Living with fragile and ephemeral art

Consider some of the longest-surviving paintings of western civilization—the famous caves in Lascaux, France, where rudimentary pigment paintings of indigenous beasts and fauna cover the stone walls. Archeologists surmise they were painted over 17,000 years ago, yet they were in excellent condition when “discovered” in 1940. For thousands of years, the wall paintings survived in stable temperature, with no exposure to sunlight or the elements. These environmental conditions are ideal, but the reality is that most of us don’t display our collections in “art-cave”-like settings.

Exposure to extreme temperature, sunlight and movement is an issue for artwork. Yet from the twentieth-century onward, artists have created art with non-traditional materials that are even more vulnerable to degradation.

Metal, stone, ceramics and cave paintings have survived thousands of years, while materials such as food, soap, flowers, spices and candy simply won’t last nearly as long. How do the inclusion of these fragile and/or ephemeral materials affect the longevity of artwork? What are the impacts on collectors who chose to live with artwork made of such materials?


Ephemeral and philosophical


Fragile Art. Temporary art. Organic Art. These are not collecting categories, but rather, refer to the ephemeral nature of the materials used to make the artwork. For collectors, art of this kind can have additional financial, longevity and conservation challenges.

Sometimes, acquiring art has an additional cost. Just like a yacht and collector car require additional maintenance, so too can a complex piece of artwork, especially if it has “parts” that need to be maintained, replaced or recreated.

For instance, a piece made of organic elements (for instance, feathers, bones, and any food items) may need frequent maintenance. In other cases, organic elements may require replacement. Gloria Velandia Ludmer, Chief Conservator at GV Art Conservation, notes, “Jeff Koons’ monumental sculpture “Flower Puppy” requires over $10,000 worth of flowers to create the floral “fur” of this signature work. Every time the work is displayed, fresh flowers are required.”

That’s not to mention replacing any flowers that wilt throughout the exhibition of the piece. In the case of this artwork, the organic element is meant to be replaced. But what about organic elements that slowly deteriorate?

Another contemporary artist, Janine Antoni, has produced a series of sculptures with materials such as lard, soap and chocolate. One such sculpture series, “Lick and Lather,” consists of two self-portrait busts of the two latter materials. To create the work, the artist licked the chocolate sculpture, and bathed with the soap sculpture, referenced in the title of the artwork.

The altered shape of the portraits isn’t an issue, but the changes of the sculpture’s materials are. The Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. owns a version of “Lick and Lather,” and the museum has been open about the change to Antoni’s iconic work. Their conservators noted the soap bust had developed “problematic-looking white crystals on its surface” and the chocolate bust had “the same whitish tinge that a chocolate bar does when it’s been around for a while.”1

Lauren Fly, Conservator and Collections Management Specialist at the Fly Arts Initiative, elaborates. “The lipids in the chocolate migrate to the surface of the work, where they are visible as a white bloom. This is a natural phenomenon, caused by aging and environmental conditions, and is to be expected of these works.”

Collectors acquiring a sculpture of Antoni’s sculptures are likely aware of the need to keep the chocolate and soap sculptures in well ventilated, temperature-stable rooms, ideally in a glass vitrine.  But one never knows exactly how organic items will age, or alter in appearance and consistency.


A sweet + sticky conundrum


Photo Courtesy of Gloria Velandia Ludmer.

What about unexpected organic breakdowns? Gloria cites another example, “A collector recently called me and exclaimed, ‘I have ants everywhere!’ Her painting by a contemporary artist was made with traditional pre-primed canvas, with large amounts of different colored chewing gum applied over the canvas.”

The ants, of course, were drawn to the artwork for the very same reason they might flock to a summer picnic. “Gum is a polymer, but there is sugar content on the fabrication of chewing gum,” Gloria explains, “As sugar breaks down over time, it liquefies. In this case, the colored sugars had started to run down the canvas, dripping onto the frame and floor below and ultimately attracting ants and other insects.”

In essence, gum on a canvas is not technically a painting, but an abstract artwork made of gum, and will change over time due to this non-traditional ingredient.

Ultimately, collectors need to decide if they can commit to living with art that may change over time, understanding that this commitment includes the logistics and cost involved.


Collecting and insurance advice


Therefore, collectors should consider the following before acquiring especially fragile, delicate, organic or perishable works of art:

  • Get a condition report before acquiring a piece of art
  • Request a conservators’ opinions on the longevity of the work of art
  • Understand the artist’s intention–whether “deterioration” a natural part of the work
  • Commit to the additional cost of maintaining the condition of fragile artwork

Brooke Mellen, AVP of Art Claims at Berkley Asset Protection, also recommends, “When buying a work of art, ask the gallery about directions for care.”

How does an art insurance policy respond to a loss? Insurance contracts provide coverage for “covered losses,” such as loss resulting from physical damage or destruction. Many art-specific insurance policies have an exclusion for loss or damage resulting from “gradual deterioration” or “inherent vice.”

Generally speaking, “inherent vice” is an element of the material which causes its own destruction. For example, most food items will eventually decay or break down on a molecular level. A flower will eventually wilt, and chocolate will deteriorate. Therefore, it would be difficult to make an insurance claim for a “loss” in aesthetic value when these occurrences are quite typical for the aforementioned materials.

However, if the “cause” of the loss is a covered peril, like fire or flood, then your insurance claim is likely covered. Of course, all insurance policies have different coverages and exclusions, and you should discuss those with your insurance agent or broker, or ask to speak with the art specialist at your insurance company.

At Berkley One, we’re here to help. With specialists who are passionate about fine art and have decades of expertise advising collectors, we can guide you in caring for your collection—from offering resources and advice when you are considering acquiring a new work, to providing industry-esteemed service in the event of a covered claim.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).

The Appraisers Association of America will hold a panel discussion on “Perishable Art: How to Appraise the Temporary” on October 28, 2018, where Katja will share insights on appraising ephemeral artwork. For more information, and to view the program, visit here.