Ike's Biggest Art Casualty Tries to Dry Out

The smell was indescribable," says Galveston Art Center Director Alex Irvine, describing her first post-Ike visit to the GAC, on the Tuesday before the island was opened up. "It was just horrible, it was heartbreaking; the walls were covered with mold, and the floors were buckling. The whole downstairs was covered in this really disgusting, gooey, toxic sludge. I don't know what else to call it. It is still wet weeks after Ike. There is definitely sewage in it, and it's all over the floors."

The Galveston Art Center, located on the Strand in an 1877 Ital­ian­ate building, is Ike's biggest art casualty. The backbone of the Galveston art community, the GAC is also an important contemporary art venue for the state of Texas.

No one had any idea it would be so bad. According to Irvine, the Center sits between five and six feet above street level. Former director and current curator Clint Willour says the building had never flooded in its 40-year history as an art center. "I'm told the last time it flooded would have been Carla in 1961," says Willour. When Ike hit, the exhibition "Flora/Fauna and Other Natural Concerns," a ten-year survey of artist Helen Altman's work, was on view ­downstairs.

Before Irvine evacuated the island, she placed towels and blankets at the thresholds of the doors, just in case any rain was driven under them, and moved a sculpture from the floor to a table in what would turn out to be a futile gesture. It was impossible for the five-foot-two Irvine and her assistant to move the artist's massive quilted fabric works. They are up to 15 feet long and 12 feet high. According to Irvine, it took three strong guys on ladders to install each one. The mandatory evacuation order left no time to get a crew together.

Altman's works took a serious hit. Irvine, who lives on the island, had evacuated to Victoria, but Willour made it in from Houston during the brief "look and leave" period. It took Willour and administrative director Robin Cushman three hours to get in. They made it in by 5 p.m., but had to be off the island by6 p.m. The center's doors were swollen shut, and short of kicking them in, there was no way to get into the building. Willour didn't want to leave it unsecured either. But peering into the Center's windows, he could see the four-foot-high water line and pedestals overturned and strewn around the gallery.

Willour didn't know when they'd be allowed back on the island. But back in Houston, he learned that the art services company Tyart was on the island removing artwork for the GAC's treasurer. The art center's contractor got Tyart into the building and removed the work that was still on the walls so it could be placed with conservators.

Helen Altman, based in Fort Worth, hasn't seen her damaged artwork yet. She's just seen pictures. Those are bad enough. The show contained around 38 pieces from the past ten years, and Altman says all works were damaged except for the three that were hung higher than the water level. Almost all of her large fabric works were soaked. The threads may have begun to rot. "How they are cleaned, and if they can be cleaned, is still being worked out," says ­Altman.

As for remaking the pieces, the thermal printing technology used for the images on the fabric is obsolete. Also, one of Altman's old printing companies is out of business, and the other no longer does that kind of printing. Other works incorporating vintage materials bought on eBay, like careworn Steiff bears or cigar boxes, will also be difficult to re-create.

Meanwhile, sculptures such as the artist's series of skulls molded from compressed materials like glutinous rice, chili peppers and wildflowers, simply disintegrated. Almost all of Altman's series of baby blanket works were wiped out. Her large drawings, made with a blowtorch on wet paper, were also damaged. A catalog was going to be produced in conjunction with the exhibition, but the works had not been photographed when the storm hit.

Willour and Altman's dealer, Betty Moody of Moody Gallery, are handling the negotiations with the insurance company. In spite of her losses, Altman says, "I have a lot to be grateful for — I'm okay, my dogs are okay. It is an aggravating process, but it could have been much worse."

According to Irvine and Willour, the GAC is lucky its building is still standing. "One thing I would like to stress," says Irvine, "is that had we not started renovation and stabilization of the facade, there wouldn't have been a building to come back to." The project was begun last March and was in progress when Ike hit.

Repairs are going to take awhile. "I've seen hell, and it is the Galveston Art Center," Willour quipped when reached by cell phone at the Center. He was in the midst of cleanup.

"Optimistically, we are looking at four to six months," says Irvine. And like about everyone else Ike nailed, they are going to have to figure out how to pay for those repairs. While the Center had a separate policy to cover artwork, they had only $10,000 worth of flood insurance. Irvine says she will be applying to FEMA's relief fund for private nonprofits, as well as for Small Business Administration loans, in addition to assistance offered by groups like the Andy Warhol Foundation.

As for the short term, says Irvine, "On December 11 we were going to have a black-tie gala. I don't think that's going to ­happen now."

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer