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Saving Art

State of the Arts


Published November 21, 2012 at 10:57 a.m.

Conservator M.J. Davis at Washi
  • Conservator M.J. Davis at Washi

First came Katrina, then Irene and now Sandy. M.J. Davis, a conservator based in the Northeast Kingdom, has helped salvage and restore works of art in the aftermath of all three wicked storms.

Davis traveled to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in 2005 to work on sculptures belonging to a library whipped by Katrina’s winds and drenched by the hurricane’s floodwaters. Last year, she chronicled some of the damage Irene inflicted on Vermont cultural institutions. Now she’s answering hotline calls from artists and gallery owners hit hard in New York and New Jersey.

Davis performs this rescue work under the auspices of the American Institute for Conservation, which fields emergency response teams that assess and help restore art collections ravaged by disasters.

“I don’t think people realize how many galleries or artists have been affected by Sandy,” Davis says from the studio in her Newark, Vt., home. “There have been hundreds and hundreds. It’s really tragic.”

A plea for aid might typically come from “someone who’s pretty much a starving, young artist whose life work is in her flooded basement,” Davis says.

One of the 50 calls she fielded in the first 10 days of November came from the Nicolaus Koni Foundation in Oceanside, Long Island. Even though this repository of sculptures by a native of Hungary is situated four miles inland, Sandy pushed three feet of stormwater into the gallery.

“We’re still trying to do triage,” Davis says in regard to works on canvas and paper that had been stored in flooded galleries in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. “We’re drying them out and trying to stabilize them.”

It’s vital to prevent mold from setting in, she adds. “Mold isn’t a complete death sentence,” Davis notes, “but it does make the price of conservation much more expensive.”