Don’t Throw It Out: The Art Nurse on saving art in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Brooklyn studio of artist Leon Reid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Reid, like so many artists and galleries in the city, had much of his work destroyed by the unprecedented surge. (Image courtesy of Reid.)

By now we are all too familiar with the path of destruction that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on art studios, galleries and collections throughout the Eastern seaboard. A number of organizations, including the American Institute for Conservation have responded to the call and on Sunday, November 4th, MoMA’s conservators and the AIC’s Collections Emergency Response Team will be offering a presentation on saving flood-damaged artworks. (Things get rolling at noon.) MoMA has also posted a document with guidelines for dealing with art that is damaged by everything from fires to flooding.

For those who cannot attend the MoMA session, or who simply want some solid advice on dealing with a drowned studio, we have assembled a list of conservators who are willing to be e-mailed or called for advice. These conservators, which include Rustin Levenson (paintings), Joseph Sembrat (sculpture, architecture, objects), Stephanie Hornbeck (objects, textiles), and yours truly, the Art Nurse (sculpture, architecture, objects ) have all had firsthand experience with hurricane, flood, and earthquake recovery for collections and historic structures in Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Together we have put together a few initial guidelines for addressing the daunting act of sorting through mud and murky water to rescue works of art.

  1. CAREFULLY ASSESS BEFORE TAKING ACTION. Don’t wander into the water unless you know it’s safe to do so and you won’t get electrocuted or sliced up by broken glass. Before you start moving things, take some photos of the room and anything you can get in close up. This is essential for claims from your insurance company or agencies offering assistance.
  2. GET THE WORK OUT OF THE WATER. Make a plan first for what you are going to move and where it is going to go. Remember that wet things weigh a heck of a lot more than dry ones. Make sure you know where you will put things before you move them and don’t lift anything bigger than you can safely carry. Clear a path to your destination before moving a work of art and make sure the spot is clean, dry and free of mold. For canvases or larger works, have more than one person available to move things. If the pieces are hung on the wall, leave them in place while you clear the water off the ground. If large sculptures are on the floor and can’t be lifted onto a table, think about sacrificing some of those fat art books to set them on to get air moving underneath them. Wet works on paper are the most vulnerable so make sure you do not lift things that are too wet without sliding something underneath them. A sheet of Plexiglas is great for this. If all you have is cardboard, put a sheet of plastic between the cardboard and the work on paper or you risk staining the work. Remove wet works on paper from their frames to get air circulating around the paper and remove any wet mattes. Try not to stack things. If you have no choice, interleave with clean paper.
  3. CLEAN THE ROOM. Once the works are out of immediate danger, i.e. not sitting in water or mud, the next task is to get the rest of the space as clean as possible and get air circulating around the room. Mold spores are always in the air. Whether they bloom depends entirely on the humidity in the room. Therefore your next task is to get the air circulating and the humidity down. If you have a dehumidifier, use it. If not, use a fan or whatever will move air around. Mold likes darkness and heat as well, so keep your shades and windows open if that’s all you have to work with. Once the air is moving and you can get air circulating around the works themselves, clean the room as best as possible. Sweep, mop, scrub — whatever it takes to get the dirt and muck off of the floor and walls. Remove carpeting and any upholstered materials that will keep the room damp. While you should NEVER use disinfectant sprays directly on a work of art, spraying a floor or walls that have been soaked is a good way to keep mold growth down. If no disinfectant spray is available, bleach can be used also on floors and walls, but you have to be extremely careful not to let any splash onto artworks.
  4. TAKE STOCK. Now your room is clean and you have a bunch of ruined-looking works. Make lists of the works, dividing them by what appears to be wrong with them. Anything that was wet will need to be cleaned, because any water it touched was either brackish, salty or filthy — or various combinations thereof. Separate works by material (painting, works on paper, bronze, stone sculpture, plaster, mixed media with old shoes and cigarette butts, etc.) and list them by whether they were wet or simply exposed to humidity.
  5. CALL A CONSERVATOR. If you haven’t done so already, this would be a good time to call or e-mail a conservator. At the bottom of this piece are contact details for all of the aforementioned conservators, as well as  others who have experience with flood and water damage. While we are an ornery and overworked bunch, we are all here to help at this point, and all of us on this list would be willing to answer e-mails with questions. If it’s a crisis, we’ll even take phone calls. If you can’t reach one of us, use the AIC’s website How to Find a Conservator function to contact a local person. It as advisable to request a professional who has hands-on experience with flood or storm damage.

Naturally, there are differences of opinion on what to do next, and of course a conservator’s direct advice is the best path at this point. But here are a few tips that can serve as triage in the meantime:

  • Blot, don’t wipe. The experts we consulted are of the opinion that one should try to address dampness if at all possible — but do it very, very carefully. First, blot, do not wipe surfaces. To do this, have lots of white (as in: unprinted) paper towels on hand, as well as clean white cloths. The most vulnerable works are those made of organic or soft porous materials: paper, painted surfaces, wood, plaster, and textiles. 
  • Do not touch painted surfaces. If you must blot water away from a painting or a work on paper, work from the back. Gently press a paper towel on the back of the work until it is soaked, then repeat with a fresh one.
  • Do not remove wet paintings from their stretchers. Levenson, who rescued more than 1,000 paintings after Hurricane Andrew in 1982, and is the author of the chapter on emergency recovery in the new book Conservation of Easel Paintings, cautions not to remove paintings from a stretcher even when the stretcher is wet. Instead, she recommends carefully sliding a paper towel between the stretcher and the canvas to blot water from the back, then isolating the wood from the canvas by slipping a plastic sheet, a plastic bag or even aluminum foil around the stretcher bars. This protects the canvas from the staining effects of saturated wood.
  • How to clean porous inorganic objects. Metals, some plastics, glass, polished marble or granite, and glazed ceramic, can be wiped gently with distilled water and a paper towel to remove dirt, grime and salty muck. Other media — painted surfaces, plaster, porous stone, concrete, and of course paintings and paper — now need to be looked at by a conservator.
  • Know that all is not lost.  Take heart in knowing that disasters happen all over the world and that good conservation can reverse many forms of damage.  As grim as the contents of your gallery or studio may look, know that all the conservators  mentioned in this post have seen works that look as bad — and even worse — than what you may be facing now.  Some (or even many) works may not be salvageable. But many of them just might be. It just takes patience and time.

Coming soon, from The Art Nurse: What to do if a mold outbreak occurs.




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