This is something that happens surprisingly often: a museum closes for the evening, the cleaning crew comes through at night, and member of the crew mistakes an art work for junk and cleans it up. I recall an incident a few years ago in which an installation included trash that a janitor mistook for trash, swept up and threw away. Something of the sort happened recently at the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund:
A cleaning woman at a museum in Dortmund who mistook a Martin Kippenberger sculpture for an unsightly mess has destroyed the valuable artwork beyond recognition.
The cleaner at the city’s Ostwall Museum went to work on the Kippenberger installation entitled “When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling” which was valued by insurers at €800,000 ($1.1 million), a museum spokeswoman said on Thursday.
The late contemporary master had created a tower of wooden slats under which a rubber trough was placed with a thin beige layer of paint representing dried rain water. Taking it for an actual stain, the cleaner scrubbed the surface until it gleamed.
Here is the art work in question:
The linked article notes that incidents of this sort are not uncommon:
Works of art not infrequently fall victim to zealous cleaners. In 1986, a “grease stain” by Joseph Beuys valued at around 400,000 euros was mopped away at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, western Germany.
Sadly, I can’t find a photo of the Beuys grease stain online.
Apparently the cleaning damaged the Kippenberger work irreparably:
“It is now impossible to return it to its original state,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the damage had been discovered late last month and that the work had been on loan to the museum from a private collector.
Personally, I am not sure great harm has been done. Assuming that anyone notices the difference, might the sculpture be improved by the fact that the trough is now gleaming? Or, better yet, should the museum have billed the incident as politically charged performance art? After all, what could be more transgressive than a cleaning crew modifying bourgeois art while the museum’s wealthy patrons are asleep in their beds?
Sadly, the art establishment can’t treat such incidents as lightly as they perhaps deserve. Why? Because doing so would undermine the premise that there is something significant about the precise combination of elements assembled by “contemporary master” Martin Kippenberger that makes it worth more than $1 million.