Oops! Gallery art takes a battering
Jason Bennetto, Sunday 28 2008
Britain's art collections are taking a beating. Visitors to some of the nation's finest galleries and museums wreak havoc by walking into, leaning against, tripping over and even vomiting over valuable works, official records show.
The casualty list includes a chipped Anish Kapoor sculpture, a dented Barnett Newman painting, a vomit-stained Carl Andre piece and an installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum that was brought crashing to the ground when a security guard tripped over a barrier in the dark. In another incident, a huge 19th-century plaster cast was damaged by corporate clients clambering over it.
Details released under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Gallery, the Tate and the V&A, reveal that dozens of works have been dented, scratched, dropped and vandalised over the past five years. The culprits are not only malicious or clumsy visitors, but also partygoers, staff and removal men. The cost of accidents and vandalism is unknown because the galleries and museum declined, in most cases, to put a value on damage or repairs.
Information released by the Tate Collection reveals that a sculpture by one of its most controversial artists, the American Carl Andre, was the subject of an unpleasant accident. His 1980 work, Venus Forge, which resembles a long garden path made of bronze tiles, needed restoration work in 2007 because, as a Tate report put it: '[A] child vomited over some tiles forming part of his work.'
An oil painting, Adam, by Barnett Newman, the American artist who is considered to be one of the major figures in abstract expressionism, suffered two mishaps at Tate Modern. In the first, in October 2007, a visitor tripped and left his finger marks on the canvas and dented the picture. Three weeks later, a man also stumbled and 'pressed his hand against the canvas, leaving an imprint'.
An exhibit by the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor was another victim of clumsiness. Kapoor's enormous, egg-like fibreglass structure, Ishi's Light 2003, was chipped when a cameraman struck it with his tripod last year.
It is not just accidental damage that the museums and galleries have to watch out for. A 19th-century plaster cast of the pulpit in Pisa Cathedral by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Pisano, and another plaster cast of Pisano's Virgin and Child, were found to have been harmed after a 'corporate event' at the V&A in South Kensington. The museum noted that the pulpit showed 'evidence of having been climbed by someone causing damage', while the Virgin and Child was 'knocked from pedestal causing breakage'.
Staff were the source of several incidents at the V&A. An installation called Mesh by the contemporary textile artist Sue Lawty, made of a hanging wall of thread tied around small pieces of coral, was demolished in 2006. The museum reported that '[a] security guard on patrol in closed hours entered darkened gallery and tripped on security barrier, pulling the installation down'. Reconstruction of the exhibit cost £448.90.
The 1755 porcelain figure group Leda and the Swan had an undignified accident in March 2007. The V&A reported: 'In placing the object into a basket, the head was accidentally knocked against a trolley frame and the head was knocked off.' The head has since been glued back on. In another mishap, a glass negative of a Beatrix Potter manuscript was accidentally knocked and broke in half.
Even the V&A has trouble with removal men. In 2007, a 1957 writing desk by Franz Ehrlich and a 1947 chair by Selman Selmanagic were damaged in transit. This included 'one table leg detached, another sprung from joints. Draw handles crushed, edges of desktop crushed and abraded. Upholstery of chair abraded and woodwork scratched'.
At the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, a 16th-century painting by the Florentine artist, Agnolo Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, was dented in 2003 after being punched by a man. In January this year the painting Marcia by Domenico Beccafumi split in two as it was removed from the wall at the National Gallery.
Perhaps one of the most mysterious incidents is the V&A's missing teddy bears. In 2006 an installation featuring a 'teddy bear sofa' was taken down, but the V&A reported: 'Three teddy bears missing from sofa at close of deinstallation.' The museum paid €500 (£397) compensation for the toys.