No space in store for art

 

A document from 2003 details the storage crisis at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, listing 20 artworks that have been damaged due to inadequate facilities, writes Harry McGee

THE DOCUMENT DATED September 1st 2003 - with its polite, almost old-fashioned title - seemed like it would make for relatively innocuous reading. The title page read: "Storage for Artwork at the Irish Museum of Modern Art: A Schedule of the Curatorial Concerns."

But, flicking to the next page, it became clear the title was a bit of misdirection for the incendiary material that followed. The document, drawn up by Imma's head of collections Catherine Marshall, exposed the deep inadequacies of facilities to store the State's growing permanent collection of contemporary art, worth many millions of euro.

Imma's own on-site stores at its home at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) were crammed with artworks, constituting a serious hazard as they could not be evacuated in the event of a fire and had no proper environmental controls to protect fragile works of art.With well over 1,000 works in its permanent collection by then, the vast bulk was being housed in "temporary" and "interim" warehouses and stores sourced off-site by the Office of Public Works (OPW), none of which were really suitable for storing art.

So critical had the storage situation become that Imma was forced to store works in a shipping container in the car park. The use of the shipping container was described as an emergency solution. But the "emergency" lasted four years. In September 2007, Imma's director Enrique Juncosa wrote to Sean Benton, the chair of the OPW, again highlighting its storage problems.

"As the store is reaching full capacity," he wrote, "we have adapted every available space on-site at the Museum for storage and this includes storing items in the car park in shipping containers and giving up some programming areas."

But the most explosive part of the 2003 document was its "schedule of the curatorial concerns". It listed 20 artworks that had been damaged as a "direct result of inappropriate environmental conditions in the storage facilities" at Imma. They included works by renowned artists from Ireland and abroad (see panel) including Louis le Brocquy, Dorothy Cross, Georges Braque, Basil Blackshaw, Colin Middleton, Shane Cullen, Terry Atkinson and Stephan Balkenhol.

Atkinson's Slat Greaser - a three-dimensional work incorporating grease - had suffered laminate buckling and was "not fit to show, due to extreme fluctuations in environment". Cullen's Fragments sur les Institutions Républicaines IV (96 styrofoam panels inscribed with messages smuggled out of the H-Blocks during the 1981 hunger strike) had been "damaged by flooding".

Another work, Cricketer (a sculpture by the British artist Barry Flanagan), was "stored in an outdoor shipping container and is displaying bloom on the metal".

'THE OVERCROWDED NATURE of all of our current storage facilities makes it dangerous to handle artwork other than when absolutely necessary," wrote Marshall. "Consequently a curatorial decision not to move the artwork even for random inspection has been taken."

Significantly, five of the 20 works listed as damaged belonged to the substantial private collection donated by businessman Gordon Lambert and on loan to the museum. Marshall also noted that Imma was not in a position to take donations into its collection due to lack of storage.

The 2003 memo forms part of a tranche of documents on the storage situation at Imma released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act. The records and correspondence makes clear that the 2003 "crisis" was not an isolated incident. And like the National Museum, another cultural institution with serious storage problems, Imma's wait for a suitable and permanent facility has been a saga of Godot proportions in length, frustration and resolution.

Year after year, Juncosa, operations manager Gale Scanlan and the board of Imma return to the theme. "Storage continues to represent the most complex and challenging strategic issue facing the museum," Juncosa wrote in a director's report from this year.

The difficulties can be traced back to the foundation of Imma in 1991 and probably tie in with the larger question of why Charles Haughey and his cultural advisor Anthony Cronin chose the RHK rather than what many considered a more suitable location in Dublin's docklands. The RHK is an achingly beautiful 17th-century building, with pleasing vistas from every angle. There has been ongoing debate about its suitability as a museum for contemporary art. But its relatively small capacity and the fact that it was listed led to increasing problems.

In a confidential briefing note written in 2005 for the sponsoring department, the Department of Art, Sport and Tourism, said that initially storage was not an issue as the tiny opening collection was all on display. However, by 1998, the board was told that, with a growing collection, storage was "barely adequate". It was at this stage that the board began looking for increased storage space. The records and correspondence show that the intervening decade has witnessed a litany of promises without delivery. And a litany of problems, with unsatisfactory solutions.

The 2005 briefing note suggested that the storage rooms for paintings at Imma were a fire hazard. "This store, which is still in use, cannot be evacuated in the event of fire and damage continues to be incurred by artwork due to fluctuating environmental conditions in the absence of any controls. Conservation or other works cannot be carried out on the collection in this space without compromising healthy and safety regulations," it stated.

An example of the inherent problems with the RHK was highlighted by director Juncosa in a letter he wrote to the OPW chairman in 2006. "[There is] urgent need to relocate the painting store [in the RHK] to our off-site storage following the serious leak of coolant [for the second time] from the plant located in the attic area above the painting store. High-value items are stored in this location and we were fortunate that the damage was minimised."

Imma was hardly faring better with its off-site storage, as it was left with no choice but to accept temporary solutions. In 2003, and again in 2005, it was asked to vacate warehouses managed by the OPW, because they were being sold.

IN MARCH 2005, a month before Imma was scheduled to vacate a warehouse, the OPW offered two alternatives. Two senior Imma officials visited both. In an e-mail, they stated that neither was "in any way suitable".

Of the first of the two buildings, the e-mail said: "The place smells damp, indeed there is a visible hole in the roof . . . and finally . . . the OPW's lease expires in 10 months, when we would have to vacate it again.

"The other building is only half the size of our current provision. A good third of the space is taken up with a warren of little offices which we would not be allowed to remove." Another internal memo from 2005 again highlighted the inadequacy of storage being offered. "None of the above represents best practice. Our store is a 'living store' where work needs to be accessed on a regular basis. It cannot be stacked and left. In the opinion of the museum, this option is operationally and logistically unworkable. It would not be responsible to accept these conditions for the State's contemporary art collection."

After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing - and under considerable pressure - Imma's stored artworks were eventually moved to a large warehouse in the North, which was leased commercially. It has more space (although not enough) but has not been adapted to allow climatic control to conserve pictures. Juncosa, who has been very active on this issue since his own appointment, insisted in a director's report earlier this year that "this still remains an interim solution".

The narrative seems to be one of continuous lurching from one storage crisis to another. However, the effect has not yet been cataclysmic, even in relation to the paintings that were damaged in the autumn of 2003. It is clear that some of the 20 works listed have been repaired or restored as they have been exhibited since 2003.

Conservation is a huge issue generally in relation to contemporary art, which can be made of anything and everything, and often perishable materials. All museums have problems with damage and degradation. Old-style paintings are actually the simplest to maintain. But keeping works of art in attics and shipping containers clearly does not help. Imma says that it no longer stores any work in containers.

On a wider scale, the wheels of change are moving very slowly. Imma became involved during 2003 in discussions with the Department and the OPW regarding an off-site storage facility that would be shared between all the national cultural institutions. This so-called "global storage solution" received a boost in January 2007 when it was included as a €30 million investment in the National Development Plan. But it's unsure, as of now, if that goal will be met, given the new straitened economic circumstances.

For its part, the Department says that plans are at an advanced stage to provide on-site storage for Imma at the RHK as well as increased storage off-site.

"The OPW has acquired off-site storage which is being provided exclusively for Imma. This will be somewhere in the region of 20,000sq ft [1,858sq m]," says a departmental spokesman.