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New Orleans' Artworks Have Their Heroes Too

A conservation center in Chicago sent teams to rescue damaged treasures. Its restoration experts contend with mold and even feathers.

October 09, 2005|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO — Helen Conklin whisks a cotton swab delicately across a 19th century painting of silvery fish set in deep earth tones. She's looking for, of all things, mud on the canvas -- and there it is.

She peers at another painting through a microscope, focusing on a cardinal's rich crimson robes that have faded to a sickly pink -- the mark of floodwaters.

These works and many others -- paintings and frames crusted with mold and fungus, bits of debris, even a few feathers -- are here to be repaired and revived by art conservationists participating in their own version of hurricane recovery.

They're part of the Chicago Conservation Center, a team of experts working in a sprawling seventh-floor studio more than 800 miles from New Orleans and the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. They have much to do: A giant multicolored abstract is splattered with grime, an autumn landscape is flaking, canvases are sagging. "Art is a narrative and tells a lot of personal stories," says Heather Becker, CEO of the center. "If we don't try to save the history of our culture, of our communities, we lose that forever."

The conservation work in Chicago is among many public and private efforts to salvage tens of millions of dollars' worth of cultural gems damaged in hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, based in Washington, D.C., is sending conservators to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency and cultural associations determine how to best repair waterlogged historic documents, sodden furniture and artwork. It also will help private citizens with damaged collections and heirlooms.

Even before the floodwaters buried New Orleans, efforts were underway to preserve art treasures. Workers at the New Orleans Museum of Art secured sculptures and moved some paintings before the storm, then kept vigil inside during chaotic days when looters roamed the streets.

The museum's insurer, AXA Art Insurance Corp., dispatched private security guards to protect the building as well as clients who had galleries or private collections in the city.

The museum, which has 40,000 pieces in a collection estimated to be worth about $250 million, escaped relatively unscathed. A giant sculpture in the garden needs repair, and three objects inside had water damage. The building is now a temporary haven for nearly 1,000 works from private collectors, galleries and other museums.

"If there are angels in the heavens above, the museum's angels were archangels," says Jacqueline Sullivan, the museum's assistant director for administration. "The storage was 12 feet underground. I can't imagine why it did not flood."

But others weren't as lucky.

AXA estimates that Katrina-related losses to its private clients -- including collectors, corporations and galleries -- could be as high as $30 million, according to Christiane Fischer, the corporation's chief executive officer.

In recent weeks, hundreds of damaged pieces -- including paintings by well-known artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierstadt -- have arrived at the Chicago Conservation Center in climate-controlled trucks.

They were collected by intrepid staffers who secured the art in what they call "rescue and recovery missions."

Donning impermeable Tyvek suits with hoods, gloves, boots and respirators and guided by flashlights, the workers often made their way through dark, flood-scarred homes in New Orleans.

"It's like an oven," says Walter Wilson, the center's director of disaster response. "You're doing an excruciatingly difficult job when it's 100 degrees."

Heat wasn't the only obstacle. A few times, Wilson wielded a chain saw to remove branches from fallen trees so he could get into houses. Even without fallen trees in the way, the work could be slow going. It took an entire afternoon for a crew of five to pack a 21-foot-wide abstract expressionist piece that weighed about 250 pounds.

"We take our time in the best conditions and double that in the worst conditions," Wilson explains. Every recovered piece is inventoried and photographed, and a report with proposed treatment is prepared for the owner.

Wind, water and humidity can do severe -- sometimes irreparable -- harm to art. Floods can cause paintings to crack, flake or change color; the canvas can shrink or buckle, distorting the image. Humidity can cause shrinking too. The varnish on a painting can become gray and cracked. If the paint layer itself is saturated, the colors can turn milky.

, So far, Becker says, about 90% of the Katrina-damaged works are salvageable. (She expects art caught up in Hurricane Rita to arrive soon.)

In repairing the works, conservators use reversible techniques that can be superseded if more advanced methods come along in 50 or 100 years. And they never do more than is absolutely necessary, Becker says.

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