A few weeks ago, I shared my slightly exaggerated concerns about the ways I could potentially die covering Art Basel. I didn’t die, but the week left me broken, nonetheless. I became a shell of myself as I wandered between fairs and parties like a zombie that needs to see art constantly to survive.
But I wasn’t the only thing left broken during Basel. Sometime after I broke my phone at the Rubell Family Collection and broke bread with Kim Kardashian at Paper Magazine’s #BreakTheInternet dinner, I broke a story on a piece of artwork that was broken by a visitor at the Perez Art Museum Miami’s big Art Basel bash.
I happened to be walking PAMM’s galleries when I saw the aftermath of the incident: A work by Gean Moreno, consisting of 12 orbs made of concrete and beach towels, was damaged with one orb breaking in half at the seam and the others rolled over. When I was there, museum professionals set up a perimeter around the area much as police officers do at the scene of a crime. Another one bites the dust, I thought.
This wasn’t the first time a work of art was damaged at PAMM. The memory of a misguided artist with a misplaced vendetta against the museum destroying a vase by Ai Weiwei is still fresh in the mind of the arts community. This time rather than making headlines across the country, this incident was met with a resounding shrug of the shoulders.
There’s a long history of art in museums being damaged, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. At one extreme, one can look to a woman accidentally falling through a Picasso on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2010, cutting its estimated price in half, from $135 million to $65 million. At the other, there was an attention seeker’s horrible defacement of one of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings in the Tate Modern in London.
Perhaps the artwork damaged at PAMM was met with less sensational headlines because there wasn’t a staggering price tag or a household name attached to it. That doesn’t make what happened any less bad; while the museum’s permanent collection is still finding its footing, Moreno’s work was actually one of my favorites currently on view at the museum, and it was paired extraordinarily well with Mark Handforth’s flashy neon sun.
But the museum will likely move on quickly from this episode. In hindsight, I commend the museum for not locking down its works after the Ai Weiwei incident far out of reach from visitors where it may be difficult to enjoy (as the Louvre has done with its priceless Mona Lisa).
Art is no longer on pedestals, in vitrines or on the wall behind a boundary; it is all around us in every form imaginable. Museums such as PAMM should keep these works as accessible as possible and in their ideal viewing environments, even if it means that one may be damaged every now and then.
I spoke with several museum professionals from other institutions about the incident and, generally, there’s the impression that accidents like these are unavoidable. No one faulted PAMM for the damage. One chastised me for writing about the broken piece at all, saying that it makes it harder for museums to do their jobs of making works available to the public — many institutions see thousands of visitors a year without incident.
Few believe that the local arts community will suffer long-term from this incident. As Miami’s arts community continues its stratospheric rise, this incident is just a minor bump in its ascension.
In my duties at the Miami Center for Architecture & Design, I, too, face the same challenges of protecting artwork while making it available to the public. The center is hosting the PRIZM art fair, dedicated to showcasing the works by artists of the African diaspora.
While I may be slightly traumatized by seeing an artwork break at a nearby institution, MCAD, as well as many other arts organizations in the community, will continue efforts to show quality exhibitions while making those works as accessible as possible.
But, please, don't touch the art.