“Put on boots before you go down there,” Suzanne Kim, Smack Mellon’s Director of Exhibitions, told me before I headed downstairs into Smack Mellon’s artist studios. Yellow rain boots were scattered about for anyone venturing into the basement; down there, a muddy brown line about six feet high traversed the studios’ white walls, setting a grim reminder of just how little had escaped Hurricane Sandy.
When I arrived on Saturday afternoon, dozens of volunteers were clearing out artists’ studios, drying electronics, and taking out bag after bag of things that weren’t trash a week ago. While the first floor gallery remained safe from Sandy’s encroaching waters, the studios looked like a disaster zone. A local contractor had kindly volunteered to pump out most of the water, but puddles remained.
It was only on Thursday that the water had receded enough for artists to re-enter their studios. Two Trees, the real estate development firm that branded DUMBO, has donated studio space for the artists just two blocks away; by Saturday, most of the work had already been moved out. The studio space, as offered, is only available through January, so Smack Mellon will need to move quickly. Foremost on staff members’ minds is the question of whether their studios will ever reopen at their current location.
Executive Director Kathleen Gilrain told us that the damages will exceed $200,000. That figure could increase, however, as Smack Mellon assesses Hurricane Sandy’s effects throughout the week. Once the studios are completely cleared out, Smack Mellon will begin spraying for mold, and will need to evaluate the toxic effects of the hurricane’s flooding.
“It’s the East River, so there’s lots of chemicals,” Kim told me, as she hurried me to wash my hands. I had touched a metal book shelf that was covered in an orange film I thought was rust. It wasn’t.
Smack Mellon’s road to recovery won’t be quick: power has been “spotty,” FEMA grants are non-existent (only homeowners can receive disaster-relief funds), and board members have been unable to trek out to DUMBO. Gilrain told me she has been encouraging Smack Mellon artists-in-residence to contact organizations like the Joan Mitchell Foundation for individual disaster relief assistance. As I was leaving, Gilrain was headed into her office for her first in-person meeting with a board member since Sandy. No boots were needed there.
More images of Smack Mellon, below: