UN art collection to go on show in $150m “disposable” building

Travel and insurance costs of the 270 works discouraged off-site storage

NEW YORK. As the United Nations complex in New York undergoes a $1.9bn renovation, the international body’s extensive, eclectic art collection is to go on view in a temporary structure to accommodate the UN during the makeover process.

UN executives anticipated that most of the 270 works at its leaky, asbestos-filled headquarters would be packed into a warehouse off-site during construction. But Michael Adlerstein, the US architect who heads the Capital Master Plan, the UN agency overseeing the project, says that high potential insurance costs and the risks associated with moving the art have led to the preference for display over storage.

The UN art collection (more than 700 works around the world) is not insured, according to Mr Adlerstein. “We’re self-insured,” he adds, but would not comment on the art’s value. “The risks and the costs of transporting art to Queens were factors that led us to try to keep the art within the compound. We felt this was a less risky and less expensive solution,” says Mr Adlerstein, who designed museums for the US National Parks Service.

Later this year, the paintings, sculptures and other objects will go on view in a $149.5m building, designed by HLW Architects, which has been under construction since last spring on the North Lawn of the UN site. It will house the UN Secretariat, General Assembly and executive offices while the original buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer that opened in 1951, are being renovated. The North Lawn building—about one-third the cost of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent renovation—will be demolished in 2013 when the renovations finish.

The art in New York falls into three categories: paintings, tapestries, and other objects that can be transported easily; massive sculpture requiring heavy machinery for transportation, and immovable in situ works, such as Fernand Léger’s huge mural frescoes in the General Assembly hall. These will be covered with plywood and protected as renovation takes place around them. One of Léger’s abstractions was christened “scrambled eggs” by the former US president Harry Truman when the headquarters opened.

Most of the works at the “workshop for peace” address themes of war, peace and universal understanding, including Pablo Picasso’s 1955 tapestry version of Guernica. A loan from Nelson Rockefeller’s widow in 1985, and now at London’s Whitechapel, the woven Guernica is likely to be returned to the UN when work finishes, said a Rockefeller family spokesman (The Art Newspaper, February 2009, p14).

Other notable works include Salvador Dalí’s Five Continents (also called Clasped Hands, which Dalí donated in 1966) and Torch of Hope by Henri Matisse, which the artist donated for a Unicef greetings card. For decades, it was displayed in the outer office of the Secretary General.

Almost all the works in UN headquarters are gifts from member states, but not all those gifts are masterpieces. “We try not to insult governments, but we don’t want to turn the place into a kind of junk shop,” said Brian Urquhart, the official who chaired the UN Art Committee in the 1980s.

Since the buildings opened in 1951, four works have been reported missing, and a portrait of former Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was slashed after his Nazi past was exposed in 1986.

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