The Artist’s Guide to Emergencies | Two Free Online Workbooks

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Printed Matter after hurricane Sandy.

Free advice often is worth every penny (so they say), but a pair of arts organizations have produced free online-accessible booklets for artists that offer quite useful suggestions on protecting their studios, their careers and their estates.

The Craft Emergency Relief Fund in Montpelier, Vermont has produced the two-part Studio Protector: The Artist’s Guide to Emergencies (Part I & Part II), which provide a checklist of recommendations that may help if the worst happens. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, which caused approximately half a billion dollars in damage to artwork in private homes and commercial art galleries in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, provided the impetus for this. Art gallery owners in the tri-state area and elsewhere have seen their insurance premiums rise between five and 20 percent in the aftermath of the storm. “These are increases in premiums across the board, all along the Eastern seaboard,” said Colin Quinn, vice-president and director of claims management at AXA, one of the major insurance carriers for art collections, which paid out roughly $40 million in claims after the storm. Deductibles have been raised on many policies, written disaster plans have needed to be submitted to insurance carriers, and some galleries – especially in the flood-zone of lower Manhattan – have found insurance coverage impossible to obtain, forcing them to close or move elsewhere.

One of the more severe Hurricane Sandy losses occurred at Printed Matter, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, which is not a gallery but a nonprofit organization devoted to the exhibition of artist books. “Much of our inventory was underground, in the basement,” said executive director James Jenkin, consisting of 9,000 books and other artworks, as well as the organization’s archives dating back to 1976. He valued the loss of the books and other artifacts at “several hundred thousand dollars,” but Printed Matter was unable to make an insurance claim, as it is insured as a book store rather than as an art gallery and is covered by a general policy that didn’t include a separate art rider. “The cost of a fine art insurance policy is too high for us. For us, it is better to be pragmatic.”

For artists, being pragmatic involves planning for certain contingencies that the Studio Protector outlines. Some of the concerns are flooding and other types of water damage, but others are fire, windstorms and earthquakes.

Artists are advised to know the risks they face in terms of where they live and the potentially hazardous materials that they use. In areas prone to flooding, storage of artwork and other valuables in a basement is inadvisable, while it is recommended for others in tornado or earthquake zones to install impact-resistant windows and doors, as well as anchoring equipment and fuel tanks to floors or walls. Copies of important documents, such as contracts, financial and tax records, inventory of artwork and one’s insurance policy, should be stored at a safe off-site location. Obtaining adequate insurance coverage and knowing what is included in one’s policy, are vitally important. (The Studio Protector also includes the names of, and contact information for, a number of insurance carriers that work regularly with artists and craftspeople.) Other suggestions include mapping out evacuation routes for oneself, studio assistants and family members, identifying someone who will be an emergency contact and doing periodic practice runs so that everyone knows what to do.

In addition to the recommendations in Studio Protector, it also makes sense to ask for suggestions from one’s insurance carrier for an effective plan to protect objects, machinery and materials. One also might purchase emergency equipment in the event of a power outage, such as a portable generator and flashlights, as well as extra wrapping and packing material for a large number of objects that might need to be moved quickly. “Some galleries did a little but not enough,” said AXA’s Colin Quinn, such as putting “artworks up three feet, but Hurricane Sandy surged to five feet.” Others placed objects onto eight foot-tall racks, but the force of the water knocked those racks over. Some galleries sandbagged and nailed shut the doors, but water forced its way in anyway, and gallery staff simply found that it was more difficult to get back inside.

The New York City-based Joan Mitchell Foundation, which has grants programs for professional painters and sculptors, those pursuing Master of Fine Arts degrees, as well as an emergency aid for those impacted by manmade or natural disasters, compiled a significant amount of information for artists in their later years who need to inventory and document their artwork and careers. The Foundation established Creating a Living Legacy, or CALL, as a separate Web site, which identifies the experience of a number of artists who have made use of these services and provides a workbook for artists in order that they may do much of this work on their own.

The workbook identifies the importance of documenting one’s work and creating an archive for artists at all stages of their careers. Emerging artists, for example, may seek to “apply for a grant, fellowship, and/or commission and need to present documentation of prior projects and work,” while mid-career artists “[m]ay have an opportunity to create a book or catalogue of their work that surveys all or some aspect of their career.” An established artist, on the other hand, would need this archive for a museum retrospective or for research conducted by an art historian. Additionally, documenting one’s work and career will help heirs sort out material “when you are no longer around.”

The end stages of anyone’s life are likely to be somewhat chaotic. In 1996, multimedia sculptor Nam June Paik (1932-2006) suffered a stroke that largely curtailed his ability to create new installations, but his career was far from over. Exhibitions of his work were being planned, new pieces were still being fabricated and existing works continued to be put up for sale at galleries. What’s more, a series of sculptures purportedly by Paik, but which the artist denied were his, were put up for sale, leading to two lawsuits against Paik, which his lawyers chose to settle, because Paik was not deemed mentally competent to testify at trial. “You can see this as people taking advantage of a senile artist,” said Paik’s nephew and estate executor, Ken Hakuta. “He was sick.” The lawsuits were eventually resolved out of court. Had Paik maintained a documentary record for all his work, the confusion might have been resolved more quickly and with less expense.

Among the problems that may occur, especially for older artists, are artworks that have been loaned to a gallery, collector or museum and are forgotten. (The recipients may construe the loans as gifts, sometimes selling the works.) Additionally, artists may forget which pieces were consigned to a particular gallery (galleries, too, sometimes forget to pay artists), elements involved in the process of creating a multiples edition, such as mock-ups, proofs, maquettes, molds or drawings (they may be subsequently used or sold by the publisher, fabricator or foundry), as well as images that are licensed for commercial use (sometimes, “royalty payers forget to pay the artist or the artist’s estate or heirs. Sometimes, they just stop paying and wait to see if anyone complains,” said Elliot Hoffman, a lawyer with an arts practice in New York City).

The CALL workbook describes manageable record-keeping systems, spreadsheets and databases, and there are recommendations for how to photograph one’s work, the cost of storage (or storage materials), and whether or not to hire an assistant to help in the process of creating and maintaining an archive. “Consider your time,” the workbook suggests: “It can be a choice between spending your time working on this, or spending your time working on proposals for projects. Consider whether this is the best use of your time, or whether you’d prefer to hire someone to help.”

The Joan Mitchell Foundation will underwrite this process by hiring an archivist and paying for a computer (if need be) and the creation of an image and text database rather than providing money to an artist directly. “If you just give artists money, they might not spend it on archives,” said Carolyn Somers, executive director of the foundation. “While they are alive, artists can do their own catalogue raisonné.”

By Daniel Grant

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