations. “We’re funded through a federal agency so our primary focus is on public collections,” AIC’s emergency response coordinator, Eric Pourchot, explained over the phone to ARTINFO, “but we can provide advice and assistance to galleries and artists and we have also assisted with private and individual collections.”
A volunteer responder at AIC was emphatic about not throwing out work before consulting a conservator. Modest actions like putting works on paper into a freezer can do a lot to prevent mold and give artists time to find someone to help restore it. Given the state of venues like 99 Commercial Street, it seems that there will be plenty of work ahead for artists picking up the pieces.
To see images of 99 Commercial Street, click on the slideshow.