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Florida has been hit by more hurricanes than any other state in the US, and its hurricane season lasts for half the year—from the beginning of June to the end of November. It is no coincidence, then, that Art Basel in Miami Beach, when billions of dollars’ worth of art is shipped into the Magic City (along with thousands of visitors), tends to take place at the start of December, just as the stormy season comes to an end.
But the state is also home to important art collections year-round. Florida is inhabited by some of the US’s wealthiest people and, with them, some of the most significant private collections in the country. (For example, Jeff Bezos, who recently announced his move to Miami, is one of Artnews’s top 200 art collectors in the world.) Add these individual collectors to the museums, arts organisations and growing numbers of galleries and independent spaces, and it becomes clear that there is a lot of art in Florida that needs protecting from hurricanes on a long-term basis.
Insuring against the inevitable
An average hurricane season in the Atlantic has seven storms, three of which are considered “major” (category three or above), according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. This makes 2023 a textbook year, with seven hurricanes in total and Franklin, Idalia and Lee classed as major storms. Only three storms made landfall in the US, but Idalia, which hit Florida on 30 August, is estimated to have caused $2.5bn-$4bn in private insured losses, according to the global data analytics firm Verisk.
“Insuring art in Florida presents unique challenges,” says Paul Riemer, the head of the Florida-based Riemer Insurance Group, which specialises in museums. “Policies must account for not only direct damage but also preventive measures like emergency evacuation of art pieces.” Therefore, high insurance premiums are an everyday reality. “For residents and businesses alike, obtaining insurance coverage in South Florida is challenging and expensive,” says Mark B. Rosenblum of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).
Despite the increased risks in Florida, uninsurable areas are quite rare. “Superior construction, wind-resistant glass and other building protections are critical to the safety of art and, therefore, enable insurance coverage,” says Jennifer Schipf of the insurance company Axa.
Preparing ready for the worst
“Being prepared for increasing changes in climate severity and frequency is the best way to avoid damage and loss,” Schipf says. New construction projects in Florida are taking this seriously. PAMM, which opened in a new building in downtown Miami in 2013, was able to make weatherproofing an integral part of its design. “Our Herzog & de Meuron-designed building was engineered to be hurricane resistant in its natural state,” Rosenblum says. The structure is raised on an elevated platform to protect the museum from flooding, and it has art storage that is more than 46ft above sea level; glass windows that can withstand category five winds; an advanced heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system specifically designed to control humidity levels; and a back-up electricity and generator system that can be refuelled by truck—or by barge. “In the event of a major hurricane, we would deinstall as much of the art as possible, starting with the most sensitive works—something particularly rare, works on paper that are sensitive to humidity and temperature levels—and secure them in storage,” Rosenblum says. Luckily, PAMM has yet to experience a direct hurricane hit that puts these plans—or its building—to the test.
Not all museums, galleries and private collectors are lucky enough to have state-of-the-art hurricane-proof buildings, and they have to prepare in other ways. It is no accident, for example, that the Miami gallery Fredric Snitzer (which is taking part in Art Basel this year) is housed in a windowless warehouse with a concrete slab roof. “I have always sought warehouse spaces,” says Frederic Snitzer, the gallery’s founder, partially for the safety of the art. (His gallery, which opened in 1977, has weathered many hurricanes over the years.) Other buildings add new weather-resistant features; Miami’s convention centre—host of Art Basel—was built in 1958, renovated in 2015-18 and now includes “hurricane-resistant connections and projectile resistant glazing” on its façade.
No matter where art is held, though, disaster planning is key to its safety. “We recommend that all museums develop a disaster-preparedness plan as one of the core documents they have on hand,” says a spokesperson for the American Alliance of Museums. The non-profit’s website has a list of resources and sample documents for museums in need of help.
Logistics and insurance companies also actively offer advice to clients about securing art in extreme weather. “Proactive preparation is crucial. Last-minute hurricane evacuations are challenging and risk both the art we handle and our team’s safety,” says Gilles de Greling, the Florida director of Gander & White Shipping. “Rushed moves in unfavourable weather conditions such as high winds, humidity or rain—which are all precursors to impending hurricanes—can damage large, delicate and multi-million-dollar art.”
Gander & White offers storage at hurricane-prepared art facilities and advice about on-site protection—either in clients’ safe rooms or with protective “bonnets”. Custom-made for outdoor sculptures or delicate indoor works, the bonnets are “translucent polycarbonate”, says Joe Piotrowski, the company’s Miami director, “allowing a registrar to visually check a work’s condition while being strong enough to stop a piece of debris hurtling towards it at 150mph”.
When the damage is done
The Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) helps to connect cultural heritage professionals and members of the public dealing with damaged collections or personal items with experts in the field. One of its initiatives, National Heritage Responders, brings together volunteers across the country with specialities ranging from conservation to emergency management. The corps was formed after Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita in 2005, and it has since assisted hundreds of institutions, private collectors, artists and members of the public.
“Some treatments are more successful than others, in terms of conserving works to their pre-damage state,” says Elaina Gregg, the emergency programmes manager at FAIC. “Some collection items will always show the impact of significant damage, but individuals and institutions may choose to retain evidence of that damage as part of the work’s story. Working with a conservator can help identify options and goals for treatment.”
Art-handling companies are also developing solutions for damaged works. The storage-and-shipping firm Crozier Fine Arts has handlers who specialise in packing art that has been affected by water, soot or mould. In addition, it has storage spaces for such works, where they can be placed in a stable environment equipped with dehumidifiers or air scrubbers to ensure optimal conditions for preservation. “Our emergency-response service is available on demand, and we charge premium rates to ensure availability of resources and staff who are equipped and trained to respond,” says Stephen Earthman, a senior client development executive at Crozier. “We maintain specialist vaults for water- or fire-damaged works, so they do not cross-contaminate other property before a conservator can start working on a plan for remediation.” The company has vaults in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Chicago as well as a mobile vault in Los Angeles that can be mobilised as needed.
Storms on the rise
It is predicted that Florida’s hurricanes and other storms will increase—particularly across the Gulf Coast—by 2030, driven by rising sea levels and surface temperatures. The rising seas not only bring risk of flooding but mean that storm surges could carry water further inland. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea
levels are projected to rise 14in-18in near the Gulf Coast by 2050.
“We have certainly noticed an uptick in claims related to extreme weather, which correlates with broader environmental trends,” Riemer says. “As extreme weather becomes more frequent and severe, the art-insurance industry must innovate and adapt. This includes embracing new technologies for art protection, offering flexible coverage and educating art owners on proactive measures to protect their valuable assets.”
“We are heartened by the number of institutions and individuals taking the threat of climate change seriously and working to protect art,” Gregg says.