Who's Going to Fix My Broken Art?

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For this 1995 piece, Ai Weiwei broke a Han Dynasty urn.
For this 1995 piece, Ai Weiwei broke a Han Dynasty urn.

I shipped a ceramic sculpture across the country to a gallery for an important group show and they said that when they unpacked it, it was broken—as in, shattered to pieces. I am so upset! I spent an absurd amount of time and money packing it up so that nothing would break. Not to mention all the hours that went into making the actual piece. Is it wrong to ask the gallery to pay for the damage? Or is it just my loss? I’m not convinced it wasn’t their fault in the first place. Any help would be appreciated! What’s my next step?
Achy Breaky Art


Dear Achy Breaky,
OH NO! I’m so sorry to hear about your broken artwork. That is one of the most horrible things to have to go through. There is truly no frustration like the kind when something in which you’ve invested your time and concerted energy is obliterated in a nanosecond. Like when you are in the middle of writing your great American novel and your hard drive suddenly crashes and years worth of writing and photos and memories and LIFE is ripped away from you in an instant—POOF! Goodbye world. Or when, last month, the artist Zhao spent three days and nights painstakingly piecing together a $15,000 LEGO sculpture for the LEGO expo in China and some kid knocked it over within the first hour of the exhibition opening. Yeah. The devastation is real.
While I know you are upset and wanting to chuck a lamp across your bedroom, take a minute to breath and remember that both you and the gallery are hurting right now. They’ve lost what I imagine is a major component to their exhibition. Hell, maybe your sculpture was their pièce de résistance! Their centerpiece, their heavy hitter! So before you start throwing the blame flame and burning your bridges, take a minute to collect yourself.
First, I have to tell you that the mail folks literally throw boxes on and off trucks, whether or not they’re marked as fragile. Before you send anything in the mail, stand in your bedroom and throw it like you would that lamp of yours. Just throw on the ground and then open it. If you don’t think it can survive that, don’t send it. So many people think that marking a box with Sharpie that says “Fragile” or “This Way Up” or “Do Not Lean” will guarantee that the package will get treated in such a way. WRONG.
So to pack something valuable and breakable to ship across the country, you really have to know what you’re doing and you should definitely use a wooden crate. Also, consider splurging for a professional art-handling company to deliver it or transport it there yourself. If you can’t do those things, and you’re feeling anxious about it, maybe you should decline the show. That’s right, bumblebee! You can say no to some opportunities! Sometimes, if you don’t have the cash to ship it correctly, it may be best not to ship it at all.
Secondly, remember to use your camera. This is a call to both gallery owners and artists. For artists, as you’re packing it, take photos along the way. Show exactly how the piece has been packed and sealed into the box. Gallery owners, if you are unpacking a sculpture or 3-D piece and you start to get the feeling that something isn’t right, get out your camera and photograph the process, or better yet, shoot a video of the unpacking to show to the artist. In the event something does go down legally, you have proof of how it arrived.
As for you, Achy Breaky, I think this is one of those things you have to take on the chin. You can’t ask the gallery to pay for the damage if it was a shipping accident. You can, however, file a complaint to the company through which you shipped it. Especially if you put any insurance on the package, which if it’s valuable art, is a smart thing to do. But if you’re thinking about asking the gallery to pay you back for the whole piece, forget about it. There’s a good chance they are not at fault. It’s a risk everyone takes in exhibiting non-local work, and it’s why art shipping companies exist. I hate that you have to deal with such a loss, but here’s hoping that it’s a one-time, lesson-learning experience.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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