When You Least Expect It: Saving Art

General Tips 4 – Saving Art by Disaster Preparation

If Hurricane Katrina had not been warning enough, after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York area, the creative community reached a critical awareness of the losses suffered to art works and art collections throughout the region. Today, the wildfires in Washington State and California bring this home again. Years and years of creative works, imagination, heart and effort can disappear in moments. While disasters can and often do take us by surprise, some come with advance notice. Here, we will begin a series of short posts about how to organize art collections in the face of nature’s emergencies.

The three greatest threats to physical art works and art spaces are fire, water and high wind and their by products:  soot, mold, sewage and chemical contamination or damage.  In most natural disasters, at least two of these forces are at work simultaneously. (For example, fires almost always lead to water damage and create soot, for example). Damage can occur to any range of physical art works and to all the technology involved in producing, storing, and digitally preserving art works and documents related to art works.  The individual artist, collector or legacy manager has different orders of scale than cultural institutions have for both planning and recovery post-catastrophe. But they each can benefit from applying a common basic principle: prepare if you can, recover as best you can.

Here we give some tips on preparation for natural disasters.

Prepare If You Can

Many of Nature’s emergencies give a few days warning – the trajectory of hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards and the like can be often anticipated, allowing a plan to be implemented. But this requires the plan to be in place. Other emergencies – earthquakes, tornadoes, avalanches – happen with little or no warning and no plan can stand up to them effectively, though good planning may reduce damage. Whether you are protecting an institution’s works or the works of an individual artist, having a plan and stocking basic materials and equipment for protection of physical and digital art works and records can help to keep them away from the worst damage.

Institutions Should Have Disaster Plans – These plans should account for the likely threats known in their areas. These plans typically require extensive discussion and thought, and each institution will have to develop a customized plan based on its resources, location and collections. Given the universal tenet of “save lives first,” the basic elements of a disaster plan to deal with non-life threatening emergencies include:

  • A disaster response plan – who does what, when and where once a disaster is known to be coming or has arrived
  • A record reflecting its assessment of the priority and order of physical and digital works to secure and or/salvage
  • An ongoing and up to date record of maintenance schedules for and location of the equipment needed to implement the plan
  • An up to date emergency contact list, using regular methods and those that may require no or limited electricity to implement (this includes key personnel, official communications and insurers)
  • A process for regular and emergency backing up and restoring electronic data, among other items.
  • Identified professional and volunteer resources to immediately assist with recovery efforts – These professionals and volunteers should know in advance the basics of responding to different types of damage – the “do’s and don’ts” of recovery after fire, water, high winds, soot, mold and the like. Additional damage can be done by not handling these situations properly from the get go.

A great resource for tools to help institutions in creating a disaster plan can be found at Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). This site contains useful online information, tools and resources that apply anywhere.

Individuals Should Develop Disaster Strategies – No one can live life with peace of mind while continually preparing for the worst.   But we can take basic and important steps to protect the collections of works we are responsible for or have created, in anticipation of the common natural threats we have seen occur in the past. These strategies include:

  • Know and document what’s in your collection – Make a comprehensive list of the works you have and include minimal descriptive material (media, size, location, etc.) sufficient to organize the works physically if you have warning of a natural emergency. Take a picture of every work, and keep these digital files in more than one place (like an office server and a home laptop). Flash drives may be helpful but are also unreliable.
  • Store your works smartly – This is appropriate for both physical and digital art works. If you are not actively displaying physical works, store them with an eye to keeping them away from water, fire or high winds. Digital works require regular backup and multiple media for replication in case one storage medium gets wiped. Keep all art works and art-relate devices off the ground, away from humidity, and preferably accessible for enclosure in water-resistant or fire resistant materials (like shrink wrap or cement blocks – a great, cheap way to lift works and to protect paper works, especially).
  • Decide ahead what art works matter most and organize accordingly- Every emergency forces us to make hard choices. Better for safety of persons and works to have made those decisions in the coolness of relaxation rather than in the whirlwind of emergencies. Both you and your works are more likely to come out of a natural disaster in good shape if you have your priorities worked out ahead of time, and have organized your life accordingly.
  • Have a contact list ready to reach out to if you need help on short notice. Include more people than you may need at any one time, incase some are not available or able to assist.
  • Keep essential protective supplies around in reasonable quantities. Each medium needs a different form of protection. Know what this is and keep some applicable supplies around.       Most need to be wrapped, lifted and possibly moved to a secure enclosed area. Keep bubble wrap, shrink-wrap, tape, string and wire, labels and sharpies accessible to secure and label physical art works. Keep sleeves, padded cases, extra power chargers and cables, and empty, pre-formatted storage media (like flash drives or small external hard drives) to load digital works onto if not saved in the cloud or on safely stored devices already.

POBA Can Help

POBA Concierge Services can assist in advising and providing technical assistance on both preparation for a pending emergency such as a wildfire or hurricane and in identifying assistance for post-disaster recovery, if time or conditions do not permit rapid deployment of even the best plans.  This assistance is available for individuals and institutions.

POBA Tips cover many topics related to the preservation of art works, including disaster planning and recovery.  We will add additional tips related to specific forms of damage and to planning for and recovering from them in the coming weeks. Please check back regularly at POBA Tips.

It may neither be possible to take all of these recommended steps, but they do give us ways to mentally and physically prepare ahead of time for the disaster we all hope never arrives.