Salvage Art Institute's Exhibit Explores Art's Afterlife

When is art broken? Does a crack in the Sistine Chapel pose a threat to the way we see it? And how do we determine when a work is beyond repair? Sometimes it's a matter of cost, or technology -- but even then, isn't an artwork worth more than just the sum of its parts?

Any aesthete will want to say yes, but sitting in the storage units of insurance companies around the world there are objects -- some painting-like, some sculpture-like -- that have been damaged and striped of their art status. These pieces, claimed as "total loss" by their owners, are known as "salvage art" in insurance parlance. Void of value they are sent to what amounts to art limbo, even though damage is barely discernible in some cases.

Until recently, there was no public access to these inventories -- but a new entity called the Salvage Art Institute will bring some of these objects to light again on November 14th in an exhibit called "No Longer Art," presented by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. The exhibit, curated by Elka Krajewska and Mark Wasiuta, is made possible by a gift from AXA Art, a global insurance company, and is the context for a conversation about this strange consequence of the market.

2012-11-11-SAI15_KOONS_opt.jpg"SAI #0015"

Krajewska, president of SAI, is quick to point out that her interest is not in the aesthetic of damage, but in "the narrative of valuation." A booklet, assembled from official documentation of the works, accompanies the exhibit as a catalog of that changing state of value. When Krajewska cites the reasons for their fallen estimation, you almost feel sorry for them. "They're minor works or editions," she explained, "or there was simply no interest, and somebody insisted on a total loss because they knew they wouldn't be able to resell it." Indeed, something seems false or unfair about the "no value" designation given to a piece of art that's virtually intact.

It's worth noting that this condition isn't symptomatic of things that belong to museums, where damaged works are kept for historical value. There, if an artwork is considered important enough, an institution may even commission a replica for display.

But in a way, much of the art in storage isn't dead so much as zombie-like, potentially ready to spring from the grave should some detail in its past ignite speculation. Such details include the celebrity of its owner, or the historical circumstance of its damage (Hurricane Katrina, 9/11), or some intangible future situation (the death of an artist, a dearth in the art market).

Easily overshadowed by their former incarnations, many of the objects in AXA's gift arrived without information deemed sensitive, like the names of artists and previous owners. And Krajewska herself has redacted some of that information to avoid sensationalizing any one piece.

"Things start to accumulate value as soon as you have any interest in them," she explained. In fact, maintaining their lack of value may be the institute's most challenging problem. The topic has already been the focus of two advanced summer studio programs at Columbia's GSAPP called "Damage Control," run by Wasiuta. Students there have struggled with the nuances of defining and displaying the objects in their present state. At the most practical level, the pieces have had to be transported and stored again -- maybe even insured. Though different in kind, these artifacts accrue interest in being exhibited. There may also be costs associated with the desire to maintain their present condition and prevent any further deterioration.

How these objects will exist in the world remains to be determined, but two concurrent round-table discussions have attracted a diverse panel of participants including GSAPP Dean Mark Wigley, political theorist Jane Bennett and writer/critic Ben Lerner.

Do these pieces, separated from artist and audience, become inert and without value? Are they autonomous objects with lives that are separate from our estimations? Or is it just the special designation given to art in the first place that continues to imbue them with significance?