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October 30, 2012 7:10 AM   Subscribe

What would happen in an art gallery fire?

Presumably a commercial art gallery with any kind of modernly expensive art would have a fire suppression system, right? Are these just your regular building sprinkler systems, or is there anything fancy here to protect the paintings?

And forgetting all that for a moment, how well does a painting burn? If you burned a painting (thoroughly enough that it's unrecognizable), would anything be left afterwards?
posted by Hoenikker to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Fire suppression plans can vary. Wet pipe, dry pipe, chemical systems, sprinklers or no sprinklers - there are several different ways to go and institutions don't all follow the same plan (and sometimes there are back and forth arguments about it). There can also be triage plans, where you may prioritize a handful of paintings to evacuate if there's time.

You could definitely burn a painting to ashes.
posted by PussKillian at 7:16 AM on October 30, 2012

What would happen in an art gallery fire?

A really unpleasant property insurance claim. Galleries are insured out the wazoo for precisely this reason, with special policies designed to cover the art exposure.

Here's the thing though: a sprinkler system might well damage the art just as badly--if not worse--than a fire would. I mean, if the building burns to the ground, then it's a total loss. But most fires aren't that way. Fire suppression and/or the fire department mean that many if not most fires are pretty well controlled before they destroy the whole building. But smoke damage from the fire and water damage from fighting the fire can cause far more damage than the actual fire itself, especially to areas that didn't actually burn.

So say some idiot is smoking in the bathroom and drops his butt in the trashcan, starting a small, but contained fire. If that triggers the sprinklers, you've now doused the entire floor with hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water. Most works that aren't in stone are going to be ruined.

And for the record, paintings are made of pretty flammable stuff. Canvas? Oil paints? Yeah. Up like a match.
posted by valkyryn at 7:26 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are lots of companies that offer fire suppression materials that are meant to protect valuable pieces of art or other easily-damaged materials, as well.
posted by xingcat at 7:29 AM on October 30, 2012

And for the record, paintings are made of pretty flammable stuff. Canvas? Oil paints? Yeah. Up like a match.

Is there anything in the canvas or the frame or the stretching material that might survive? & could it be used to identify the painting?
posted by Hoenikker at 7:47 AM on October 30, 2012

I am not a fire expert, but I did work at a major public gallery for a while. Think: big wooden floors, large open spaces, lifts to different floors... here is what I can remember of the fire drill:

When the fire alarm goes, you have a few minutes to usher people towards the exits before a fire curtain drops. At no point are you told to pick up the artworks, but every effort was made to tell us how to deal with the visitors to the gallery.

There were four fire exits on each floor, which led to staircases with safety zones. For wheelchair users and other people who were unable to go on, we were instructed to leave those people there and (I think) not wait with them. Equipped professionals would turn up and rescue them later.

This was drastic, last-minute stuff, and I think that there was a sprinkler system. If I remember correctly it would spurt out foam rather than water, which might have helped with minimising damage. Bare in mind that a lot of contemporary artists use "non-stable" materials that won't store very well anyway.
posted by The River Ivel at 8:04 AM on October 30, 2012

Is there anything in the canvas or the frame or the stretching material that might survive? & could it be used to identify the painting?

This completely depends on the magnitude of the fire.
posted by Specklet at 8:07 AM on October 30, 2012

Sprinklers don't work like they do in the movies, where a flame or smoke somehow trips a whole room or building full of them to go off at once. Instead, the system is pressurized and it takes a flame of a certain temperature to melt an alloy plug that blocks the water/fire retardant from spraying out. The alloy plug is made from a mixture of metals and the mixture can be varied to set the exact desired melting point of the plug. Typically only one or two sprinkler heads go off in a typical fire situation. No building system has the pressure to sustain all the sprinkler heads going off at once.

This works very well nonetheless-- with the exception of 9/11, no building equipped with a sprinkler system in the US has had more than 2 fatalities related to fire.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:09 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Normal canvas stretchers are wood. Canvas is made of linen or cotton. Acrylic paints are much less inflammable than oils or encaustic but pretty much all of that is going to burn up if not destroyed by flame suppression and smoke.
posted by leslies at 8:10 AM on October 30, 2012

Pretty much every commercial building in the US is required to have some sort of fire suppression system; what kind of system, and how it's set up, purely depends on the individual facility. The main focus of ALL systems is preventing injuries or loss of life, with loss of property in second place: by far, the major concern is getting people out of there. If the facility is large enough, they'll 'zone' it, maybe even with fire-resistant curtains or doors shutting off an area with a fire from an uninvolved area.

The museum I work at has water sprinklers as well as foam retardant systems, and the building is divided into zones: as Sunburnt says, just because sprinklers in one zone are going off does not mean the sprinklers in another zone would also be activated. We do not, however, have many physical dividers like doors or curtains, simply because of the sheer size of the place. But: for the most part, our exhibits (aircraft) would be less likely to sustain as much damage from water than an art gallery.

Gas systems (I believe halogen is the usual) would produce less damage than either water or foam, of course, but the problem there is that you can't activate them before ensuring the space has been evacuated, because the gas suppresses a fire by replacing all the oxygen in the air.

As for would there be much left of a painting after a fire: it depends. How close was the actual fire to the painting, how long did the fire burn, what kind of paint and canvas and stretcher was used, what kind of fire suppression system was in place and when did it go off?
posted by easily confused at 8:35 AM on October 30, 2012

I participated in a workshop ages ago where we filled a room set up inside a giant warehouse. Half of the room was set up to resemble a historic house, the other half museum storage. The scenario was set on fire by electric match, we watched it burn for about three minutes, and then the fire was put out with hoses and we were left to salvage the works and see what things looked like. We learned a few things:

A fire emergency quickly becomes a water emergency - if the building is not safe to go into for a long period of time after a fire, you are looking at major mold issues.

Layered storage works remarkably well. A collection of envelopes from the late 1800s survived pretty close contact with the fire simply because they were in a double box on a shelving rack.

Damage to a work frequently renders it unrecognizable - having good photography and inventory lists helps you figure out one charred painting/chair/dress from another, sometimes working off of small clues.

The smell stays and stays and stays. For years.
posted by PussKillian at 9:29 AM on October 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

A high-end special collections library I briefly worked in used a halon-type of chemical, combined with infrared detectors. We were told that it would go off if you lit a match, and that the gas was hideously expensive, so if you caused it to go off for any reason you were instantly fired and possibly sued for costs. They also implied that it might kill you, and that would be considered to be A-OK since the materials were worth more than your life. Can't say if that's really true or not, but it's what they told us assistant-folk while pointing out where the fire doors were located.

The halon gases have since been determined to be bad for the environment, leading to the development of superfunky things like Novec 1230.
posted by aramaic at 9:57 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have exhibited in galleries- here's a couple thoughts: not all paintings are on canvas. Many painters use wood panels. It's also conceivable that a painting could be on metal. Also if the artist is a mixed media artist, there could be any number of materials on the painting in question: metal, glass, etc.

Low end galleries can be in some pretty dubious spaces that may have insubstantial or nonexistent fire suppression systems.

It's been a while since I signed a gallery contract, but you should be aware that they look after their own interests first. They take in the artworks on consignment, not through purchase, so their inventory has not cost them anything. Not sure, but it would not surprise me if their artist agreements stipulate limited liability in the event of fire or theft.

Sounds like you've got a good story, or an elaborate insurance fraud in the works. . . Either way, good luck! ;-)
posted by ecorrocio at 10:05 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a major midwestern (US) modern art museum as an exhibits technician. The public galleries had a conventional water sprinkler system, but the collections vault in the basement was protected by halon gas. I'm not sure, but I think halon is now prohibited and that system was grandfathered in.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:57 AM on October 30, 2012

James Meek's account of the 2004 Momart warehouse fire (part 1, part 2) answers some of your questions. It also lifts the lid on what might happen if the National Gallery went up in flames:

"There would be a priority list available which would, in the event of a fire, say: 'Go into the room on the left, take the first four paintings,'" said Senior Divisional Officer Gary Fredericks. "We'd sit down with people in an art gallery and work out a salvage strategy, what pictures to rescue first, which could entail cutting them from their frames. Which is obviously the quickest way. You would rather lose a couple of inches around the edge than the whole painting."

Not exactly a high-tech strategy, but at least it's better than the Momart fire, when it turned out that Britain's leading firm of art movers was storing £30m of modern art on an industrial estate with no adequate fire protection.
posted by verstegan at 3:22 PM on October 30, 2012

I've seen systems where the picture hanging descends to ground level after the alarm has been sounding for more than a few minutes to aid recovery.
posted by cromagnon at 5:20 PM on October 30, 2012

I've seen systems where the picture hanging descends to ground level after the alarm has been sounding for more than a few minutes to aid recovery.

I have to think this is limited to Mona Lisa level blockbusters. Most museum art hanging is really pedestrian.
posted by werkzeuger at 5:13 AM on November 3, 2012

I have to think this is limited to Mona Lisa level blockbusters

No, it really isn't. Nor was the one I've seen up close very high tech - just a passive dampened cable drum and an electromechanical catch: it couldn't raise itself, just drop. The picture in question had very little commercial value but was very closely tied to the history of the institution that owned it, and the hanging location was very high (30 feet or so) in a public space.
posted by cromagnon at 8:14 AM on November 3, 2012

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