Arts & Theater

The Crocker Art Museum expansion brought much more space – and a bad humidifier

Four contractors who worked on the Crocker Art Museum’s 2010 expansion will pay $770,000 to the museum and city of Sacramento to replace a faulty humidifier.
Four contractors who worked on the Crocker Art Museum’s 2010 expansion will pay $770,000 to the museum and city of Sacramento to replace a faulty humidifier. Sacramento Bee file

After years of dealing with a finicky humidifier that put thousands of art pieces at risk of damage, the Crocker Art Museum will receive $770,000 from the original contractors to replace it.

A local cultural gem with national recognition, the Sacramento institution’s humidity problems trace back to the 2010 expansion that increased its square footage threefold. Soon after the $100 million project concluded, the humidifier began underperforming, according to a city report.

“Repeated mechanical failures caused undesirable indoor humidity conditions adverse to art exhibits and increased amounts of staff time to respond to occupant complaints,” according to a City Council resolution adopted last week.

While the humidity control system hasn’t damaged any of the artwork thus far, the system has not been operating “perfectly as designed” and proved more difficult to control than intended, said Sacramento interim director of public works Hector Barron.

Four contractors who worked on the expansion will now pay $770,000 as part of a settlement to the museum and city – which owns the property – to replace the humidifier.

“It’s a system that’s not as reliable as it should be given the artwork,” Barron said.

Back in 2013, when Julie Nola was overseeing the creation of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis as a project manager, she took a tour of the nearby Crocker Art Museum. Hoping to get a sense of the museum’s construction and operations, Nola remembers being given a strong piece of advice:

“They actually told us, ‘Be careful with your humidifier,’ ” Nola said. “They weren’t happy with it.”

Other problems related to the expansion also cropped up when construction was complete. The city and museum alleged in an April settlement that drywall was cracking, hardwood floors were warping, and that sewer line backups led to raw sewage overflowing from the first floor main restrooms and kitchen.

Crocker Art Museum officials declined to comment this week on the construction-related problems.

While issues like the sewer backups have since been resolved, the ultrasonic humidifier – which is typically more energy-efficient – remained one of the most constant nuisances for the museum.

“The way they described it, they didn’t describe it as, ‘This isn’t working,’ ” Nola said. “It was, ‘We don’t recommend ultrasonic.’ ”

Humidifiers and air conditioning systems may seem like unsightly details for an institution in the business of displaying the artistic and beautiful. But unstable temperature and humidity levels indoors could lead to “catastrophic” damage to any one of the more than 15,000 art pieces in the Crocker Art Museum collection, according to conservation scientist M. Susan Barger.

“With high humidity, you can have paint that swells,” Barger said. “If it went up and up, things would just get wet and then you’d have mold growth.”

In places like Sacramento, which enjoys relatively dry summers, low humidity could also spell disasters for some art pieces. Furniture could crack or fall apart, and paint layers could flake and come off.

“There might be things you wouldn’t notice, but over time they would become much more noticeable,” Barger said.

Generally museums try to maintain 70-degree temperatures and 50 percent relative humidity – a practice stipulated under many art-lending agreements, though some objects may need more particular specifications depending on the material, Barger said.

Being unable to meet these standards would mean possibly losing accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, or AAM, making it harder to acquire more valuable pieces for exhibits. Crocker Art Museum was reaccredited in March, according to AAM spokesman Joseph Klem.

Settlement mediation began in October 2013, but since then many prestigious museums across the country have continued to loan masterpieces to the Crocker Art Museum. As is typical with most accredited museums, lending museums will often request standardized general facility reports developed by AAM – a kind of checklist of conditions ranging from permissible food and drink areas to actual relative humidity readings.

“With the artwork that we talked about, there were no issues or nothing flagged,” said the J. Paul Getty Museum spokeswoman Julie Jaskol, referring to a recently loaned François Boucher sketch, “and (there were) no changes to the conditions of the artwork when it was returned.”

On Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council approved the humidifier replacement plan, which included allocating $500,000 toward legal fees and contingency. With the search now underway for a contractor to install a more conventional and reliable steam-based humidifier, construction is expected to begin within the year, Barron said.

“It’s a foundation stone in our arts community, and as such an important institution, it has to be strong, it has to work well,” said City Councilman Steve Hansen. “This just ensures for the public’s sake that we don’t ever have any doubt about the integrity of the collection.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks: 916-321-1418, @ayoonhendricks