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Moving a masterpiece

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By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 7, 2002


A Salvador Dali painting is brought from New York City to St. Petersburg, revealing the complicated - and secretive - process of moving priceless art.

ST. PETERSBURG -- That cool acrylic painting you bought that Saturday afternoon at the art festival? You probably carried it to your car along the crowded walkways, bumping it a little along the way -- the artist had run out of brown wrapping paper, but what the heck. You deposited it in your trunk after a little creative shoving, and once home, you eyeballed a spot on a bare wall, hammered in a nail, and up it went.

But when the artwork in question is a priceless masterpiece, things become more complicated.

The Salvador Dali painting The Persistence of Memory will be unveiled Friday during a private party at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. It will be on view to the public for three months beginning on Saturday.

Those events will conclude a tightly choreographed process shrouded in secrecy and angst. Getting the painting from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Florida was likely to be the kind of nerve-jangling maneuver that all museums must endure in borrowing and lending works of art.

The persistence of Dali
When The Persistence of Memory is unveiled next to The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the first-ever pairing of the paintings will create another unforgettable Salvador Dali image.
"There's always incredible anxiety about shipping art," said MoMA director Glenn Lowry. "Since Sept. 11, new airline regulations make it difficult to ship art with couriers. The cost of insurance has doubled and tripled."

The Dali painting was set to be shipped on Wednesday, after the deadline for this article. Here's how it was supposed to get here:

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Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory was to be flown from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Florida, where it will hang in the Dali Museum for three months.
The painting was to be wrapped in an acid-free covering by MoMA officials in New York, sealed against climate swings and packed into a custom crate that has an interior box surrounded with several inches of insulation. The crate would be secured with bolts, not nails, to prevent the curious or criminal from prying it open with a hammer. An art-transport van was scheduled to take it to the airport on Wednesday with a courier. The courier -- this was important -- was supposed to witness it being loaded into the cargo hold before he boarded the plane.

"It's happened that someone didn't stay, thought the art had been loaded, got on the plane and flew off while the art was still on the tarmac," said Dirk Armstrong, assistant curator at the Dali Museum, who deals with the flow of art in and out of the museum. "So you have to be sure it's actually on the plane."

In the past, museums often bought an extra seat on a flight, and a courier carried the padded work on board. Persistence is just 10 by 13 inches. But airlines no longer book empty seats, Armstrong said.

"The bad thing about flying with it beside you," he said, "was people would ask what it was, and of course you can't tell them, and you had to be sort of rude."

Once it was packed into the cargo hold on Wednesday, Persistence was to be flown to Miami, not Tampa.

"The airplanes have to be wide-bodied so that the art can remain in a particular position," said Linda Hokanson, manager of Masterpiece International, the customs broker and ground transportation company the Dali and many other Florida museums use. "None fly into Tampa."

A Masterpiece International van and two drivers were to meet the courier at the cargo door of the plane in Miami, load the painting (very carefully) into the climate-controlled vehicle and head for St. Petersburg. It was to arrive in the middle of the night at the Dali museum, where Armstrong would be waiting for it. The painting will sit in its crate in the gallery for 24 hours to acclimatize.

Friday, as the courier watches, it will be unpacked, examined for damage, then hung, touched only by hands wearing white cotton gloves. It will be affixed to the wall, newly painted gray, about 60 inches from the floor ("eyeball level," Armstrong said), held in place with a screw that can be turned only with a special tool.

"It's not glamorous when you courier a painting," said Louise Reeves, registrar at the Museum of Fine Arts, who recently took Georgia O'Keeffe's Poppy to Spain for a show at the Fundacion Juan March in Madrid. "I arrived there at 8 a.m. their time, and they didn't unload the painting until 3 p.m. They had to wait until after breakfast, which began at noon. I waited at the airport, and luckily I brought a good book."

Whatever the specifics, the borrower usually pays all shipping and insurance costs. The Abraham Bloemaert show at the Museum of Fine Arts last year cost between $100,000 and $120,000, said Reeves, which included the safe transport and return of 17 paintings and 40 drawings and prints borrowed from national and international museums and collectors.

Marshall Rousseau, director of the Salvador Dali Museum, said it is spending $8,000 to ship MoMA's painting.

The great fear, beyond cataclysm and theft, is damage to the art. Clay chips, canvas tears, glass breaks, wood splinters, metal bends. And art in any medium, as it ages, becomes more susceptible to moisture, pollution and even subtle temperature changes.

Every museum employee ever involved in transporting and installing art seems to have at least one interesting tale to tell.

"We've had uncomfortable moments," said Armstrong, "like the time we were moving paintings down a street on a cart during rush hour in Tokyo."

Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, said that when the museum ships its fragile antiquities, custom packing cradles and coddles them. So she was surprised by the arrival of glass pieces for a Dale Chihuly exhibition. "They came packed in cardboard boxes with Styrofoam peanuts," she said. "It was very casual."

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