Fire and flood risk to State’s €35m modern art collection

Storage facility ‘significantly below international standards’, Imma warned officials

Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham. Imma  has off-site storage in OPW warehouse.  File photograph.

Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham. Imma has off-site storage in OPW warehouse. File photograph.

 

The storage facility holding the State’s multi-million euro collection of modern art falls “significantly below international museum standards” and was placing artworks at risk of flooding and fire damage, the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) warned officials.

Last year Imma privately warned the Department of Culture and the Office of Public Works (OPW) of “urgent” shortcomings at the State gallery’s off-site storage warehouse, which would cause “serious reputational damage” if artworks suffered any harm.

The current facility was not set up to prevent the spread of a fire, and had no automated fire extinguishing system or smoke extraction system, Imma’s head of operations Gale Scanlan told the OPW in a letter last March.

The letter, seen by The Irish Times, warned “the current storage facilities fall significantly below international museum standards”.

The collection was valued at €35 million but “the true value is a multiple of this amount”, the letter said. This is because the value of the artworks dates from the time they were acquired; the current worth of the entire collection has not been appraised each year.

The national collection has more than 3,500 pieces of modern and contemporary art built up since 1990; Imma holds both permanent and temporary exhibitions at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

Capacity

The off-site storage warehouse was now at capacity and had “very limited compartmentation” between crates of artworks “to prevent the spread of fire”, the letter to the OPW said. There was a “limited” alarm system to detect water entry around the doors of the warehouse, but this would fail to detect a roof leak, the letter said. The building is more than 20 years old and owned by the OPW.

The artwork was stored in crates on the warehouse floor “so any pooling of water will cause immediate damage”, the correspondence said. Rainwater pipes also ran inside the building “which have been prone to leak leaving traces of water on the floor”, it said.

“The consequences of physical damage to any artworks, that would be considered avoidable, would be one of serious reputational damage both to Imma and the department,” the letter warned.

Imma said it was difficult to control the internal climate of the warehouse, the location of which is kept strictly confidential to guard against attempted art theft.

“Temperature and humidity vary with the weather and these variations are significant factors in the potential physical decay of vulnerable artworks,” the letter said.

There was also no space to quarantine artworks lent to other venues upon their return “that may have been exposed to bacterial elements or pests that could compromise other works” in the collection, it said.

In the letter to the OPW, the Imma official said the options were to relocate the collection to a “more suitable environment” or improve the current building, however the museum lacked “the resources to make the necessary improvements”.

Minutes from a February 2019 meeting show the museum’s board felt it was “imperative” to take steps to ensure the safe storage of the art collection, and it should “express its concern in the strongest terms” to the department.

The Department of Culture refused to release correspondence between officials and Imma on the issue following a Freedom of Information request from The Irish Times, arguing the documents related to the “deliberative process” of the department.

The collection remains in the same storage warehouse, but contractors were hired last December to carry out “fire suppression works” in the facility, a spokesman for Imma said.

In a statement, a spokesman for the OPW said “collaboration” with the museum “continues on this issue” and that the department was maintaining “ongoing contact” over the matter.