Category: Conservation

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:

Continue reading

Ask the Art Nurse: Buckminster Fuller edition.


I’m a long time reader of the blog and followed with interest the post you did on exterior painted metal art restoration. In fact, it’s connected to the question I have for you:

I am currently heading a group that plans to restore half a dozen Defense Housing Units designed by Buckminster Fuller. These corrugated steel cylinders were once painted white. Now they are in very rough condition and it appears they need to be re-galvanized due to rust and other wear.

Therefore, I was wondering if you have any suggestions for industrial galvanizers. The process has seemed to vary considerably over the last 40 years and I would like to do something that will replicate the original finish.

Yours truly,
Dymaxion Man


Where do I begin to thank you for bringing these structures to my attention? The idea of painted steel Bucky Fuller buildings is almost more than this modern-architecture-and-painted-metal-loving Art Nurse can absorb.

But enough of my gushing and on to your very important question.  In the photos you sent the buildings look repainted.  Therefore I’d start by figuring out if that’s true, and if it is, chemically strip the new paint and see what’s underneath.  You’ll definitely want to take care of the rust that is bleeding through the surface paint.   And you’ll want to figure out whether the pieces were, in fact, galvanized, something the very detailed 1941 MoMA press release you kindly forwarded does not mention. Galvanizing, as you know, is a process by which ferrous metal (steel or iron) is dipped in hot molten zinc to provide corrosion protection. I did some snooping around on the internet and found pictures of other DDUs which showed the telltale silvery-grey color of galvanizing under peeling layers of the original white paint. This is all an educated guess, because determining the materials of a structure through a photograph is kind of like diagnosing a patient via telephone.

But all of this speculation about materials raises another important point: Buckminster Fuller’s works are significant for aesthetic, technical and historical reasons, so it would be best to try not to obliterate their original material while restoring their aesthetic. Re-galvanizing — which would involve sandblasting to bare metal before re-dipping in hot molten zinc — seems heavy-handed. I suggest going easier on the metal: remove the overpaint, see what you have of the original, then figure out your best approach.  Without knowing the details, I’d suggest cleaning and removing corrosion with water, local abrasives and solvents, passivating the exposed metal by brushing on a phosphoric acid solution that makes it more resistant to corrosion, and maybe even trying to preserve a few areas of the original paint. At that point you could avail yourself of one of the many extraordinary new industrial paint systems for outdoor metals that would allow you to apply the zinc as a paint layer. This would mean that if someone ever wanted to study the materials that Fuller used, they would be able to do so — because they’d all be right there, under a layer of paint.

There are some fantastic paint systems out there (I have a weak spot for the TNEMEC systems, which incidentally is “Cement” spelled backwards ). But before laying a brush on those Fullers, it would definitely be worthwhile to have an expert look at the structures and suggest the best course of action — or you may end up destroying as much as you preserve. Any conservator who has experience in industrial materials or outdoor painted metals should be able to help you. Of course, only a few of us look as good as I do in a nurse’s uniform…

San Suzie

Conservation Diary: Mark di Suvero on Governor’s Island.

From top to bottom: Untitled, Fruit Loops (2003) and Rust Angel (1995) — all sculptures by Mark di Suvero on Governor’s Island in New York. (Photos by San Suzie.)

I recently braved the hundred-degree heat on Governor’s Island with a group of 30 or so conservators, curators, public art managers, fabricators, artist estate/foundation directors, and paint specialists to see an installation of Mark Di Suvero sculptures. The exhibit, which was organized by the Storm King Art Center, consists of a cluster of 11 big-to-monumental pieces that are a case study in industrial boner art. Crafted out of over-sized steel flotsam, many of them are rusted, gnarled or scarred. In some cases, they’ve been sprayed with the orange-red paint that Di Suvero has favored for decades.

My visit to Governor’s Island was part of a three-day meeting of conservation experts in New York. Sponsored by the Getty Conservation Institute and held at the Metropolitan Museum, the aim of the meeting was to figure out how to best care for pieces that occasionally require a paint overhaul because they spend their life outdoors: getting devoured by salt air, frozen in ice, or stewing in a lethal combination of heat and moisture. On sculptures such as Di Suvero’s, the elements can literally shred the paint. As part of the conservation process, it is then necessary to remove all of the old paint and completely re-coat the piece.

But it’s not that easy. Before we can even think about repainting, there are all kinds of questions that have to be answered as to what would constitute an appropriate new coating — both chemically and aesthetically. Using case studies of works by Lichtenstein, Di Suvero, Oldenburg, Tony Smith, Nevelson, Lewitt and several others, we had a nerdfest over issues such as defining the character of a paint coating (answer: color, gloss, and texture) and we debated how to best identify an artist’s intent. The latter is, naturally, the slipperier prospect, since artists are known to not write things down, use materials for arbitrary reasons (they’re crappy but aesthetically pleasing!) and change their minds over time.

There was also plenty of debate on how to keep skateboarders from shredding the surface of a painted sculpture. My view: You don’t. But if you insist, try building them so they don’t resemble skateboard ramps.

Continue reading

Ask the Art Nurse: One word, plastic.


We have several Arman Lucite boxes with objects suspended within layers. Many of the “boxes” have yellowed. Is there someway to restore them to remove the discoloring?

Mellow Yellow


I take it that you are referring to one of the sculptural “accumulations” produced beginning in the early 1960s by the French-born American artist Pierre Armand Fernandez who went by the moniker Arman. These compositions of objects were placed by the artists either into acrylic (Lucite being a brand name for cast acrylic, much like Plexiglas) or cast directly into polyester resin.

The question here is which type of object do you have? If it’s the acrylic variety, there’s a good chance that the yellowing is a surface discoloration or even an accumulation of dirt that a conservator might just get lucky enough to be able to reverse. If it’s polyester, it’s more likely to be an irreversible photochemical condition caused by exposure to light or poor catalyzation (as in: Part A was not mixed correctly with Part B and it didn’t set right when it was made) — or any number of other factors. A pro might have a chance of reversing it, but my guess it’s more or less a snowball’s chance in hell since polyester resins, like ladies from Beverly Hills, aren’t exactly known for aging gracefully.

In any case, I don’t recommend you taking a stab at this yourself.  Chances are you’ll stain it or make the plastic cloudy or sticky — or poison yourself in the process.  This one calls for a professional.  You can find a live and willing Art Nurse in your area on the website of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Cool looking as they are, plastics are tricky materials to safeguard. Though there are no hard and fast rules for maintaining them in museum-quality condition, one thing that always helps is keeping them away from sunlight. And heating ducts, extreme cold, dog hair, cat hair and commercial cleaners not specifically tested for the plastic in question. And whatever you do, don’t ever smoke around them, no matter how good the bud.

San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Haiti Report: Saving a country’s priceless murals.

Cracks in the Wall: Philomé Obim’s Last Supper at the Sainte Trinité Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, display the damage of last year’s devastating quake. (All photos by San Suzie.)

Almost one year ago today, I set foot in Haiti for the first time — six months after a 7.0 earthquake had practically leveled the capital. I was in Port-au-Prince at the request of the Smithsonian, with my colleague Viviana Dominguez, a painting conservator, to examine what remained of a series of mural paintings at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. At that point, I was quite familiar with the televised images of the devastation. I had seen the bodies lifted from the rubble and the shots of the crumpled presidential palace. But nothing quite prepared me for the state of need we saw as we drove out of the airport and into the snarl of traffic.

Everywhere around Port-au-Prince there are reminders of the devastation.

Six months after the earthquake, much of Port-au-Prince remained in ruins. Though the air was thick with the dust of demolition, many collapsed buildings still lay where they fell on January 12. The road from the airport to the cathedral was a sea of tents where people lived without running water and electricity. We saw fax machines and barber chairs set up along the sidewalk, people bathing out of buckets, cooking over charcoal fires and washing clothes in muddy urban rivulets. Because so many roads continued to be blocked by rubble, it took nearly an hour to drive just a few miles.

Sainte Trinité, as it is locally known, had once been a simple but beautiful art deco structure. In the 1950s, the building’s walls were decorated with 14 murals depicting New Testament scenes. Done by a collective of Haitian artists associated with Port-au-Prince’s Centre D’Art, these energetic, color-saturated paintings quickly became something of an international sensation — one of the must-see sites for Haitian painting. For locals, they had a deep spiritual importance because they used Haitian people and settings to illustrate the life of Christ. This went well beyond the skin color of the biblical figures. For example, in Rigaud Benoit’s Nativity, palm trees, a thatched building, baskets of pineapple, and a waterfall that bears a distinct resemblance to a local pilgrimage site frame the baby Jesus. In Wedding at Cana, artist Wilson Bigaud set the miracle of turning water into wine in a Haitian hilltop village, complete with musicians playing conga drums and flutes of local origin. (See a pre-earthquake view of some of the murals here.)

The remains of Sainte-Trinité, Port-au-Prince. At rear, Prefete Duffaut's 'Native Procession' sits behind scaffolding.

When we arrived at Holy Trinity in the summer of 2010, both Benoit’s and Bigaud’s murals had been reduced to fragments the size of my hand. Gone also were paintings of the Annunciation, Temptation of the Lord, and Crucifixion, not to mention the building’s walls, roof, and pillars. Only three murals — Castera Bazile’s Baptism, Prefete Duffaut’s Native Procession and Philomé Obin’s three-walled Last Supper — clung precariously to walls that looked about as stable as the piles of debris that surrounded them. Doused by rain and baked by the sun for six months, the paintings were starting to fade and powder. They had to come down immediately. The question was how to do it without destroying them.

Continue reading

Ask the Art Nurse: Stinky Feathers.


I have a random conservation question for you: A friend of mine just returned from an African safari and brought back some fresh guinea fowl feathers from a bird that she shot. She said that the feathers really stink and she’s trying to get the smell to go away. (Ick. Don’t get me started.) She said she’s tried dish soap, laundry soap, Woolite (which seemed to work the best), but they’re still pretty stanky.

Do you have ideas on what would work best without damaging the integrity of the feathers?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Stinky Feathers


Back when I was starting out as a conservator I worked in an ethnographic museum where I recall treating feathers — the most delicate of materials — with the most delicate of techniques. The reason is that any aggressive cleaning strips the feathers of their oils and they are then exposed to damage, drying, and all manner of deterioration. I’ve since gone on to work primarily on detritus and organic matter used in the service of contemporary art, so I thought it best if I posed this question to my pal Dana Moffett, formerly of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She is now a private conservator working in Washington, D.C., on the artifacts of cultures that have better things to do with skulls than encrust them in diamonds.

After expressing horror at the use of dish soap, laundry soap, and Woolite — which probably completely stripped the feathers of their oils — Dana suggested placing the feathers (properly wrapped, of course, in a few sheets of Japanese paper or acid free tissue) into a sealed container (Ziploc bag, Tupperware) that contains an odor scavenger that will absorb the foul odor, like zeolites, activated charcoal (not the kind with lighter fluid), or even kitty litter (seriously). She also warned that she was not sure how long it would take to work. It all depends on the source of the stench.

If it doesn’t go away, there’s always the possibility of recycling the feathers — perhaps as a fragrant work of contemporary art. The next Whitney Biennial isn’t until 2012. There’s time…

San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.

Ask the Art Nurse: How to get chewing gum off your art (and your shoes).


I’m a New York City-based arts blogger who recently invested in a pair of righteous grey-felt sneakers — a purchase that may have been subliminally inspired by a recent visit to the Joseph Beuys installation at the Dia Beacon.

Well, on my first day wearing my smokin’ new kicks, I stepped on a giant wad of chewing gum. Not realizing that I was sporting this sticky parasite, I then paid a visit to a prominent Manhattan arts institution, where I stood on a brand-spanking-new rug that was intended as a fuzzy stage for all manner of cutting-edge relational aesthetics (i.e.: thing to sit on and talk). It was at this moment that I discovered that my foot was attached to the rug by a string of chewy chicle. In good starving-writer fashion, I quickly made for the exit.

My question is this: How do I remove the gum from the tight tread of my insanely rad footwear? And what suggestions would you have for the venerable downtown arts institution that may find itself with a mess of Double Mint smashed into their social sculpture?

Love your work,
Hapless in Brooklyn


First of all, you can’t write to me mentioning something as sublime as felt sneaks without a picture. So pony up and tell me also where you got them. [Hapless in Brooklyn has acquiesced with the image at right, though she refuses to reveal her retail sources.]

Secondly, in this case, ice is your best friend. Rub a cube on the gum until it gets hard, then take a knife and chip away as much as possible without hurting the rubber sole, of course. The residue can be cleaned off with ethanol (denatured alcohol) or acetone (nail polish remover) on a Q-tip. Test a discreet area first to make sure the solvent does not dissolve the shoe bottom.

The same is prescribed for the venerable arts venue. However, they will have to work around the fuzz (e.g. possible hedge-trimming) and might face issues of discoloration if using a solvent. It’s the type of tricky work, naturally, that is best left in the hands of a pro.

San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.