Martha Graham Sets, Older Artists in Westbeth Flooding

Betty Manno
Betty Manno and Muppet, her three-year-old Pekingese, with Michael King. Manno, 70, is a singer who has lived in Westbeth since the 1970's. Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Gathered around a small red grill in their courtyard Thursday, residents of an artists’ housing complex called Westbeth contemplated Hurricane Sandy’s smorgasbord: barbecued salmon, chicken, sausages and dumplings.

“Whatever hasn’t been refrigerated since Monday night, it’s coming to the end of its useful life,” said Steven Neil, executive director of Westbeth, to the group. “Share it.”

The lack of electricity, heat and running water wasn’t the only problem at Westbeth Artists Housing, its formal name. Flooding had ravaged the building’s basement, which housed artists’ studios, musicians’ rehearsal spaces and the production facility of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

“People kept their life’s work down there,” said Neil. “It all got wiped out.”

Located in Manhattan’s West Village, Westbeth has been providing affordable housing to artists and their families since 1970. Also based there are the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation, the New School for Drama and the Brecht Forum.

“We have had tremendous destruction, going back to the 1940s,” said LaRue Allen, executive director of the Martha Graham Center. “Ninety percent of our property was in that basement. There are millions of dollars of damage there.”

She said costumes designed by Martha Graham and sets by Isamu Noguchi had sat in six feet of water for four days. Among the damaged sets were those for the ballets “Embattled Garden,” “Clytemnestra” and “Cave of the Heart” as well as new costumes for “Chronicle.”

NYC Landmark

The Westbeth complex, which was declared a New York City landmark last year, has seven connected buildings with as many as 13 floors. The nonfunctioning elevators affected the elderly.

“The bulk of the population here is over the age of 70,” said Deb Travis, vice president of the Artists Residents Council. “We have residents who can’t go up and down the stairs. They have medical conditions. There are people who are trapped inside and can’t leave.”

Younger neighbors hauled buckets of water up dark staircases for the older residents.

“People can’t flush their toilets,” said Duray Sterrett, whose mother lives in the building. “A lot of people here still have electric stoves and haven’t had a hot meal in days.”

A sculpture studio that includes basement and ground-floor space sustained water damage that affected the work and materials of at least a dozen artists, Neil said.

Printed Matter

Ten blocks north, the Chelsea art district continued to deal with wrecked galleries and countless destroyed artworks. The flooded basement of Printed Matter Inc., a nonprofit publisher and distributor of artists’ books, contained a 30-year archive.

Thousands of titles ended up in a huge pile of black garbage bags. Staffers and volunteers salvaged what they could.

“It’s a blow to us,” said director James Jenkin. “Our general insurance doesn’t cover the flood.”

At Derek Eller Gallery, wooden floor planks bubbled. The air was musty and damp. The basement storage area was flooded. Drawings and paintings were laid out in rows on the floor like wounded soldiers.

Eller, artist Keith Mayerson and several helpers were working fast because mold would soon permanently damage the works that hadn’t been exposed to water.

“Most of our storage is in the basement,” Eller said. “I never expected five feet of water.”

Mayerson poured bottled water over his 1996 canvas depicting a scene from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to get rid of mold.

“I’ve been showing for 20 years,” Mayerson said. “My entire career was in that basement.”

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