Who installs museum exhibitions and works of art

This is art, it can go away

At the end of January, a cleaner disposed of the installation »Habitation 6/2016« in the Philippuskirche in Mannheim. The work of art was "clearly recognizable as a unit," its creator Romana Menze-Kuhn complained to the Spiegel afterwards - and then acted very pragmatically. She called the trash can with the remains of the work of art »Housing 6a / 2016«, put it back in the same place and thus saved the exhibition.

That housekeeping and building management follow different rules than art is also shown by the classic among the cleaned-up works of art: Joseph Beuys fat pan. She was discovered by two members of the local association of the SPD Leverkusen-Alkenrath in 1973 at a party in the Morsbroich Castle Museum. As if made for washing dishes in it, they thought - and brought the work, which was decorated with plasters, gauze bandages and grease, to a shine. The estimated damage: 80,000 Deutschmarks.

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The procedure of a cleaning lady who believed she was keeping order in the Dortmund Museum Ostwall almost looks like an homage. But the lime stain that she scrubbed out of a rubber trough in 2011 was part of an installation by Martin Kippenberger. After all, the work was insured: for 800,000 euros.

The situation is somewhat different with the cleaner who threw a work by the artist Gustav Metzger in the trash in London's Tate Britain in 2005. The fact that she had fully understood the work was ignored by the public outrage. According to Metzger, the plastic sack filled with scraps of paper should represent the "transience of art".

The accumulation of unwanted damage to art in recent history is striking. Postmodernism, whose works are often to be understood as experimental arrangements rather than as completed masterpieces, is also to blame for this. Fragments or “work in progress” are presented. Recognizing art is therefore not always easy. Sometimes the context helps: caution is required at exhibitions and in museums.

But even at the Documenta, works are not safe from attack. In 2007 the street cleaning company in Kassel had the lane markings of the Chilean action artist Lotty Rosenfeld removed. The artist had remodeled the markings into crosses to indicate power structures. What could well have passed as a joint performance by the city administration and the artist was unfortunately just a misunderstanding.

The official cleaning mania also hit the grafitti artist Banksy several times. Paintings by the British municipal cleaning team fell victim in London, Bristol and Melbourne, Australia.

But sometimes it is carelessness that leads to the destruction of works of art. It doesn't stop at old grandmasters either: in 2015, images from a surveillance camera show a young man strolling through a museum in Teipei, Taiwan, with a mug in his hand. When he slips, he braces himself reflexively on a painting whose 350-year-old canvas gives way immediately. Before the incident, the painting by Italian artist Paolo Porpora was valued at 1.5 million euros.

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The video stands for a further explanation when it comes to the growing number of mistakenly destroyed works of art: Thanks to social networks, the whole world can now laugh along when cleaning staff dispose of grandmasters or museum visitors crash through canvases.

The same happened to the American billionaire Steve Wynn, who in 2006 also tore a hole in a multi-million dollar painting. He had just found a buyer for Picasso's "Le Rêve". The picture was supposed to change hands for $ 139 million. When Wynn announced the happy event to journalists, he carelessly poked a hole in the screen with his elbow. The deal fell through - which automatically made Wynn the owner of the most expensive hole in art history. It wasn't until 2013 that he found a new buyer.

However, there are also people who make a very pragmatic decision against art. In 1952, residents of a workers' settlement in Poland had a mural removed that Pablo Picasso had left there during a visit. Art lovers had visited the district for four years before the residents had enough of the bohemian onslaught.

Out of all cases stands out that of an elderly Spaniard who consciously and with noble motives dealt with art in a very practical way. The 80-year-old restored the Jesus fresco "Ecce Homo" by the painter Elías García Martínez in a church in Borja. She no longer wanted to watch the oil painting fall apart. Only the result in the end didn't have much in common with common depictions of Jesus. Commentators felt more like a bear.

From the artist's point of view, the destruction of art has at least one positive effect: Sometimes they make works known that otherwise would never have reached a global audience.