Issue #234  9/18/2017
Multiple Hurricanes and Their Effects Set Back Photography and the Arts in Texas, Florida and Elsewhere

By Alex Novak

While the recent hurricanes and the massive flooding from them had only minor immediate impact on the major museums and institutions in those areas and their photography/art collections, the impact on smaller institutions, photo collectors, dealers and galleries in the line of these weather-related disasters could be significant. And longer-term impacts could be problematic for all. Effects on visitor levels, staffing, donations and future insurance costs could have lasting consequences even on the largest and best-protected museums.

The personal tragedies from the storms are not to be underestimated. Literally tens of millions of people were affected in some negative way. Power outages, wind damage and flooding all took their toll. On some Caribbean Islands and in parts of the Florida Keys, nearly 90% of the residential buildings were destroyed.

Most major museums maintain facilities that are proof against such storms and flooding, as well as maintain insurance to cover any losses. Especially in these storm-prone regions, experience and overkill have led to most of the larger institutions having siting and building requirements that let them easily ride out the weather and flooding. In fact many served as sanctuaries for museum personnel. For example, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which faces Biscayne Bay, had been built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes, with an elevated structure and windproof windows. It was considered so sturdy that 14 museum staffers stayed there for the storm, a spokesperson told the Miami New Times. As the New York Time's reported, even in Key West, close to where the Irma targeted its onshore onslaught, "ten people who rode out the storm at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum emerged unscathed, as did the property's famous six-toed cats."

At the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, a crew of more than 30, including technology staff, art handlers and 17 security guards, worked and lived at the museum for the duration of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. The main facility and its collection was largely spared, but the crew had to shore up thousands of sandbags around the building, check sump pumps; and secure the museum's custom 24-inch-high floodgates anywhere street flooding might spill into lower areas, such as basements, stairwells, tunnels or walkways. Their effectiveness had the facility open the week after the storm, although the Museum's new construction site was flooded, along with the Bayou Bend and Rienzi facilities.

Houston Museum of Fine Art Photography Curator Malcolm Daniel was one of the fortunate. Along with the Museum's Director Gary Tinterow, who was caught in New York City at the time of the storm, Daniel was actually away during the storm. As his automatic email response said at the time: "…Darryl and I are still on our drive home from the Hudson Valley. Our house is reported to be fine and the main campus of the MFAH is ok with the collections safe. Museum offices and public areas are closed today. Our thoughts, of course, are with friends and colleagues back home, hoping all are safe and dry. Thanks again to those who have sent messages of concern and friendship."

MFAH's website notes the following: "The Museum’s main campus is open with regular hours. Bayou Bend & Rienzi remain closed for now. Our thoughts continue to be with our fellow Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey."

The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Menil Collection reported that their precautions successfully protected their collections. In addition, the Galveston Arts Center and the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) reported no damage. But HCP director Ashlyn Davis pointed to "several artists in the HCP community who have taken direct hits and are in real need of support."

The Rockport Center for the Arts in Corpus Christi sustained serious external damage.

The parking lot and lobby of hotel where Catherine Couturier was staying BEFORE the mandatory evacuation.
The parking lot and lobby of hotel where Catherine Couturier was staying BEFORE the mandatory evacuation.

Houston photo gallerist and friend Catherine Couturier, who had moved back into her renovated home the week of Christmas 2015 after being flooded out, again had to face a flooded residence. But she texted me just a week after the storm hit: "I'm a pretty capable girl, so we are hanging in there. In the house for the first time today. Just documenting, then tossing. Some art ruined, but not much, and all from my artists, so I'll be able to replace. Just tired! Hoping to get settled in somewhere soon, so that we can adjust to this new normal again."

Checking back with her yesterday, she told me that she actually lost the first two vintage photographs that she had bought and the first photo that she was given by one of her artists. She and her family had to evacuate twice: once from their home and then from the hotel where her husband Arnaud works. On top of that, before they had to leave the hotel, someone pulled a fire alarm and she had to go down four flights with children in tow. Somehow throughout Cat has kept her sense of humor and has been powering through, as you'll see if you read her blog (link two paragraphs down).

The good news is that her gallery didn't flood this time and is open for business; so if you want to help out, drop by the gallery and buy a print or two, or from her website. Here's the information: Catherine Couturier Gallery, 2635 Colquitt Street, Houston TX 77098; Phone: 1-713-524-5070; email: gallery@catherinecouturier.com; website: http://www.catherinecouturier.com.

For the full trials and tribulations of Cat Couturier, take a look at her blog on Harvey and its flooding aftermath here: http://www.catherinecouturier.com/blog/harvey-update/.

Appraiser Lorraine Davis emailed me during the flooding in Houston: "We are fine. We are ¼ mile from the Bayou and three miles from the reservoirs that they are trying to drain, BUT we are at 79 feet, so all we had was a raging river in the street during the downpour, but it drained within an hour or so. We never lost power but for 10 minutes. The north side of our neighborhood was evacuated (six blocks) and they are STILL under water!

"I actually made it downtown on Wednesday (Aug. 30) to ring a commemorative ring--tolling the bells for the victims and ringing for the rescuers…"

Talking and emailing with several curators and collectors in Florida, most seemed to have fared pretty well during Irma, most better than some of their Houston counterparts.

Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, FL) photo curator Tim Wride emailed: "All is well here. We dodged the storm as it tracked west. Jasper (my black lab) and I were part of the Norton's Disaster Team and spent the duration in the museum. We got hit with some fairly fierce tropical storm winds, but nothing of hurricane strength. There was no damage save for a bit of unexpected foliage trim! They sure knew how to build in the 1940s! Our new construction came through like a champ!"

Several collectors had contacted me about what to do with prints after they've been hit with humidity and power losses. I asked my go-to conservator Gawain Weaver for help answering their questions.

Here's one Houston collector's question: "The office has been without power of any means since last weekend and will be so for at least another 7-10 days. The bayous flooded the basement and first floor, despite floodgates and walls, and destroyed all the power systems. Although our office is on the 11th floor, I wonder about what condition my photographs and lithos will be in, given the heat and humidity? Everything is in museum quality mats, frames and glazing."

Here's Gawain's response: "It all depends on the temperature and RH of those rooms during this time. Particularly the humidity/RH. A week or more is unfortunately plenty of time for mold/foxing spots to develop, or at the very least some cockling/warping of the paper supports, if the RH is high enough. On the other hand, they might be just fine. Just get in there as soon as you can and get them to a drier environment ASAP. If they seem damp or are showing any signs of mold, then it may be beneficial to take apart the frames so that they can air dry more quickly. But only if you have a safe and drier environment to do so in."

Of course photographs submerged in polluted water are another story entirely, and depend entirely on what value they have. On important pieces it might be best to freeze them until they can be worked on by a conservator. By the way, Weaver's website is: http://gawainweaver.com.

With three more major storms brewing in the Caribbean and Atlantic, we can only hope that our friends in their paths get a break soon. For those of us more fortunate, can I encourage you to support the galleries and institutions in those areas? There is always a "survivor guilt" issue on buying photos that impact galleries, as well as a short-term downturn in tourism that supports these galleries. Contrary to some people's ideas, the vast majority of gallerists and dealers are just small business people in a constant struggle to survive in normal circumstances.

In addition, can I suggest that you donate cash to the Red Cross, Salvation Army or some of the special funds set up for both Harvey and Irma victims? Every little bit helps. Here's the link to the Red Cross for donations (even airline mileage can help): http://rdcrss.org/2wnWJUj.