Museum workers act fast to protect valuable collection
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The Durand-Ruel sisters didn’t dress for hurricane season.
The eldest had on a wide-brimmed hat, the kind one would take to a high-society garden party. Both wore white gowns that looked as though their sheerness would go transparent in a mist.
And Juliette Huet was quite shockingly underdressed. She rested naked on her back, eyes fixed toward the ceiling, where a glass skylight poured beams overhead.
Two handlers ushered their portraits from the walls of the Chrysler Museum of Art. They loaded the impressionist masterpieces — one by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the other by Paul Gauguin — onto a cart. The rumble of wheels over hardwood filled the empty gallery.
“There goes $100 million right there,” said Erik Neil, director of the museum, as the two oil paintings rolled away.
As Hurricane Florence looked to be bearing down on Hampton Roads, bringing brutal winds and flooding , the museum shut down to visitors. A busload of 40 people was hurried off the premises, and staff began pulling valuable artwork off walls near windows that could shatter or leak. About 50 canvases were moved to safer spaces.
Norfolk’s renowned art institution sits at the edge of the Hague, a small inlet known to overflow at high tide. It’s in the foreboding “Zone A,” an area federal emergency officials have designated as the most vulnerable during a flood or storm surge. Thus, Gov. Ralph Northam’s evacuation order included the property, along with many others nearby.
Once the museum had closed, Clark Williamson, the museum’s exhibit designer, and Mark Lewis, its conservator, headed into a lavender room and got to work. The Countess of Lathom, an imposing portrait by John Singer Sargent, was too big to move, so the staff covered it in plastic from edge to gilded edge.
The row of bronze sculptures in the center of the room was wrapped in plastic as well. Painter’s tape growled as it came off the spool. The crew fastened strips around the protective sheaths to hold them in place.
Through it all, Neil remained calm. He has confidence in the building and staff, which will have its own “Night at the Museum” whenever Florence arrives.
It helps that the collection is insured. But for how much?
“I know the answer to that,” said Alisa Reynolds, an associate registrar. But Neil stopped her.
“I would rather not say,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Let’s call it a trade secret.”
The museum, which is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, doesn’t present the value of its collection in its public financial statements.
Neil, who has headed the museum for the past four years, may be experiencing some deja vu. As the one-time director of the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University, he helped complete a plan that protected the university’s holdings from Hurricane Katrina.
Just four months before that historic storm, the collection was moved out of a basement into an off-site building. Though the gallery wasn’t damaged, other libraries and archives in the New Orleans area were. Some were submerged, their contents lost to mold and mildew.
Seeing bare walls at the Chrysler is still unsettling — a bit eerie, Neil admitted. This was not what he planned to be doing. He had been preparing for a black-tie dinner tonight that would bring together 280 of the museum’s key benefactors. A new date for the event hasn’t been set.
The museum crew rested smaller pieces on Styrofoam blocks in interior rooms. Neil smiled at the new juxtapositions this created.
Nothing was left flat on its back. If a rogue drop of water were to fall from the ceiling, better that a canvas be upright than a place for it to form a puddle, Lewis said.
There’s no precedent for storm damage to the Chrysler, but there have been some close calls.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabel drove floodwaters within an inch of the museum’s front door. About 9 feet of water collected in the basement, killing two boilers. Without power, humidity threatened to ruin some paintings. Following a multi-million-dollar renovation a few years ago, the basement is empty and the heating and air-conditioning relocated to a top floor.
But the crew isn’t taking any chances. They’re sandbagging the doors and installing a floodgate. They’ll have art handlers and security on site, including Neil, when the storm makes landfall. Two people carried a kayak through the employee entrance Tuesday afternoon.
“Hopefully, it’s boring,” Neil said. “Hopefully, it’s about microwave popcorn and old movies.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com