MoMA focuses on the art of salvage

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MoMA focuses on the art of salvage

NEW YORK - For those gathered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Sunday for a session on salvaging art damaged in the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy, it was as much a support-group meeting as learning about drying techniques and mold control.

As New York City emerges from a week without power and public transportation, and tens of thousands of people find themselves homeless, artists and gallerists in the art hub of West Chelsea in Manhattan face ruined galleries, flooded storage facilities and water-logged artwork.

Scores of galleries saw four feet of water 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. Floodwater can be contaminated with fuel and sewage. “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 floods has been well-developed since the 1960s, when a devastating flood overwhelmed Florence, Italy, and damaged priceless artwork - notably Cimabue’s “Crucifix.”

Subsequent storms in the United States forced the art community to develop techniques for handling different materials, like freeze drying works on paper.

As Sandy hit New York last week, 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.

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