Prepared by Faye Rosenbaum (General Manager, Martha Graham Dance Company)
The morning after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York I received the text, “Basement under water.” I inhaled deeply, “What do you mean by under water.” Six excruciatingly long hours later I received the response, “Six feet.”
My heart sank, my stomach flipped, and head spun. Eighty-six years…eighty-six years of costumes, sets, props, theatrical equipment and a large number of paper archives. Costumes worn and designed Martha Graham herself and by fashion luminaries such as Halston, Oscar de la Renta, and Donna Karan. Original sets and jewelry by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The worst was not knowing. Not knowing whether everything was washed away, damaged beyond repair, or simply sitting in the noxious stew of solvents and chemicals that usually reside in basements along with water from the Hudson overflowing its banks.
A few days after the storm we took the long walk down into the basement as far as the building management would allow, about 5 feet short of our doors. It would take building management lobbying state and local authorities to allow its contractors to get gas and generators to effectively pump out the remaining water, a process that took nearly another week to complete. Before we were even able to enter the warehouse space, members of the Alliance For Response NYC (AFR), Department of Cultural Affairs NYC, and the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) approached us offering their assistance. Just days after the storm, then AFR chair Becky Fifield contacted us offering support; conservators from the Smithsonian Institute reached out to us – Odile Madden, Corine Wegener (AFR Advisor), and Paula DePriest. They happened to be in town and made an initial site visit almost immediately after we were able to access our space.
Executive Director LaRue Allen and I had the opportunity to observe the degree to which our property was physically displaced by the rush of water prior to the Smithsonian team’s arrival—it appeared as if a giant used our heavy set pieces as dice in a game of craps—but we had no idea how to assess the damage or the degree to which any of the contents may be salvageable. Some items looked as if they were still completely intact, though most were too precariously balanced to inspect.
En masse we descended the dank, dark space to inspect the damage, we made it in about four feet from where our doors originally stood. They were now part of the detritus that made navigation tricky. There was bad news and good news. The first comment from the conservators was, “This is about as bad as what we saw in Katrina.” We were shocked that it could possibly compare to a storm of that magnitude. But we were heartened by what they said next, “We were able to recover items from Katrina. This is salvageable.” No one could tell us how much we could save until we took the items out of the wet environment, but there was hope that we would be able to maintain some part of our unique artistic history.
At around the same time, through Alliance for Response, Lisa Elkin (also AIC-CERT) and Cindy Albertson (then AFR volunteer, now AFR Project Manager) came to our aid, coordinating volunteers from the conservation community and with/through AIC-CERT to assist us. We had hired a moving company, Moishe’s, to transport our inventory, but needed bodies to help with the triage. Lisa became our primary contact. She made herself available at all hours providing conservation guidance, contact information for specialized vendors, strategies for triage, and moral support through the dig out. She even personally delivered supplies to us such as blotting paper, alcohol, and Tyvek sheets.
From Cindy and Lisa, we were introduced to more and more volunteers who all came to supplement our growing crew of volunteers from the Graham family. We had a daily crew of up to 40 volunteers, about half of them from AFR. Many spent countless hours with us in the basement, sorting, cataloguing, taking photo documentation, offering their support through their work, and their expert advice on conservation. As we dug out, and triaged the most important items for historic, artistic, or practical reasons, we had what felt like an army of conservators at the ready to assist us in their area of specialization – AIC-CERT’s Vicki Lee, Steve Pine (AFR Advisor), Denyse Montegut, and Viviana Dominguez, to name a few. Vicki, Steve, and Viviana spent 10 to 12 hours a day alongside our staff and Graham family volunteers through the seemingly endless sorting.
Ultimately, the value of the damage and loss to our collection is estimated to be over $4 million. Our collection of over 100 set pieces, 8,000 costumes, costume patterns, theatrical equipment, and a large portion of our paper archive had been submerged by the waters of the Hudson. Thanks to Alliance for Response and AIC-CERT, we were able to intelligently determine what could be kept, preserved, perhaps used as a reference and what was not salvageable. With its help, an important part of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s collection is still present, and a seminal part of American art history has been preserved.