The art world is trying to protect artwork amid civil unrest and support community unity

The Whitney Museum of American Art boarded up the floor-to-ceiling windows. The museum like others in New York City has been closed to patrons since March due to the pandemic.

(CNN)For more than a week Americans have flooded the streets of major metropolitan areas across the country in protest of racially-motivated police brutality sparked by George Floyd's death in police custody. 

While most protests and marches have been peaceful, civil unrest has prompted looting and property damage in cities like New York.
Though most public gathering spaces like museums have been closed since March for social-distancing precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic, the civil unrest poses a unique security concern for those in charge of protecting the priceless art housed around the city.

There are 130 museums in the five boroughs of New York City, according to city data, including some renowned museums that house the work of world-famous artists. 

    Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night sits not far from Claude Monet's Water Lily Pond in the halls of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are both home to Pablo Picasso's paintings and other priceless collections. 

    And for many, museums are a cultural haven.

    'It's not too late, but you have to have a plan'

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art alone sees more than 7 million visitors in a year.

    "Many people in the city see museums as safe places for having meaningful conversation about difficult subjects. Art is sometimes a bridge to do that," Marianne Lamonaca told CNN.
    Lamonaca is the associate gallery director and chief curator at the Bard Graduate Center in New York and the president of the board of trustees for the Association of Art Museum Curators.

    Cultural institutions must have a plan and coordinate with local agencies including federal law enforcement to plan for potential emergencies, art protection expert Stevan Layne told CNN. 
    Layne, founding director of the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection, is one of the security experts working with cultural institutions across the country whose leaders are trying to protect their priceless but currently empty institutions. 

    "We're saying it's not too late, but you have to have a plan. Police are overwhelmed, they can't be everywhere. They can't handle everything," he said.
    Most major institutions have secure storage spaces often in another location entirely to protect the most valuable works, Layne said. Now the IFCPP is cautioning museums to remove exhibits from the main floor because it'd likely be the most at risk in the case of a break-in.
    At least one museum in the city, The Whitney Museum of American Art, has boarded up their floor-to-ceiling windows.
    Layne says he tells his colleagues to take these precautions if they can, but the cost is high. And for those institutions that rely on daily ticket revenue, they likely can't afford the resources because of coronavirus-related losses. 

    Debate over controversial cultural installations

    Controversial cultural installations in museums and public spaces have been at the center of debate in recent years.
    
"It's really always been an issue, what to do with monuments that are offensive to certain groups. This is no more different today than in Charlottesville in 2017," Margaret Holben Ellis, president and fellow of The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) told CNN.
    Conservators are the ones to maintain cultural heritage installations but also repair them when they are damaged.
    Some conservators have faced harassment recently for repairing damaged installations, Holben Ellis told CNN.
    "We have received reports that conservators feel threatened -- or have been threatened -- when carrying out their professional duties to protect and preserve cultural heritage. We must keep our members, as well as the monuments, safe from harm and harassment. The professionalism required to make decisions also takes an emotional toll on conservators who must remain neutral as they perform their duties," Holben Ellis said.
    Conservators operate under a code of ethics to preserve all cultural heritage, George Wheeler, an adjunct professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN.
    Conservators and directors might consider holding off on repairing installations in public places as protests continue nightly, Wheeler suggests.
    "These things can be taken care of, but how and when do we deal with these issues."
    Wheeler cautions against the hasty removal of public installations and monuments as politicians have done in some cities.
    "The decision may affect the safety of the conservator, influence the perception by society and those certain sets of decision may not be easily reversed," Wheeler said.
    "The conscious destruction of a monument because of its symbolism is also an option. That is the extreme on the spectrum of conservation -- from keeping something exactly as it is forever to destroying it," Wheeler said.

    How we use our voices

    Both The Met and The Whitney declined to comment on their security protocols, but they and several other museums in New York have posted on their social media pages condemning the death of George Floyd in solidarity with protesters. 
    The Guggenheim Museum is promoting the work of African American artists who've addressed racial discrimination in their works.
    
The city's public design commission has similarly posted on Twitter promoting Black artists.
    MoMa posted what they call an incomplete list of resources and organizations for fighting racism and supporting justice and equality.

      "I would think museums want to step up in this time and communicate," Lamonaca told CNN.

      The question for curators now, Lamonaca says, is "how do we use our voices, our position in the community to bring people together and have meaningful conversation to difficult subjects."