Miami-Dade County

What happens when priceless art breaks at museums? A look inside the vase vandalism at Pérez Museum of Art Miami

The most stomach churning sound you can imagine at a museum: CRASH!

By now, the sound has resonated in the art world after last Sunday’s incident at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Local artist Maximo Caminero hoisted a vase off a display at the Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibit and, in an act of protest for local artists he feels are slighted at the gleaming new museum on the bay, he casually let it crash to the floor.

To say the piece shattered into a million pieces isn’t any more of a reach than the $1 million figure affixed to the vase by the Miami police officer who had to put a number in the police report in order to make an arrest. It broke. And it’s not cheap.

“We still are working to confirm the value of the piece,” said Leann Standish, the museum’s deputy director for external affairs. “The last time an object like this one was auctioned it was in 2007 and it was much smaller and it went for $200,000. There was so much attention to that $1 million figure, by the time you turn around it’s on the BBC. The insurance rep will help determine the value ultimately.”

So what happens when the worst happens?

“What is happening with this piece changes day to day,” Standish said Friday. But what happens at museums like PAMM for any art object that meets a protestor or a clumsy patron or an unattended kid is similar. A lot of hustle, care and investigation. Think CSI: Art Smash.

“The gloves, the works, we gently put it away,” Standish said of the first step.

“In general, these situations and objects are reviewed by the insurers who work with conservators to see if the object can be repaired. This [Ai Weiwei] is not a piece that can be repaired,” she said.

Though rare, “pieces do get broken in museums. It is an unfortunate reality, I’m afraid, and each case is handled differently,” Standish said. “Museums very much want for art to be accessible, you don’t want everything in a vitrine. There’s a difference between looking at a work of art behind a vitrine and being able to see it out in the open.”

In the case of the Ai Weiwei vase, which was among 16 vases on an open-air platform, Caminero, 51, was charged with criminal mischief and released on bond. This was the first incidence of damage at the $131 million PAMM after its December opening. Exhibition fees for shows like Ai Weiwei range anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 Standish said.

Once a figure is reached, “the object, in this case, whatever shape it is in, will go to the artist to destroy or whatever he wants to do to it,” Standish said.

Registrars and exhibition preparers are the art handlers, pre- and post-crash, said a representative for the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA). “In MOCA’s case,” she said, “many of them are artists themselves so they have an extra sensitivity for the value of the pieces.”