Artists Cope with Stolen and Destroyed Art

​The biggest nightmare for any artist is to have their art--pieces often toiled over for months, or even years--stolen, lost, or destroyed. Unfortunately, it's a fairly common occurrence, and almost any artist can tell you horror stories of losing work due to poor security, neglectful friends, carelessness of galleries, or just plain cruelty. While having a piece stolen can sometimes cost an artist thousands of dollars, perhaps even more disheartening is when a piece destroyed or thrown out.  

Poor Security

Marcia Soderman-Olson was one of the founders of Art at 2402 at the Chittenden & Eastman Building on University Avenue two-and-a-half years ago. The historic location had plenty of studio space and lots of light--perfect for artists. The building was recently sold to a new developer to be converted into market-rate apartments. While the front and back doors are always supposed to be locked, Soderman-Olson says that there have been some suspicious characters in the building, and a number of the space's architectural features have been stolen off the walls. The thieves pulled the building registry case, framed with an art deco finish, off the wall, along with a framed print of a painting in the main lobby and a set of doors.  
"Iguazu Falls: The River is Red" by Marcia Soderman
"Iguazu Falls: The River is Red" by Marcia Soderman
Jim Tittle, Nice Pictures

Soderman-Olson had been working on a painting, titled Iguazu Falls: The River is Red, off and on for four years. She had the piece in an open studio in order to photograph it for a juried art book, International Contemporary Artists Volume 2. Somewhere between Friday evening, March 25 and Wednesday morning, March 30, the piece was peeled out of its frame. Soderman-Olson has offered a $500 reward for the work, which had an asking price of $3,600. She hopes someone will return it to the Chittenden & Eastman Building by either entrance, the 2402 Gallery, or at her studio on the fifth floor. See details here if you have any information about the painting.
Sign at back door of Chittenden & Eastman Building
Sign at back door of Chittenden & Eastman Building

Lesson Learned: Back Everything Up, and Hide Your Backup

Dance artist Tamara Ober had all of her video and technical equipment stolen. Meaning, all of the electronics she began accumulating five years ago. But she lost more than just the equipment; she lost all of her artist samples, scripts, photos, sound scores, music, original video, graphic design, and more--everything she needed to re-mount her successful show Pipa. Everything stored on her laptop, hard drives, video camera, and flip camera was gone, as well as her projector, wires, cords, chargers, and her microphone.  

The thieves had used a crowbar to get into her apartment while Ober was rehearsing at Zenon, where she's a company member. "It's kinda life changing to be so wiped out," she says in an email. "It's a hit financially and artistically, but also to my spirit and my fear just as a person." The lesson she learned is to always have renters insurance, and to hide back-up drives. While she diligently backed up all of her files, the thieves stole the back up along with the original copies.  

Two days before everything was taken, Ober had met with a new director about her show, and had talked about wanting to explore themes on the difference between things that can be leveled and destroyed (bodies, architecture, material things), and the things that cannot be taken away (the spirit and soul of art, and creation). "Now I have real-life experience to draw from," she says. "What timing. Yes, they took so much from me, but they did not hurt me. I have my body, my mind, and my spirit. They cannot take my artistry."

Loss of Money, Spirit, Hope

No matter how careful an artist might be in ensuring that their art is safe, accidents happen. Sometimes there is no way to prevent disaster.  

Ken Farkash had a show at Soundbar last year in April. He had 25 to 30 pieces hanging on the walls, plus a giant sculpture of a dinosaur made out of steel. The works on the walls were damaged when people at the bar knocked up against them. The sculpture had its head crushed, and its leg broken off. Farkash says that he has felt gun shy about showing his work since. While he hasn't stopped creating--he depends on sales for his career--he makes certain that a venue is reputable before he agrees to have a show.  

Christine Stark lost nearly all of her art during a fire at Babylon International Café and Gallery where she was putting on a show with a group of Native and African American women who had been in prostitution. The artists had done a whole series of town halls and panel discussions in the gallery space on Lake Street near Cedar. "It was the fourth night of the show, and a few hours after our first event--a panel discussion about prostitution and racism--that someone burned the building down, targeting the gallery," Stark says. "So not only did I lose nearly all my art, but other women lost their individual pieces as well."

For Stark, she hasn't created as much since the incident, though she does have a forthcoming novel. "Unfortunately, it's made it hard for me to do much art--at least not as much as I used to," she says.  

From Devastation, Inspiration
Parasomnia 1993 by Sean Connaughty
Parasomnia 1993 by Sean Connaughty

When Sean Connaughty left for Savannah, Georgia to earn his MFA at the age of 35, he left his art with a friend to store. It was all of the work he had created in the 10 years since finishing his undergrad degree. His friend, whose first name is Dean, had offered to store the work at his home while Connaughty was away, so the artist made an inventory, put phone numbers on every piece, and trusted his friend to take good care of the works.

As he was finishing school, Connaughty called Dean to check in about retrieving his art. He left a message, and then he got a message back. His friend stated that the paintings-- Connaughty's entire body of work up until going to grad school--had been taken to the dump.  Apparently his friend was having domestic difficulties and had "freaked out."

The artist was devastated and angry. "I don't think people understand the emotional investment, or the degree of labor that goes into creating art," he says.  

Ever since it happened, he has been vigilant about documenting everything that he does. The incident also made him think about the ephemeral nature of art, and he has created work in recent years made out of materials that will degrade more quickly, such as snow and branches.  
A History of the Earth, by Sean Connaughty
A History of the Earth, by Sean Connaughty
Photo by Thomas Gustainis

There's also Connaughty's A History of the Earth, a multi-faceted installation piece that in part explores the nature of documentation; of archiving, conceptually and through careful preservation of artifacts, history. "The work is embedded with countless bits of information," he writes on mnartists, "which speak to technological capabilities and geological and meteorological information, as well as cultural, political, and personal experience." After showing the work publicly, Connaughty has since donated A History of Earth to the Weisman Gallery. "It was important for me to have it in a place where it would be preserved," he says.  

Vigilance and Caution

Many artists talk about their work as their children--there's an emotional attachment that goes beyond material possession--but because artists often don't have large resources, protecting their art can be difficult. Artists that have had their work lost, stolen or destroyed talk about the importance of documenting everything in case disaster strikes, and to be cautious about where work is stored or shown. It's a lesson for people buying art as well, especially as the season of art crawls and Art-a-Whirl draws near. When buying a piece of art, it's good to purchase directly from the artists themselves, or at least have confidence that the seller is reputable.   

But perhaps the most important thing is to remember, as Tamara Ober reminds herself, "to focus on the artist within that is capable, willing, and driven to continue creating. It's the stuff art is made of that matters most."

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