The Fine Art of Storage

Moving along in our series about how new technology impacts the art world, this week we look at the art storage and logistics industry. Since the year 2000, decades-old (even centuries-old) hand-performed methods and procedures have gone the way of the dodo.

“When I started in this industry 22 years ago there was virtually no technology,” says Kevin Lay, director of operations at ARCIS, a 21st century art storage center in Manhattan that opens in spring. “You had a sprinkler system; a rudimentary HVAC system providing humidity or taking humidity out of the air; and a central station type security keypad with motion detectors; and that was about it.”

In our era of increasing urban frailty, where major cities such as New York have become so complex that they are highly vulnerable to climatic changes, the local art storage and logistics industry is rethinking its standards. Otherwise, New York risks becoming obsolete and losing ground to other major cities across the globe.

When Mr. Lay started in storage and logistics at Crozier Fine Arts in Manhattan in the mid 1990s, the office had only one computer, and inventory was done on pieces of paper that were then filed away. In 1998, he spoke about the need for computerization but met resistance from superiors.

The resistant to change was primarily an expense issue, and “not seeing the writing on the wall. For example, I tried to convince them to buy a digital camera, which cost about $1,100. The company finally took the ‘risk’ and purchased one. The camera proved so popular that it paid for itself in about one week.”

Fast forward to 2018. Cayre Equities has invested about $50 million on ARCIS, located in Harlem a good distance from vulnerable flood zones. Besides high-tech, one of its fundamental principles is 100% mechanical redundancy; for example, it has two state-of-the-art humidity atomizers, one serving as a reserve in case the other is down for any a number of reasons.

“This is a ground up facility. Very often in our field you see retrofitted facilities, a converted old book factory, for example,” said Mr. Lay. “Everything here is new, with the latest technology. We believe we’re setting a new benchmark for the industry.”
He adds that “insurance companies like new technologies because they reduce risk. Systems have more safeguards, and the human element is removed or minimized.”

Here are some examples of high-tech in art storage.

Climate control: Previously, humidity was generated and piped from a boiler, but the atomizer uses no standing water, which is purified and softened to create museum-quality air conditions at 1/10 the cost.

Security: While biometrics were only discussed five years ago, today they’re part of the standard; from iris to fingerprint readers and even vascular scanners. The quality of CCTV cameras improves each year — color images and higher resolution. But this leads to another problem.

“While these cameras are great, you must be able to retrieve the data. So, how much are you willing to spend on storing it and for how long,” says Mr. Lay.

The key control box is a wonderful combo of old and new technology. While it looks like an old-fashioned key box, in fact, it’s electronic and with software, utilizing biometrics and number codes. The box can be programmed so that a certain number of workers have access to a certain number of keys; or it can be programmed so that a certain key is released say from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on a Thursday.

Logistics: GPS allows one now to track trucks’ location when moving artworks, and barcode readers help to quickly and efficiently manage items when in storage. Still, he keeps a paper copy of all activity.

“While I appreciate the new technology, if possible I like walking the line between old and new — to have the advantage of new technology with the backup of traditional methods,” concluded Mr. Lay.