On the 24th of May 2004 a fire raged through the MOMART art storage facility in Leighton, South London, destroying hundreds of works of art. Significant works by artists including Patrick Heron, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, were lost. So much of the work was destroyed, that the The Guardian reported the fire under the headline ’50 years of British Art lies in ashes’. Most tragic was the loss of works by artists who had died. Katherine Heron, who only lost her father, in 1999, described the loss of her father’s works from her private collection as another bereavement.
So what effect did this tragedy have on the UK art storage market? The answer is surprisingly little. Though the fire was significantly damaging to the genre of Modern British and Contemporary Art, it did not start in the MOMART warehouse itself, rather in another unit in the same complex. So while the fire hit their unit, it was not ultimately their fault, which is perhaps why their reputation has not suffered in the long term. It is also noteworthy, that while the fire itself was very destructive, it took place over a decade ago, and there hasn’t been a significant fire at an UK art storage facility since. Naturally, afterwards, there was a general review of fire safety in the industry, but there was no keynote change.
In an ideal world, Art Storage facilities would be on their own grounds, set back from any other buildings. The reality of the situation, is that even for large companies, building new custom designed facilities are restricted by the cost of and lack of space in London. For this reason, they are often built on the outskirts of the city. Many companies gravitate to the South East of London, such as MOMART and Constantine, as this is close to Hoxton, which was the epicentre of the so called ‘Brit Art’ movement in the 90’s. Cadogan Tate are based in Acton, and Aston Spinks, an Art Transport Company which evolved from a shipping company, is based near Heathrow airport.
The danger that most concerns art storage companies is not fire, but theft. All fine art storage facilities will have large fences, air lock gates, security guards and cameras. Security also helps keep the staff and any visiting clients safe from harm. It is not that fine art storage facilities feel they are likely to be singled out as potential targets, they merely use air freight extensively. This means they must maintain the same air tight security standards in their warehouses that airports adhere to, to prevent the threat of terrorism. Any staff working in an art transport facility on a permanent basis are required to undertake specialist training to identify and handle suspect packages.
It is perhaps due to the vigilance of the companies themselves, that the artwork stored in these facilities is so safe from fire, or any other peril. Which may be why the MOMART fire continues to fascinate people so many years later.
About the author: Huw is an experienced art storage and shipping professional with an art history background.