2:25 pm Nov. 20, 2012
Inside a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, thousands of the city’s artworks are slowly being restored.
The three-story building, home to an art services company called Surround Art, was flooded by a 13-foot storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. It lost power for a week and sustained damages to an active storage area. At the time, the artist Martha Rosler, whose Meta-Monumental Garage Sale exhibition opened Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art, was using one of its rooms to store the more than 14,000 junk-store items that appear in the show. That room was on the third floor.
As items were transferred to MoMA over the past few weeks, though, the building has been transformed into a kind of emergency room for art. The colossal, climate-controlled storage rooms—combined with a staff of on-site conservators, consultants, preparators, and art handlers—turned out to make an ideal ad hoc art recovery center.
When the lights and elevators turned back on, the company decided to devote 15,000-square-feet of the space for a set of conservation labs called Art Crisis Solutions. Dozens of distraught artists, gallerists, and collectors from around the city flocked to the space, carrying their waterlogged and potentially mold-infused art objects in tow.
“We basically created a M.A.S.H. unit,” said Leslie Gat, the director of the Art Conservation Group, which is based out of a light-filled studio on the third floor with enviable views of Manhattan. “We're putting all our efforts into stabilizing the effects of the flood.”
On Monday afternoon, the Art Conservation Group was alive with conservators, who sat craned over pieces of all kinds, from 19th-century French ironwork to wood sculptures from Madagascar. The one Sandy casualty being restored was a four-foot-long glazed black ceramic.
On the night of the storm, the piece, displayed inside a Manhattan gallery, had floated off its five-foot-tall base during the flood and come gently to rest on the concrete floor as the waters receded. When it arrived at Art Crisis Solutions, the conservators sent a water sample to the lab to check for salt contamination, and then conducted a desalination treatment. Part of the procedure involved running the sculpture through one of Surround Art’s bathroom showers, originally installed to encourage employees to bike to work.
“The prognosis is excellent,” said Gat, staring down at the ceramic. “The patient will survive.”
Hundreds of other flood-damaged objects lay in a giant quarantined room next door. Otherwise, Gat said, they might infect the healthier artworks with mold or other contaminants. The pieces—African tribal statues, Italian oil paintings, Pop Art lithographs—were all carefully laid out on moving blankets, sheets of cardboard and chunks of polyethylene foam. Their more specific identities cannot be named—nor was Capital allowed to take photos—due to a confidentiality agreement with the clients. Together they looked like randomly salvaged survivors of a fire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“There are three main things to consider when assessing flood-damaged materials,” Gat said as she walked around the room, accompanied by a preparator named Robert Teague. “First, you have brackish water, with salts, toxins, sewage and who knows what. Second, you’ve got mold. And third, you’ve got shock.” She paused. “This flood wasn’t just a bathtub slowly filling up. It was like a Mack truck driving through those rooms.”
She pointed at the bluish-green patina on the plinths of several bronze statues. Then she leaned over a bulbous, donut-shaped sculpture made from white stone.
“Here’s a good example of what happens when you float a porous material in brackish water,” she said, referring to the black shadow engulfing its bottom half. “The artist had worked the surface, so it was open and available to anything you wanted to throw at it.”
For comparison, she held up a photo of the sculpture in better days.
Gat (pictured at right, with Teague) said that one of the many problems facing conservators at the crisis center is how to dry the myriad wet materials that come in. If a wooden wall sculpture spent two days submerged in a DUMBO basement, for example, laying it in the sun will only cause it to crack, sealing the contaminants inside.
For this reason, Gat and the dozen or so conservators and technicians she works with have preserved many of the artworks in a state of semi-wetness. The climate control gauges in each room allowed them to set the temperature at around 50 degrees and the relative humidity around 50 percent, replicating the climate of the days following the storm. In this way the wood is left to dry slowly so that it doesn't shrink and crack.
Some of the artwork, of course, needed to be dried right away. This has led to a run on specialized drying materials.
“All the blotting paper in the city was gone,” Gat said. “I was using my connections to get to the supplier, saying ‘Don’t you remember me? Please send nine rolls of blotting paper!’”
Still, a good portion of the collection at Art Crisis Solutions had been triaged elsewhere, and brought in for specialized treatment. As air purifiers hummed in the hallways, conservators inside the isolation room administered to the works with portable fume extractors and vacuum cleaners with high-capacity HEPA-filters.
“Those things can vacuum a 200-year-old feather without extracting any unwanted particles,” Teague said, impressed.
The Sunday after the storm, Gat had appeared with 40 other conservators at MoMA for a consortium on how to safely recover damaged works of art. Part of her role as a conservator, she said, has been to inject an element of objectivity into the emotional chaos spawned by Sandy.
“People showed up saying, ‘How do I save my art?’” she said. “But our thing was: How do you not get sick by handling your art? Obviously we care about the art, and we want to give people the best prognosis possible. But we were also seeing mold in places we did not want to see mold.”
As in a real emergency room, priority has been given to the most severely affected works. Teague, a former journalist who reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the Gannet newspaper group, noted that this is difficult for some art owners to accept.
“For the person who owns it, their 600-year-old thing is more important than someone else’s 600-year-old thing,” he said. “But if you’ve got a guy with a gunshot wound and a kid with a cut hand, what kind of choice do you make? The kid’s mom obviously thinks the kid’s more important. But that guy’s got a gunshot wound.”
This week, the crisis center finally calmed down enough to allow Gat to take her first day off since October 31. ("I went for a walk and took a long nap.") Still, no one knows how much more work is still out there. If it's not properly treated, she said, the humidity of spring and summer could bring on a second stage of damages.
“The crisis is coming to end,” she said, “but our work is really just beginning.”
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