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Behind Walls of Warehouses, a Trove of Artwork

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014
At the same time that art museums and galleries have developed larger collections, they have fewer options to expand. Perhaps inevitably, an art services industry that has sprung up in the dark warehouses of New York City's boroughs is also growing.
Many museums now farm out the highly specialized business of packaging, shipping and installing art, along with the task of storing it for long periods.

A handful of companies that handle these fine art services have also developed into "arts campuses," where art conservators, gallery registrars, academics and collectors can visit to view, catalog, photograph and repair art.

In the last five years, SurroundArt, a fine arts company with headquarters in Washington, has expanded its New York operations from a single 8,000-square-foot shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to what will soon be a campus covering 175,000 square feet in three buildings.

It is moving into a new building next month and expects to take possession of the Navy Yard's restored Paymaster building within the next year.

The buildings will be used to construct crates for shipping the art and to store fine art in spaces controlled for temperature and humidity, with security that is almost as tight as a bank's. There will also be viewing rooms where art world insiders can see the art.

SurroundArt will occupy an 89,000-square-foot structure where construction was begun speculatively by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

"The Navy Yard's been a great place for us, because it's allowed us access to fairly low-cost real estate, at least in the past, and it was easy for us to expand," said Mick Murray, a partner and the chief executive at SurroundArt, which will pay annual rent of about $20 a square foot in the new building. Typically, it is $12 a square foot for industrial space in that part of Brooklyn.

"Because it's a gated industrial park, we have security here 24-7, so we can create access any time of day or night for our clients," Mr. Murray said. The company has a 20-year lease.

The new building, which is costing the Navy Yard about $25 million, is said to be the first multistory "green" industrial building with multiple tenants in the nation, the development corporation said. Among its environmental features, it will have solar panels and wind turbines on its roof, providing power. SurroundArt's clients can sublease either general space or segregated vaults for art storage.

Fine art services is one industry that must be very clean for art conservation purposes, Mr. Murray said, so it can benefit from the cleaner construction materials used in green buildings and from the controlled environment.

Mr. Murray said that fine art services companies like SurroundArt basically house museum-quality collections, even though they are often in nondescript warehouses in industrial areas.

"We've recreated the environment that's inside a museum," said Mr. Murray, who is being assisted by the firm Steven Kratchman Architect on designing the new building's interiors.

Besides keeping a constant temperature of 70 degrees and humidity level of 50 percent, SurroundArt will minimize exposure of the artwork to natural light by covering windows with cheap and durable hurricane shutters.

As an adjunct to the security provided by the Navy Yard, SurroundArt has several layers of its own, including armored walls, motion sensors, security cameras, alarm systems and other devices that alert security workers to intruders, fire or environmental changes.

"You can have one thing in your warehouse, and it was worth $100,000 three years ago, and now somebody's going to tell you it's worth $17 million," Mr. Murray said. "The auction market really has inflated values in this business."

Packaging standards have risen accordingly. Making crates requires a clean room in which a sterile padded armature is fashioned for the artwork, which will be placed in an internal box that has been heat-treated to prevent insect infestations.

Like most art services businesses, SurroundArt has a fleet of secure trucks for shipping art.

Mr. Murray said he decided to form his business while working in the design and production group of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

"We got a lot of telephone calls from private collectors saying, 'I bought a piece of art — what's the proper way to install it?' or 'Where can I get a pedestal?' " he said. "Recognizing a need, I took two other fellows with me, and we founded SurroundArt.

"We were thinking we'd service the private sector, but within a week of starting the company, my largest account was the Smithsonian Institution."

A competitor of SurroundArt in the Bronx, Transcon International Incorporated, handles the art and collectibles of mostly private collectors, galleries and estates, and is also planning an expansion. Transcon's principals said they thought that private collectors, auction houses and galleries were the main reasons for the rapid growth in the art services industry.

"The explosion that's been seen by all the shippers in terms of volume and in storage has largely been gunned by the commercial end of it," said Michael Blodget, the chief executive of Transcon.

John Mullane, Transcon's president, founded it as a moving company in the 1970s but, after a decade, recognized a growing demand for fine art services.

After four years at its current location, Transcon recently renewed its lease for four of six floors for 29 years in a 140,000-square-foot former manufacturing building, which occupies a city block in an area where industrial rents range from $10 to $15 a square foot. When it is available, Transcon will take the whole building.

It makes its shipping crates in a nearby 20,000-square-foot building.

The company will soon build a $5 million one- or two-story expansion in its parking lot with ceilings of 20 feet or more to handle large artworks.

Though the expansion is in effect a speculative development, Mr. Mullane said he was confident that he could fill the new space with art. "We have interest from a lot of institutions and clients," he said. "We're still busy, though I consider we're in a recession right now. We could fill it up — no problem."

By Alison Gregor
For The New York Times

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