Art For Sandy Relief: A Closer Look at The Artist Relief Project

Like most New Yorkers, it was hard to look beyond our own basic necessities in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy. Bottled water, flashlights, canned food. But as the winds died down and the storm’s damage was made known, the extent of its devastation proved bewildering. The homes, neighborhoods, and businesses in New York and New Jersey that took the worst of hits were highly visible news stories. But in the days and weeks following the storm there was another community whose irreparable damages came to light: those of the arts community. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Print featuring artwork from the first exhibition, available for purchase at 40% of the proceeds will be donated to NYFA's Emergency Relief Fund for Hurricane Sandy.
West 21st Street in the Chelsea gallery district, on October 31, 2012. Photo by Lindsay Howard.

Artist Arielle Sandler (NAP #59), who was overseas at the time of the storm, says: “My heart sank when I read about the art destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.  I immediately thought of the many artists with studios or galleries in New York.  I was particularly concerned about uninsured artists who lost their art and, by extension, livelihoods in the storm. I wanted to help, and I figured that other artists probably felt the same way.”

gasser gallery
The inside of Gasser Grunert Gallery in Chelsea, post-Sandy. Photo by Jomar Statkun.

Although national and international news coverage largely focused on the damage done to Chelsea’s galleries, Sandler knew that it was the artists whose studios and storage spaces were damaged that would suffer the most. These spaces are rarely insured to the extent that galleries are. Sandler laments that “the news focus seemed to be primarily on Chelsea galleries. Because galleries are typically insured and because only a few insurance companies cover fine art, it was relatively easy for the press to tally the art insurance claims and estimate the loss at approximately $500 million. This estimate makes for an eye-catching headline, but it does not include uninsured artists. I've seen very few follow-up stories about the artists. I am concerned that the artists will be forgotten and that uninsured artists will have the toughest time bouncing back from the storm.”

Alex Schuchard, Ripple, oil on canvas over panel, 24 x 48 inches.

Among the few artists whose losses were reported in the media was sculptor Rachel Beach, whose Greenpoint studio was completely submerged, causing an estimated $40,000 in damages. Artist studios at 99 Commercial Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, were also damaged, a building which houses the headquarters for art publication The Brooklyn Rail as well. Another artist who lost years of work was Alex Schuchard, a painter who runs Space B Gallery in New York, and who lost artworks and gallery inventory when the surge from the East River made its way into his South Street Seaport studio. In addition, Westbeth artist’s colony, the first and largest federally subsidized artist’s colony in the country when it opened 42 years ago in the West Village, was badly damaged, leaving artists Al Cooke and Karen Santry, who had work stored in the basement, with inestimable losses.

Westbeth artist’s colony in the West Village.

Knowing that she wanted to help, and as quickly as possible, Sandler began reaching out to artists and friends via email and social media, asking them if they’d like to participate in her project. As the Artist Relief Project began to take shape, she says, “I had three primary goals for this project: 1) to spread awareness of the damage caused to art and artists; 2) to help raise money for artists adversely affected by the storm; and 3) to provide artists from around the world with a unique exhibition opportunity.” However, she knew she would need to find an existing non-profit organization that could receive, process and distribute donations to artists, which prompted her to contact Michael Royce, the Executive Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Within a few days the NYFA set up the Emergency Relief Fund, and allowed Sandler to channel proceeds from her own Project to their fund, which receives submissions based on eligibility requirements and distributes funds accordingly.

Heidi Pollard, Heaven #43, ink / rag paper, 29.5 x 29.25 inches.

Although she worked quickly to pull a group of artists together, Sandler exercised a discerning eye in those she invited, revealing that she “sought out artists capable of a high caliber work, not knowing which of their works would be available.  I wanted a variety of styles and images so that it would be interesting for viewers.” Of all the artists she reached out to, Sandler says “nearly all of the artists jumped at the opportunity to participate in The Artist Relief Project, even though most had never met me. The exhibition's twenty artists are located in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Israel and Australia. Four of the artists are New American Paintings alumni (Chris Cosnowski (NAP #35), Heidi Pollard (NAP #18), Jessica Snow (NAP #25, #61) and myself).” Even Alex Schuchard, who had lost work himself due to the storm, generously donated six paintings for the fundraising efforts.

Jessica Snow, Color Stack Study 1, acrylic on Yupo paper, 11 x 14 inches.
Chris Cosnowski, Happy Chicken, oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches.

However, the structure of the project was important to Sandler, as she didn’t want the artists taken advantage of. “Too many art fundraisers take advantage of artists (perhaps unknowingly) by asking the artist to donate artwork. What most people don’t realize is that only the artist's raw materials are tax deductible in the U.S., not the value of the donated artwork itself.” For this reason she asked that each artist donate 50% of their proceeds to the NYFA’s Emergency Relief Fund, saying “It was very important to me that each participating artist would keep the remaining 50% of the proceeds. I did not want to help artists at the expense of other artists.”

Sandler’s organizing efforts culminated in a nineteen-day online exhibition, which ran from November 28 - December 17, 2012. The exhibition’s website was viewed by over 24,000 visitors, and received favorable press coverage. During the run of the show eleven works were sold by participating artists, and several thousands of dollars donated to NYFA’s Emergency Relief Fund. The Artist Relief Project is also now selling archival prints featuring artwork from the first exhibition on the Project’s website, 40% of which will be donated to NYFA's Emergency Relief Fund for Hurricane Sandy.

Arielle Sandler,
#11.4848.01, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
Lauren Purje, I’m Great Also, acrylic and ink on wood, 12 x 12 inches.

When asked if she would continue to do work for the Artist Relief Project, and similar organizing ventures, Sandler admits that she’s participated in a number of fundraisers herself, but often finds them “boring and rarely good for the artist. True, the artist might receive some exposure from a fundraiser, but the artist loses almost the entire value of the artwork they donated. I find most art fundraisers to be sadly ironic; they often put down the very people they are trying to elevate—artists.” Also ironic is that this factor has kept some artists from participating in fundraisers based solely on their ill-structured models. Sandler asserts that she’d like to “change this fundraising model in a way that raises money while engaging audiences and helping artists. Why not make these fundraisers an opportunity for the participating artists? Artists will probably submit better art, and patrons might be more likely to purchase if they know that the sale will help the cause and the artist directly. Perhaps Heidi Pollard said it best when she said that The Artist Relief Project ‘is a model of professionalism, good will and respect.’”


Information on The Artist Relief Project can be found on their website:

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.