Houston muralist’s painting in jeopardy
Historic artwork endangered with mold from storm
Updated: September 10, 2017 11:04am
Hurricane Harvey peppered the John Biggers 1953 mural, Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education, with bursts of black mold.
National heritage responders – experts activated when art has been compromised by disasters – showed up Saturday to evaluate the damage on the painting that covers a wall inside the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association’s headquarters in Houston’s Third Ward. The work featuring Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley was painted when the building housed the Blue Triangle YWCA.
What was an emergency will become a catastrophe without immediate intervention.
Saving the Biggers mural will require a multi-pronged approach: A construction solution for the damaged building, which includes the roof; an art restoration fix for mold on the mural; and a hefty financial infusion to support those projects.
Caretakers went public in January 2016 to plead for contributions to repair the roof – $50,000 for a patch job and $200,000 for a complete restoration. The funding never came. Now, the resolution will cost much more.
Two weeks ago, Harvey’s unrelenting rain sent water through the roof and walls of the historic building at 3005 McGowen St.
What were warped, discolored ceiling tiles have come down or are inundated with mold. Walls are damp with telltale trickle trails. There are dozens of receptacles throughout the building still catching water.
In a room off the main hallway, the Biggers mural is scarred but stable.
“I am absolutely astonished at the damage that has been done,” said Charlotte Kelly Bryant, the association’s founding president. She noted that the mural has been “perfectly kept” for more than six decades, including the association’s 17 years of owning the building.
Members of an emergency response team from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works have come to Houston to assess the mural, as well as the flooded collection of props at the Alley Theatre in downtown’s Theater District. Art conservators and a property damage restoration expert wore respirator masks inside the Blue Triangle building.
The mural can be saved. The preliminary diagnosis credits Biggers’ use of two coats of white paint to prime the wall, which protected the colors from moisture.
“I am happy to say that, from a structural point of view, the mural looks OK. The paint is all right, and it’s not flaking, which would have been a much bigger problem,” said Elizabeth Mehlin, a painting conservator from the Boston area who came as part of the emergency response team. “I believe that the mural is salvageable, and now we just need the funding to go ahead and get the building squared away and the humidity levels reduced so that the mural won’t be in jeopardy in the future – once we get the immediate mold issue resolved.”
Asking for prayers
The mural restoration plan will involve conservation scientists sampling the mold, examining the fungus under a microscope, then applying the same solutions that would repair a similarly injured Picasso or Rembrandt.
Also on site Saturday was Steve Pine, a senior decorative arts conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who works with the Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance. National heritage responders traveled to New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. They also provided services following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and on the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Pine said.
The Blue Triangle building, a state historic landmark registered with the Texas Historical Commission, includes a gymnasium, commercial kitchen, meeting rooms and indoor pool. Association supporters are working to preserve the community center, its programs and the mural.
“I ask the prayers of everybody as we beg for assistance,” Bryant said.
Biggers, who founded the art department at Texas Southern University, died in 2001 at 76. His is considered one of the foremost artists whose work captured the black experience of the 20th century. Biggers also mentored several generations of Houston artists, particularly muralists.
Please join us tomorrow for our workshop on salvaging flood-damaged art and collections!
The Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) has distributed the following information to its members, LA and TX state cultural agencies, state and regional museum/library/archives associations, and the two state emergency management agencies. This is especially meant for those of you in LA and TX, but all of us need to be aware of what could potentially become a significant event.
Please share the following information with your constituents in Louisiana and Texas, and ask them to pass it along:
According to the National Hurricane Center, tropical storm Harvey’s remnant is forecast to regain tropical cyclone strength in the next day or two. Once Harvey starts affecting the Texas coast, up to ten inches of rain will be possible over the next week. The system is expected to bring prolonged periods of heavy rainfall and flooding across portions of Texas and southwest Louisiana. There is the potential for storm surge and tropical-storm or hurricane-force winds across portions of the Texas coast from Friday through the weekend.
As Harvey approaches Texas and Louisiana, it’s important that individuals and cultural institutions in these states prepare:
· Track the storm via the National Hurricane Center, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/.
· Gather your staff and review your disaster plan today. No disaster plan? Put that at the top of the to-do list once the storm passes (and hope you didn’t need it this time).
· If you have a disaster plan, make sure everyone has a printed copy to take home. An electronic version may be useless if you lose power.
· Make sure staff, volunteer, and board contact lists are up to date. Determine how you will communicate with one another before, during, and after the storm.
· Make sure your insurance and disaster recovery vendor contact information is readily available.
· Back up electronic records and store the back-ups off-site or in the cloud.
· Secure outdoor furniture, bike racks, book drops, signage, etc. – anything that can become a projectile in strong winds.
· Move collections that are in areas vulnerable to flooding (i.e., the floor, the basement) or susceptible to rain (near windows or under roofs) out of harm’s way.
· If you have time, cut lengths of plastic sheeting to be able to throw them over shelves, cabinets, or equipment should the building envelope be compromised.
· Know the location and shut-off procedures for water, electricity, and gas.
· Review individual or family plans. You’ll feel better attending to your organization knowing that your loved ones are safe.
· Download the FEMA mobile app for disaster resources, weather alerts, and safety tips. The app (available in English and Spanish) provides a customizable checklist of emergency supplies, maps of open shelters and recovery centers, disaster survival tips, and weather alerts from the National Weather Service. The app also enables users to receive push notifications reminding them to take important steps to prepare their homes and families for disasters. https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app
· Download the free ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage app, based on the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel, http://www.conservation-us.org/emergencies/ers-app.
· For tips on what to do before, during, and after a hurricane, go to https://www.ready.gov/hurricanes.
· Keep this 24/7 hotline number handy: 202.661.8068. The National Heritage Responders, a team of trained conservators and collections care professionals administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, are available 24/7 to provide advice.
· Download FEMA’s “After the Flood: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures” fact sheet, with tips and resources for individuals and institutions, https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/113297.
· Familiarize yourself with the disaster declaration process in case one is declared for your state, https://www.fema.gov/disaster-declaration-process.
· For Texans, visit the Hurricane Awareness page of the Texas Department of Public Safety, https://www.dps.texas.gov/…/ThreatAw…/hurricaneAwareness.htm.
· For Louisianans, visit the Emergency Event: Tropical Storm Harvey page, http://emergency.louisiana.gov/.
All the best,
Administrator, Heritage Emergency National Task Force
Office of Environmental Planning & Historic Preservation
Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration
FEMA | DHS
We invite you to attend a TX–CERA workshop on SAFETY TRAINING FOR MUSEUM, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES PROFESSIONALS
TX–CERA will host this 1-day workshop on Monday, July 24th at the MFAH in Houston, Texas to instruct Cultural Heritage professionals in safely responding to disasters such as fire and floods that threaten collections and historic sites. Expert trainers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health and the UTHealth Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management Program will team up with members of TX–CERA to conduct this intensive one-day workshop on the topic.