NY artists struggle to salvage Sandy-damaged art works


Published — Tuesday 6 November 2012

Last update 6 November 2012 7:55 am

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NEW YORK: It was as much a chance to learn about drying techniques and mold control as support-group meeting 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.
As New York City emerges from a week of power outages and public transportation shut-downs 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 (1.2 meters) 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, and the deluge may have created structural problems for buildings.
“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. 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 and vacuuming mold.
“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. 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.

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