Europe’s volcano flight chaos plays havoc with show shipments

Paintings and people stranded; Art Chicago may be down on dealers

Disruption to flights is likely to impact on art shipments up until late April and possibly into early May, affecting exhibitions and the trade. Flights in north-west Europe were banned from 15 April following the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Although air traffic had partially resumed as we went to press, this could be interrupted by further volcanic ash clouds. Even after the airports fully reopen, logistical problems and shortage of seats will take some days to resolve.

The Van Gogh exhibition at London’s Royal Academy was one of the first shows to be hit, in terms of returning pictures following its closure on 18 April. The blockbuster, which attracted just over 400,000 visitors, included works from 24 European lenders and 22 from North America. Although the impact in terms of short-term delays on artworks being returned was “considerable”, an Academy spokeswoman said that “the adaptation and flexibility of everyone has been extremely impressive”.

Other exhibitions have faced similar problems. The Frida Kahlo show at the Bozar centre in Brussels also finished on 18 April, and conservators from the main lender, the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico, had been due to come out for condition checking of their paintings. When they were unable to travel, they agreed that this could be done by Belgian conservators (observed by Mexican embassy officials), and the show was then sent by road to the next venue, Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, in time for its 30 April opening.

Many commercial exhibitions have faced problems in transporting art. For instance, at the Sadie Coles gallery in London a show by Los Angeles artist Sam Durant, scheduled to open on 21 April, has been postponed.

The Art Chicago fair is in a particularly difficult situation, because of the timing. It runs from 30 April-3 May (with the VIP preview on 29 April), and air shipments from European dealers would normally have arrived the previous week. With 150 dealers, 30 are from Europe, and of these 10 had already sent over their stock before the volcano disruption. However, as we went to press, it was uncertain whether the remaining 20 dealers would be able to participate. Art Chicago vice president Tony Karman remained optimistic, promising to “mobilise an army of helpers when they get here”, but he said “right now it is unclear whether or not they will make it.”

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