Protecting Artwork in the Event of a Disaster

If people chose where to live based on the likelihood of natural disasters, few would choose to settle the earthquake-prone West Coast or the hurricane-plagued Gulf Coast and Carolinas. However, California and Florida are the first and fourth most populous states, with tornado-alley Texas coming in second. Clearly, artists, art dealers and collectors are willing to take their chances with the environment, and the artworks they made, exhibit or own will have to suffer along.

Suffer, but not necessarily perish if a disaster strikes. There is a variety of precautions that homeowners may take to mitigate the potential for damage:

Floods

No matter how well sealed the basement, artwork should never be stored or placed below ground-level, especially for those living in flood zones. Even on the first floor, all artwork (such as sculpture) should be elevated at least 12 inches off the floor. Similarly, because flooding usually is accompanied by power outages, back-up generators (that may power smoke, humidity and break-in alarms) also need to be sited above the highest expected flood level.

Individual artists in New Orleans certainly learned some of these lessons seven years earlier during that city’s devastating Hurricane Katrina. “I was very fortunate,” said New Orleans sculptor Lin Emery, whose studio and most of her sculpture and sculpture-making equipment were submerged in five feet of water by Katrina. Lucky for her, at the time of the storm, Emery’s most recent work was on exhibit at the city’s Arthur Roger Gallery, which is located in New Orleans’s Warehouse District and was spared significant flooding or even a lengthy power outage. Lucky for her, too, her show sold out within the first week and none of the buyers reneged on their purchases. She also deemed herself fortunate in the fact that, although her studio was lost, her house is located elsewhere in the city and only suffered relatively minor wind damage to the roof.

A New Orleans painter, Alan Gerson, discovered that there was six-and-a-half feet of water in his studio following the breaching of the levees, resulting in the destruction of five paintings. However, another 30 paintings were only damaged and reparable (“Down here, we call the water marks ‘Katrina patina,’” he said), and he has stamped all those works on the back with the letter “K” to indicate which pieces had suffered. Additionally, there were a number of other artworks stored on racks just above the water line that came out unscathed.

Like Emery, Gerson’s studio was located in the downtown, called MidCity, away from his house, which only suffered wind damage. Like Emery, too, he did not have any insurance on his studio, suffering a loss of perhaps $20,000 (Emery had no insurance on her equipment, although she had some coverage for the artwork in her studio).

Quite a few art galleries in Manhattan’s flood plane suffered from water damage during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, as did low-lying homes with art collections on the Jersey Shore in New Jersey and Long Island, New York, resulting in an estimated half a billion dollars in insurance claims for artworks.

“We still have a basement, but we no longer use it for storage,” said Elisabeth Sann, associate director of the Jack Shainman Gallery, which had suffered extensive water damage to photographs stored below street level. The basement’s current use is for “private viewings” of artwork and otherwise is mostly empty. Some ground-floor galleries in New York City moved. Jack Shainman did not, although it added two new spaces, up four blocks to an address where there are “anti-flooding valves” and at a 30,000 square-foot converted schoolhouse in Kinderhook, New York where there are exhibitions and where almost all the gallery’s inventory will be stored.

Katja Zigerlig, manager of the fine arts department of the insurance company AXA, recommended creating a protective storage area in one’s home, such as a closet. In this closet might be waterproof crates, plastic wrap and moisture-absorbing materials — paper towels, cotton rags or the higher efficiency products that museums keep on hand and which they purchase through laboratory supply companies.

Flood coverage is usually an exclusion on homeowners insurance policies, but most homeowners and renters may purchase additional protection against flood-related damage from one of the 86 companies offering this kind of insurance through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (https://www.fema.gov/national-flood-insurance-program). Rates are set based on where one lives or works. The average annual premium is $400, providing approximately $100,000 in coverage. The maximum coverage one may purchase is $250,000.

Hurricanes

Similar to floods, hurricanes deposit a considerable amount of water on and around a house, and all of the same types of precautions apply to them as to floods. A hurricane, however, is also characterized as a windstorm that may blow a tree onto one’s roof, blow the roof off the house and send projectiles (mailboxes, lawn furniture, tree branches) through the windows. Well before hurricane season, one should trim all tree limbs that overhang a roof, “and you might want to get a tree service in to see if any parts of the tree are weak and likely to snap off in a storm,” said Thomas Blanchick, director of the Williamstown Regional Conservation Center in Massachusetts. The roof itself should be securely attached to the walls by special brackets that are designed to withstand up to 150 mile per hour winds; each tile in a slate roof should be individually secured. Any outdoor sculpture should be bolted to a cement base and stand apart from any trees. There is usually enough warning before a hurricane strikes to allow time to bring indoors lawn or pool furniture.

Besides the roof, windows tend to be the weakest areas of a house, but there are ways to make them less vulnerable. Traditional, colonial louvered shutters may serve as a barrier, although most of these shutters are purely decorative rather than functional. Nailing a sheet of plywood over a window frame will work; however, because they are bulky, numerous sheets of plywood are not easy to store, and there is likely to be a long line at the hardware store for plywood as soon as a hurricane watch is issued (with the possibility that the store will run out). Additionally, in one’s haste to nail the boards on, some may not fit well and allow damage to occur.

There are various types of hurricane glass and hurricane shutters that one may purchase. This glass, which is a sandwich of glass and plastic, may crack when hit by a projectile but not shatter, similar to a car windshield. Hurricane shutters are made of wood or metal, and certain types are rolled down from above a window or folded up accordion-like and stored on both sides of the window. There are also metal removable panels that can be hooked into place.

Some homeowners policies regularly cover hurricane damage, while others require a separate rider — usually a 15-20 percent increase on the regular insurance premium. Deductibles also vary, from one to five percent (the highest for houses right on the water).

Earthquakes

Whereas there is usually some notice before a flood or hurricane takes place — allowing time for buying food, boarding up one’s house or evacuating — earthquakes are not predictable. “You never have time to prepare,” said Scott Reuter, a former preparator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Pasadena, California and now a private consultant to insurance companies, museums and art collecting homeowners. “You have to be prepared for it to happen every day.” He noted that new homes should be built, and older homes retrofitted, to the most stringent earthquake codes. Unlike hurricanes, however, protecting the outside of the house cannot substitute for securing the art within the home. “It would be a shame if the building withstood a quake but an art collection did not.”

Wall-hung art should be placed on two hooks, rather than one — in the event that one hook fails — which are rated to hold double the weight of the artwork. (The hardware stores where one purchases them has them sorted by carrying weight.) The hooks should also be connected to the wall studs, and the picture wire should be braided, rather than a single strand, and also rated for twice the weight. Pictures are usually attached to the wire by eye-screws in the back of the frame, sited at the upper fourth or third of the piece. In the event of an earthquake, however, the lower part of the picture is likely to swing out and knock against the wall one or more times. Reuter recommended also attaching a wire connecting to an eye-screw at the bottom of the frame to a screw in the wall as a way of cutting down on movement.

Sculpture poses a more difficult challenge, since it is rarely affixed to a wall. If the piece is hollow, one may place a metal mount inside, which is secured to a pedastal or the floor; additionally, many bronzes have screw holes made by the foundry, enabling the piece to be attached to a base. It is also possible to drill a hole into th nondecorative base of a marble sculpture, permitting it to be screwed into a base. Smaller pieces may be “glued” down to a surface by means of what is called museum wax, which is available at many hardware stores. This was is removable, although not easily. Sculpture pedastals might also need to be attached to the floor or held in place by restraints.

The downside of these solutions is that drilling a hole into a work of art or attaching a hard-to-remove wax at the base has the potential of lessening the value of the art. Some waxes also may leave a permanent stain on the base of a wooden sculpture.

As with hurricanes, insurors of homes in earthquake zones regularly require separate riders, costing between 15 and 20 percent of the normal homeowner premium and requiring a two percent deductible.

Tornados

The bad news about tornados is that, first, one may only have an hour or two notice and, second, there is practically nothing one can do to secure an art collection or the house itself against the high winds and flying objects. Taking valuables (and oneself) down to the basement is one’s only recourse. Tornados are most prevalent in the Plains states, since they need wide expanses of flat land for the two air fronts to meet. Hills get in the way of this process and lessen the chances of tornados forming.

Lessons (to be) Learned

If Superstorm Sandy presaged some consequences of global warming on coastal areas, it also changed the “insurance climate,” according to Nicholas Reynolds, vice-president of Berkley Asset Protection, one of the main providers of insurance coverage to Manhattan art galleries. “Premiums have gone up for all galleries, but most of all for ground-floor galleries in Chelsea, 20, 25 or 30 percent.” He added that “no one is providing flood insurance” for galleries using their basements for storage, and galleries that have not developed a disaster preparedness plan “may receive a policy but one that excludes coverage for floods.”

An acceptable disaster plan, he and others in the insurance field noted, includes specific procedures for getting valuable artworks and other valuable property to safe locations (upstairs or to an art storage facility), staff training, emergency supplies (such as fans, mops, brooms, storage bins on wheels and gasoline-powered generators) on hand and a list of contact numbers (for security alarm services, utility companies and one’s insurance broker, as well as gallery staff). “Sandy is now a benchmark,” Reynolds said.

A disaster plan details what actions the gallery is to take when a hurricane warning is announced in order to protect artwork and other property, allocate specific responsibilities to various gallery staff and indicate how damaged objects are to be treated in order to begin the restoration process. “Do you freeze wet works on paper? Should you try to dry out a wet canvas?” said Claire Marmion, president of the Haven Art Group, a privately held fine art claims adjustment and management firm who has led disaster planning workshops for art galleries and fine art storage facilities. “We call this ‘triage,’ creating a plan so that within the first 12 to 24 hours you can start to make things better.”

William Fleischer, an insurance broker with Bernard Fleischer & Sons, which works with a number of Chelsea art galleries, stated that a growing number of policies are written with “stop limits” or caps on the amount of damage that an insurer will cover. Lowering the cap by 25-50 percent may keep the insurance premium from rising. “Galleries have realized the value of risk management and risk tolerance.”

Box

Disaster plans are being required by insurance carriers not only of commercial art galleries but, increasingly, also of private collectors with significant holdings. In short, they identify the worst problems that may occur and what to do about them. They may be developed in-house or with the help of an outside consultant (cost: $200 per hour). Among the key elements of such a plan is that it be in writing and kept on hand at the gallery.

  • Specific tasks – such as, who contacts the storage facility site and who assesses damage to artworks and other property – should be assigned to individual studio staff members, and there should be training and periodic practice sessions.
  • It makes sense to ask for suggestions from one’s insurance carrier for an effective plan to protect artworks.
  • Develop a system by which staff will be able to communicate with one another in the event of power outages and downed telephone lines (Crozier Fine Art, a company that operates a series of fine art storage facilities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, used short-wave walkie-talkies).
  • Pay attention to hurricane warnings and take action immediately (the mayor’s office in New York City issued a warning 72 hours in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Sandy as did insurers of artworks).
  • 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. (Cost: Several hundred dollars)
  • Remove all stored items from basements.
  • Rent an upstairs storage area or put a retainer on a fine art storage facility outside of a flood zone.

By Daniel Grant

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