Help Desk

Help Desk: You Broke It!

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What is the most professional way to handle a guest breaking a piece of artwork at an opening? This has happened to me a couple of times this year, and I’m at a loss for a.) how to prevent it from happening (short of posting signs that say “please no running in the gallery”); and b.) how to handle it once it does happen (is it better to calmly tuck the work away and inform the artist, or yell at the person who has broken the piece, etc., etc.)? There are also insurance implications here…

It remains to be seen if accidental harm can be prevented. Obviously, parents of rambunctious children should be reminded of their duties with a discreet request to take them in hand. The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon—which often hosts shows of invitingly tactile work—has small signs scattered throughout the space advising patrons: “Touching harms the art.” If you’re working in a place where you think someone might be inspired to run, by all means, put out a sign that says, “Please no running in the gallery.” Your job is to protect the art, so do what it takes to guard fragile or potentially fragile work from abuse, whether that means a polite whisper to a particularly animated guest or putting “keep-back” tape lines on the floor to remind patrons to maintain a safe distance.

Dan Flavin, Untitled (for John Heartfield) 3a, 1990.

But oh, I feel your pain!—not every “accident” is accidental. Years and years ago, at an opening reception for my husband’s work, I spied a young man about to touch one of the wall-hung motorized sculptures. Clear across the gallery, the director was deep in conversation with a group of patrons; the gallery assistants were nowhere to be seen. Rather than wait for someone else to notice, I walked over to find the man cranking on an immobile part of the work. “Please don’t touch the artwork,” I said. With his hand still on the work, he replied drunkenly, “It’s not working. It’s broken.” So I reached out and took his hand away from the piece, saying, “It’s not broken, it’s on a timer.” Rather than back off, he slurred insistently that the work was not functioning. I reiterated that it was timed to go on and off at intervals, and if he wanted to see it move he would have to wait. Continuing to argue with me, he reached up to touch it again and I had to physically place myself between him and the piece. As you can imagine, it ended badly with me asking him (as politely as I could) to leave the gallery. He did, but I heard later from friends that he lurked out front for a bit with his inebriated pals, apparently waiting to “kick my ass.”

Dan Flavin, Untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with Respect and Affection), 1974.

I dredge up this unpleasant memory in order to emphasize the difference between an accident and a case of bad intent. However, in either situation I think the most professional response is to speak to the breaker in careful, measured tones. Try to get a handle on what’s going on. Was it a mishap or was the person doing something obviously wrong (like running in the gallery or fondling the artwork)? This may give you a sense for what to say and how to proceed. If you begin with the idea that it was truly unintentional (someone might have tripped over a cord or slipped on a dropped wedge of opening-night brie), you’ll give this hapless individual the opportunity to apologize and maybe even offer to buy the work. If, in your conversation, you discover that the breaker had some sort of malicious desire to hurt the work, then by all means you’re free to call in the authorities and press charges. But remember that raising your voice is only going to make more of a scene; the artist whose piece is broken and who has to witness a shouting match is never going to work with you again, and the gallery patrons will only remember a fight instead of the art you’re seeking to promote. Keep your cool no matter what happens.

After you talk to the breaker, you’ll need to notify the artist and ask how she would like to proceed. She’ll want to inspect the damage immediately to see if a repair is possible; if it isn’t, you’ll probably want to offer her the opportunity to replace the broken work with another piece; either way, she should decide whether the work stays up, gets repaired, or is replaced. An honest and in-depth consultation is critical, whether it’s face-to-face or over the phone, so don’t put off being the bearer of bad news because a delay will only make the situation worse. Document the incident well, as it’s imperative that the artist receives all the information on the matter. Take photos of the broken work in situ from as many angles as possible and email them before you pick up the phone.

Dan Flavin, Installation at Art Basel 41, 2010, courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.

As for insurance, check with your provider before anything occurs to see what protocol(s) they want you to have in place. They may require certain information about the incident (like photos), so make sure you know in advance what expectations they have for filing a claim. You’ll also want to communicate what you learn to the other gallery workers so that everyone is on the same page. Ask lots of questions when you’re talking to your insurance agent and find out what your insurance will and won’t cover. Some types of insurance will pay replacement or repair values, not sale value, which means that if the Dan Flavin sculpture gets broken, they’ll shell out only for a new fluorescent tube from the hardware store. By hashing all this out with your insurance agent (go ahead, investigate some hypothetical situations with her), you can get a more precise understanding of what you’ll be reimbursed for in the event of a catastrophe.

Good luck! May no one ever run in your gallery again.