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Monday, September 12, 2016

Art Museum Security

The Philadelphia Art Museum. The city has 24 other art museums.
Imagine having breakfast with a friend at your local sidewalk café, each of you perusing the latest news headlines on your cell phone when up pops the words: "Local Art Museum Security Breached." You comment on the story to your friend who quickly asks, "Which museum." That question would, of course, be a moot point unless you live in a large metropolitan area. Many major cities around the world have only one art museum, some of which are barely entitled to such a designation. The biggest, most populous cities in the world have dozens of them. Paris has 48, not surprisingly New York City has the most with 80; Philadelphia (above) has 25; London has 67; Chicago boasts 21; Los Angeles only 12; the San Francisco Bay Area, 41; Washington, D.C. a total of 18; and Rome, some 27 "major" art museums. Of course, in every case, some of them are more major than others, while few are in any way comprehensive. In extreme cases, many are highly specialized. I've included children's art museums in this count as well as those devoted, to decorative arts, film, photography, architecture, and the work of just one artist.
The ultimate theft defense--electronic eyes and a mouse.
In each city listed above, and especially in those not listed, there would be far more in the way of art museums except for two factors--the cost of security, and the high costs of insurance. Physical security is, naturally, the most costly, everything from a highly secure structure housing the work, while also providing attractive, secure access, to the personal comforts of the viewing public. Along with this comes a whole catalog of electronic security devices to prevent theft (below). Add to that the security personnel (in some cases a guard in every room during visiting hours) and only slightly less than that when the museum is locked down. These are, all non-productive employees (that is, they don't generate income, but work primarily at preventing loss). As for insurance, the choice often comes down to not insuring everything, underinsuring everything, or not insuring anything, but instead relying on the previously mentioned hardware and human watchfulness.

Art museum security: (1) Small and wireless, vibration sensors placed behind a painting can detect the lightest finger tap. (2) Inventory numbers written on the canvas back and recorded in a registrar's catalog.  (3) At the bottom center of the painting, a metal boiler plate screws into both the frame and the wall. (4) Glazing protects some paintings. (5) Environmental sensors for fire, temperature changes and other hazards can be used to complement theft-deterrent sensors. (6) Around the edge of the room, a low rail creates a border discourages people from getting too close to the artwork (purely psychological). (7) Motion-detection devices beamed directly over the painting sound a chirping alarm to startle the too-close observer. (8) Saturation motion detection used in any given exhibit space. (9) Closed-circuit TV cameras. (10) Fire alarms, sprinklers and temperature controls are mandated in any exhibit space. (11) Windows fitted with alarms. (12) Security guards.
Very often there is more security at a major art museum than at most city banks. That's not surprising, when you think about it, in that the inventory of many art museums runs into the realm of eight or nine figures. Few banks carry that much cash on the premises. Of course it would take a dozen skilled art thieves, a semi-truck, and several hours of uninterrupted work to haul off the mega-millions of dollars worth of art from most museums, not to mention the fact that the resulting heist would not lend itself to a quick conversion to ready cash. Even a relatively small, inconsequential Picasso would be difficult to "unload" when the unscrupulous buyer would, at best, could only "enjoy" it privately; unable, at the cost of some serious prison time, to boast of owning it.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed
in 1990. The paintings and items stolen were valued at over
Christ in the Storm on the Lake
  of Galilee, 1633, Rembrandt,
part of the Gardner collection,
(never recovered)
In fact, costly, highly-publicized art thefts are relatively rare--on the average, barely one or two per year worldwide. There-fore, art museum security is primarily aimed, not at preventing art theft, but preventing art damage, by the same people paying hefty entry fees to support the usually underpaid security staff. It's been my experience that the so-called "hosts" are often most interested in preventing flash photography (or any at all, in some cases) than anything else. The theory propounded is that the light from flash photography is bad for the paintings' colors, which may be true to some extent, but breaks down completely when applied to flash photos of sculp-tures. The real reason is that flash pho-tography (and especially tripods) enables good photography, which effects the museum's bottom line in the sale of re-productions (below). The strange irony is that in most cases, virtually everything the mus-eum owns can be found on the Internet in a relatively high-resolution, professional format far beyond what I, or most other people, could capture with a digital pocket camera (with or without flash).
Why bother? Institutions such as the Met in New York, the Art
Institute of Chicago, Washington's National Gallery of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Getty Museum all allow photography in some or all of their permanent-collection spaces.
Given all these costly security elements, it's a wonder art museums have anything left to acquire new works, build new wings, host traveling exhibits, or assemble their own shows. Yet, like retail outlets, repeat business is the most important key to their continued solvency. Even pulling old stuff from basement vaults, dusting it off, and displaying it again for the first time in a dozen years, isn't enough to generate much enthusiasm for most museum goers. Those institutions supported, to varying degrees, by tax dollars have to provide attendance figures to the governmental agencies justifying their subsidized civic presence. Smaller art museums have to rely on endowments, which today bear little in the way of interest income, continuous (and costly) fundraising efforts, or entry fees which, on a good day, often barely cover heat and lighting.
Try leaving your unsold paintings to a museum in your will,
let them worry about insurance and security.
So, next time you contemplate, in a fit of megalomania, endowing your own art museum to insure your continued, posthumous presence in the art world, keep in mind the cost-benefit ratio. For those not so inclined, keep in mind where every dollar, pound, or euro spent at your local art mausoleum goes. Do your part, have an overpriced sandwich at the museum bistro and don't be stingy in the gift shop. Oh, and don't touch anything while looking around lest you set off an alarm and garner a nasty look from the high-priced, but underpaid security guys.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the art work from
the security staff as in Duane Hanson's
Museum Guard. 


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