By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For those gathered at New York's Museum of Modern Art on Sunday for a session on salvaging art damaged in the flood waters of superstorm Sandy, it was as much a support-group meeting as learning about drying techniques and mold control.
As New York City emerges from a week without power and no public transportation and tens of thousands of people find themselves homeless, artists and gallerists in the art hub of West Chelsea in Manhattan are facing ruined galleries, flooded storage facilities and water-logged artwork.
Scores of galleries saw flood water of four feet in ground-floor exhibition spaces, while a power outage in most of downtown Manhattan for five days further hampered the clean-up process. This weekend Chelsea seemed like a construction site, with waste bins on sidewalks and workers tearing up flooring and walls.
"Almost no art object is immune from this kind of abuse, and the vast majority are very sensitive to it," said James Coddington, the Museum of Modern Art's chief conservator, after addressing dozens of artists and specialists in midtown Manhattan.
He said he hoped to offer "hope and some realistic perspective," as well as warn about the health hazards of cleaning up. Flood water can be contaminated with fuel and sewage.
"As the artist, or the owner of a work of art, you haven't seen this before. It looks awful," Coddington said.
The craft of salvaging art from flood waters has been well-developed since the 1960s, when a devastating flood overwhelmed Florence, Italy and damaged priceless artwork - notably Cimabue's Crucifix.
Subsequent storms in the United States, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, forced the art community to develop techniques for handling different materials, like freeze drying works on paper.
"Take a deep breath. You're not alone in this," said Lisa Elkin, a conservator of the natural sciences collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
TRASH BAGS AND GOOD HUMOR
As the storm Sandy hit New York on Monday night, Katie Heffelfinger, an exhibition manager who specializes in working with damaged art, was dismantling an exhibition in Pennsylvania that was due to move to California.
"I had a bunch of trash bags and my good humor to keep it together," said Heffelfinger. "I got paintings damper than I have ever before, and that was really scary."
She said she had come to the event at the Museum of Modern Art because "I like knowing that I'm not the only one who's trying to dry out bamboo paper."
During the question and answer session, Alex Schuchard, a painter whose studio at the South Street Seaport flooded, drenching thousands of works of art, stood up to ask if he should simply throw his canvasses in the trash.
The answer: don't assume that any work is ruined, prioritize works in terms of value and seek guidance from experts.
On Tuesday - the day after the storm - Schuchard arrived at his studio to assess the damage. The flood water had receded but the smell of muck remained.
About 20 large paintings had stood in about four feet of water, while smaller works on paper were destroyed.
"Fifteen years of work is gone," Schuchard told Reuters. "At one point, I was literally sitting on a bench crying."
After a day or so, Schuchard - whose larger works have been valued at between $10,000 and $20,000 - said he had regained a measure of perspective.
"It's cliche to say it, but you look at the damage at Breezy Point, the Rockaways (in Queens), and they're just paintings," he said. "What I want to have or need to have I can remake."
In Chelsea there was an air of tragedy.
"We prepared, but the amount of water that came in was above all the highest estimates," said a gallery worker who asked not to be identified to avoid angering the gallery's artists. "It's horrible. Art is just not meant to get wet."
(Editing by Dan Burns and Christopher Wilson)