Help Desk

Help Desk: Serious Damage

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I have my work up in a solo exhibition at a well-known arts center in a large city. Last weekend during open gallery hours, I walked in to find five wall pieces and a major floor sculpture missing. The attendants had no idea what had happened or where the work was. Finally, I found someone who let me in to the offices where the work was being stored. Two pieces were broken and the rest were undamaged. Turns out, the work was bumped off the wall and taken down as a precaution during a wedding event when dining tables were set up in my space. No one informed me for over a week, and I was not aware that dining tables would be set up in the space for the duration of the show. The main curator was also laid off in the midst of all of this, and the center is not willing to move the events out of the space. I am considering a complete deinstall for the sake of protecting the work and my anxiety levels. How should I handle this situation?

Lutz Bacher. Organ Pipes (detail), 2014; tin, foam, foam core.

Lutz Bacher. Organ Pipes, 2014 (detail); tin, foam, foam core.

You have my sympathy. Your work is damaged, you can’t get straight answers, and it seems like no one is in your corner right now; that’s awful. Although I’ve had my share of mishandled artwork—including a piece returned with a boot print smack in the middle of the back, and a sculpture broken in transit and then “repaired” by a gallerist without my permission—I’ve never been compelled to go in and take my work away. But this situation? I’d be tempted.

I asked around and heard back from two artists, two gallerists, and one curator (since the majority requested anonymity, I’m going to treat them all that way). Everyone mentioned a contract. Do you have one? I hope you do, because reviewing it is the first step to resolving this situation. Gallerist Number One said, “Make sure you understand the rights and responsibilities for each party as outlined in the loan documents, the exhibition contract, and any other official documents. Hopefully you’ll be in the position to simply ask the organization to meet their self-described contractual obligations. […] Be sure to document your ongoing communications with the institution’s team regarding any promises about handling, care, events, etc.”

Additionally, while you are reviewing the contract and considering your options, our curator advised that you “document the damaged pieces for insurance purposes, and request copies of the condition reports that should have been completed before the show went up. You should also photograph the objects still on view. Ask if additional events will be held in the space, and ask for additional gallery sitters be in the space if large crowds are expected.”

Since the art center’s curator is gone, you need to find someone who can advocate for you. Gallerist Number One asks, “How close to the board of trustees or donors are you/can you get? If you can identify an ally, you’ll have a better position by leagues! If you have contacts (a donor, lender, trustee, sponsor, or gallerist) who can write a terse letter about their concerns, you may find the institution suddenly more agreeable.” The artist agrees: “You can involve the director and the board of trustees, if they’re not already informed. These people are also responsible for what’s going on at the center.”

No matter what you decide, you’ll have to deal with the center’s insurance so that you can repair or re-create the damaged work. Here’s Gallerist Number One again: “The art center should be insured, so you should be able to choose the form of remediation you see fit. If you haven’t already, engage the institution and ask quite specifically if you have their commitment for replacing the work/covering repair costs (for materials and time). Tell them, ‘I need you to confirm that you intend to take full financial responsibility for the repair/replacement of these works as outlined in our contract.’”

How you choose to move forward depends a lot on the responses you get to the requests for documentation, condition reports, insurance information, and advocacy from the board. Even though the respondents had terrific advice for rectifying the situation and staying the course, they all expressed doubts. Gallerist Number Two noted that most art centers have to host events to make money, but “this sounds like a mess, and having tables up during gallery hours is crazy […] the artwork isn’t being protected and presented as it should be.” Gallerist Number One noted, “The organization seems unwilling to address safety concerns moving forward, and that’s a big red flag.” The curator admitted, “This is a lose–lose situation.” Unsurprisingly, the two artists were in agreement; Artist Number One said, “If you’re not comfortable with anyone at the arts center, I would recommend permanently de-installing the work and closing the show.” Artist Number Two concurred: “My personal instinct would be to pull the work out of the show immediately.” Everyone acknowledges that you may not be able to salvage this situation, and your best option may indeed be to de-install the work as soon as possible. Let us know what happens, and good luck!