Prepping Your Collection for Disaster

In the past few weeks I have managed to experience my first hurricane and my first earthquake; given, by the time each reached the Fractured Atlas office they were nowhere near as dramatic as they were in most other parts of the country, but it really gets one thinking.

My first thought was of disaster films. What better way to pass time when stuck at home anticipating a hurricane that may never arrive?

Unfortunately (fortunately?) I don’t own many disaster films on DVD so I was left with the options available to me on Netflix streaming. After taking in Vertical Limit, Ground Control, and Airport (the 1970 version), I was left with no other choice than to finally watch Volcano, the amazing Tommy Lee Jones film about a volcano erupting in downtown LA.

I have a lot of thoughts about that film that I will likely expound upon in future posts, but the most striking moment to me was when our main characters made a crazy plan to attempt to save the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from the vast lava flow pouring down Wilshire Boulevard: they would tip over a city bus and push it up in front of the doors. At the same time, a group of burly museum security guards were carrying paintings by Hieronymus Bosch out of the front doors of the museum and apparently throwing them, uncrated and unprotected into a rental truck.

My first thought was, they probably never would have been able to buy insurance if that was really their only disaster plan.

Naturally, museums have actual disaster plans. There’s some fascinating stuff out there. Particular favorites of mine are the National Gallery of Art’s secret boxes full of their picks to survive World War 3 or any large-scale natural disaster and the British Museum’s secret cave in Snowdonia to which they relocated vast portions of their collection during World War 2.

For most artists, creating a disaster plan of that magnitude is an unnecessary use of time. Nonetheless, two of the most frequently asked questions that I receive is a) how to protect your artwork (and here we’re talking about physical works, not film/video/digital) before a disaster and b) what to do about finished work (or other artworks that you may own) that are in your possession at the time of a disaster.

The first answer to both is to catalog, catalog, catalog. You’ve heard me go on about secure offsite storage in more blog posts than I can count, but I’ll say it again here. Put together a list of all of your work (include that which you have sold or is on loan, and what their locations are); include title, materials, selling/purchase price, and the date created/purchased. Take photos. Then email the whole mess to yourself; upload the photos to an online photo sharing service like Picasa or Kodak; or put the entire package in your Dropbox account.

Once a proper inventory is in place, then you have backup information for anything from theft to flood and there will be no doubt as to the legitimacy of your claim

Going back to how to protect your work before a disaster might hit, there are a few practical considerations.

1. Are you in an area prone to flooding? Then you likely want to keep any artwork or materials storage elevated. Conversely, if you are in tornado country then it might be best to find a basement location for storage, provided the environmental conditions are appropriate for the type of work that you are storing.

2. Again, catalog, catalog, catalog and keep the catalog updated: it doesn’t do much good to have a list of your finished artwork on hand only to find out that it is four years old!

3. Check out this wonderful resource from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works; their site has a lot of stunningly useful information but I particularly love the “Caring for your treasures” page.

4. You knew this was coming. Buy an insurance policy. You can cover artwork, equipment, anything of value that you would rather not pay to have to replace.

5. And while safety is always the number one priority in a disaster, it may be worth taking a page from the National Gallery of Art’s plan and deciding which one or two pieces you would do anything to save.

For the second question, what to do about work that might have been damaged in an accident or a natural disaster, there are a lot of fabulous conservation resources out there. A good list lives here. Winterthur has some incredibly valuable resources on caring for your collection. And back to the good old American Institute for Conservation again, they focus on flood but do have guides on every topic under the sun including water damaged heirlooms and other valuables, water damaged textiles, and saving photographs after a flood.

Here’s hoping that none of this ever comes to pass, but in the event that an unforeseen event does befall your studio (or a volcano really does erupt on Wilshire Boulevard) it’s always better safe than sorry. More planning never hurt anyone, and it may just save your work from a disastrous fate.


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