The "Cultural Casualties" of 9/11

Suggest Need for Better Collections Management

"Cataclysm and Challenge" is the name of an important report outlining the impact of September 11, 2001 on our nation's cultural heritage, which was produced by the nonprofit organization The Heritage Emergency National Task Force1 with federal support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The report reveals that the16-acre World Trade Center complex was "a diverse mosaic of art," most outside a traditional museum setting, and all destroyed summarily by the terrorist attack.

Among the destruction were numerous corporate art collections, the public collection of the Port Authority of New York, the archaeological remains of the historic Five Points community, and an extensive historic archive belonging to the Helen Keller International Foundation. Twenty-one libraries had been housed in the World Trade Center Complex, as well as assorted archives preserving historical records of everything from JFK to Broadway theater.

Contemporary art and artists were victims. Sculptor Michael Richards was at work on the 92nd floor of Tower One on an addition to his monument to the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Those who had seen the work describe the sculpture as figurative, a self-portrait of the artist in an airman's uniform astride a shooting star.

Outside, public artworks were destroyed by falling debris, including works by Rodin, Calder, Nevelson, and Miro. A fountain monument to the victims of the first WTC attack in 1993 by artist Elyn Zimmerman was destroyed. Fritz Koenig's giant 45,000-pound sculpture "Sphere for Plaza Fountain" was impaled, ripped open and filled with debris. Saved by the artist and transformed into a new work, the bronze sphere, still showing damage, now stands in Battery Park as a memorial to the victims of 9/11.

The report acknowledges that no assessment of the complete art-related devastation will ever be possible, because many corporate art collectors failed to implement basic collections management practices. Moreover, not all institutions that lost artworks, archives and records wished to participate in a damage assessment survey. Of those institutions that responded, fully 40% indicated they had no current catalogue or inventory of their collection. 41% of those that did have an inventory said the records were not current or complete. Less than half of the inventories included photographs. Finally, only 53% kept a separate copy of the inventory off-site and out of harm's way.

Prioritizing the protection of human life above all, the report recommends collecting institutions implement emergency management into their budgets and operations, including the protection of collections. Emergency management training should be given all staff members and proper record-keeping on- and off-site should be maintained. Finally, relationships should be strengthened with emergency management professionals, or as one expert put it, "take a fireman out to lunch."

After a disaster, for the sake of both the art historical record and fair and complete financial restitution by insurance providers, collectors must maintain a proper documentation standard, starting with a current inventory and appraisal of the collection by a qualified appraiser. An unprecedented act of terror on U.S. soil was not necessary to reveal the poor state of art documentation common among the WTC collectors. For any one of them, a leaky pipe or a burglary could have led to a very similar situation, at least from a financial and insurance point of view.


1 Not affiliated with Heritage Auction Galleries

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