What happens if you open a storage facility for fine art — right in the middle of a recession?
For Museo Vault, a storage and services company that opened in Miami’s Wynwood arts district in late 2008, the answer was: struggle for awhile, concentrate on winning local clients and grow slowly but surely.
“Even the wealthiest people and collectors were not spending money,” said Todd Ruderman, managing partner of Museo Vault and president of Value Store It Management. “We had to work very hard and there were definitely a lot of challenges to get it up and running. The one thing we didn’t realize, which now makes a lot of sense, is you have to prove yourself. We had a lot of hurdles, but we got over them.”
Now, the five-story, 85,000-square-foot building with 65,000 square feet of rentable space at 346 NW 29th St. is about 70-80 percent occupied with art from clients including private collectors, museums, dealers and others. Business manager Vanessa Amor said that three years ago, that number was only about 15-20 percent.
“The first six months were very difficult,” she said. “But the interesting thing is that artwork was a commodity that wasn’t necessarily related to what happened in the financial crisis... It’s an interesting twist that the financial crisis, I think, while it worked against other people, it kind of turned to benefit us rather quickly.”
The idea for the business came about when co-founder David Lombardi, a real estate developer active in Wynwood, attended a seminar about insuring art in hurricane-prone South Florida back in 2006. The $10 million facility, developed by a group of partners led by Lombardi and Ruderman, opened in late 2008 after extensive research into requirements of insurance companies, the latest technology available, best practices in art storage and what potential competitors were doing.
They said they found that many other facilities around the country were decades old and some had been converted from previous purposes to house fine art. Fortress, an existing art-centered storage facility at 1629 NE 1st Ave. in Miami, had a waiting list, Amor said.
Kim Jones, vice president of Fortress Miami, said the company, which also has locations in Boston and New York, has earned success since opening in 1983 with the purpose of storing art and other valuables.
“Because Fortress has had such a well-established reputation from being in business for 30 years and being a national vendor, our business was always very stable through the recession,” she said. “Because of our longevity, the community knows that they can rely on us; we’re professional, reliable, consistent.”
Museo Vault made the pitch that its facility was brand new, built specifically for art — and that the company was willing to work with potential clients to earn their trust. The building was built specifically for storing art and providing related services such as making crates, packing, shipping and cataloguing. Security is tight: No one is allowed in without an escort, and entrances have biometric scanners. Temperature and humidity are controlled, and an alarm will sound if they veer outside of approved ranges. The facility’s backup generator is powered by natural gas as a hedge against electricity outages.
The building also includes a viewing room that can be used for showing works, appraisals, restoration or photography as well as gallery space. An on-site crate shop allows workers to build customized crates and other storage materials; the company hired Florida native and crating expert Richard Martinez from New York’s Boxart to lend expertise. He is Museo Vault’s service manager and one of the company’s 11 fulltime employees.
When Museo Vault first opened, only one floor was built out with pre-fabricated units that ranged from 50 square feet to 500 square feet. Another floor was set aside for custom-made units, with the company leaving the other three floors to be filled in as needed. By the end of this summer, Amor said, the final floor will be built out. Storage prices average about $3 per square foot per month.
A regular self-storage facility near Midtown Miami, by comparison, charges between $1.20 and nearly $2 a square foot per month, depending on the unit’s size.
Amor said the company tries to accommodate every type of need, whether individual or institutional.
“If you are a client that has a vast collection of art and needs 4,000 square feet, we can build it from scratch,” she said. “If you are remodeling the dining room and kitchen and want to remove three pieces for a couple of months and you just need a slot to store three flat works, we have that too. And everything in between.”
Ruderman said he, Lombardi and other partners worked hard to spread the word out about the business in the early days.
The Margulies Collection, which has kept its art collection in Wynwood for 14 years, was one of the company’s earliest clients. Curator Katherine Hinds said she first learned of Museo Vault through Lombardi, an art lover himself who would frequent the collection..
Hinds said the company handles the logistics necessary when the collection loans important works to museums.
“Today, art is made of very unorthodox materials,” Hinds said. “It’s not always a straightforward crate. They’re very adept at knowing the historical importance of works and knowing how to handle the unorthodox nature of contemporary art.”
Lombardi also contacted the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach about the facility, said director of exhibitions Chelsea Guerdat.
At the time, South Florida offered only a couple of other options, Guerdat said. Those included Fortress Miami and Artex in Broward. But Museo Vault was eager to work with the institution, designing the space they needed and offering incentives.
The Bass first used the company for storage, but only moved some items from other facilities on a trial run. Eventually the museum started tapping the company’s resources to make local deliveries and pack, crate and ship works.
“They focused on the local market first and provided good services to the local community,” Guerdat said. “That grew with time...First it was storage, then it was shipping, crating, viewing areas. And now to have gotten all of that right so far, they’ve been able to branch out.”
Amor said that after a difficult 2008, business improved in the following years. By 2010, she said, the company saw a boom in international clients as well as a solid number of relationships with institutions.
“A client’s word of mouth is the loudest thing anyone’s going to hear in this industry,” she said.
Museo Vault built up enough of a reputation that Art Basel Miami Beach first used it as their production company for the outdoor Art Public segment in 2011. The relationship was renewed last year and will continue again this December, a huge boost for the Miami company’s international exposure.
One of the qualities that makes Museo Vault valuable many to clients is that the art handlers are also artists with their own specialties, either in sculpture, metal, paint or other media.
“There’s not many other teams of guys that I would trust to handle such high-value, high-profile works,” said Guerdat, who was recently contracted by Museo Vault to take on the role of special projects manager for the outdoor public portion of Art Basel this year.“They’re just incredibly professional and I’m always amazed at their engineering knowledge in figuring out how to get a 3,000-pound tree into a crate into a truck that’s the same size of the crate.”
While Art Basel and its satellite fairs — and the influx of seasonal residents — make winter a busy time for the company, Amor said summer heats up for a different reason: hurricane season, when clients who might be spending the season elsewhere need to make sure their art is secured.
The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy last year in New York City has brought the threat of storms to the front of many collectors’ minds, Amor said.
“The reality is that any storm, regardless of the category, can cause catastrophic devastation,” she said.
Between seasonal storage, foreign clients, Art Basel ties and other business, Amor said revenues have increased every year. The privately held company would not release financial details, but Amor said the owners are continuing to invest to keep technology updated.
Museo Vault is “hitting our target,” said Ruderman.
“It takes time,” he said. “We’re not quite where we want to be yet. But we’re on target.”
He and Amor said expansion is a possibility if the current facility fills up.
“I think that the future is bright,” Amor said. “We have grown every year since the moment we opened. I can’t see it stopping.”