A sculpture by Sean Matthews was damaged just ten minutes into the opening of his exhibition Recycled Play at the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Matthews’ work converts children’s toys into conceptual art —something that, sadly, did not translate on August 17 when a patron and her daughter, both of whom walked up to a sculpture in the gallery entrance, broke it.
The piece, “Fair and Square,” suspends a pair of swings in mid-air on soldered chains, balanced in defiance of gravity and appearing frozen in time. The piece, inspired by Matthews’ four daughters, required 60 hours of welding and was constructed over the course of two years. According to Penn Live, the sculpture was insured for $5,000.
The mother and daughter reportedly thought the entire museum was touch-friendly. They mistook the installation for the interactive pieces in the education gallery, dismantled the suspended chains.
Matthews’ readymades and installations explore “the altar and the object” through found items. His work tackles adult realities through objects of childhood and adolescent imagination. Another work of Matthews’ located close to the damaged sculpture — a pair of vending machines that doled out wood figurines and ceramics inside plastic baubles in exchange for quarters — invited patrons to touch. However, “Fair and Square” was marked by a sign warning visitors not to make physical contact.
The accidental vandals arrived just minutes after the museum opened at 5 pm for its free evening event, “Third in the Burg.” Typically, the museum posts two volunteers at the door, but they had not yet arrived.
“Had it been 15 minutes later, we would have been more proactive. It was a fluke moment where we didn’t have anyone standing at the door,” Alice Anne Schwab, the museum’s executive director, told Penn Live.
Matthews was unable to repair the sculpture to its intended form. One set of chains snapped in half, and the other broke into smaller chain-link pieces. He stood by the work until the museum closed, explaining to patrons what had happened. Matthews told Hyperallergic that “after removing the damaged elements and adding objects that changed the narrative,” the piece has been retitled: “And Justice for All?”
With the exhibition organized through November 4, Matthews had to reinstall the work — this time as a memorial. He added a steel fence, an altar stocked with a display of stuffed toys, and posted a photograph of the work in its original fashion.
Lauren Nye, the Susquehanna’s director of exhibitions, released a statement on behalf of the art museum:
The museum regrets the unfortunate occurrence regarding Sean Matthew’s Recycled Play exhibition. Instances such as this are the reason that museums and cultural institutions of all types have insurance, and we have begun the process with our insurance company to rectify this situation appropriately.
There are important reasons that institutions ask visitors not to handle artwork, the most important of which is to keep the works and the viewers safe. During the installation process, the decision was made by the artist and the staff to not provide physical barriers that would separate viewers from this work to preserve the original design of the exhibition. In response to this incident, we have engaged our staff and volunteers in rigorous discussion about visitor safety and procedures. We have also increased signage in this exhibition indicating that work should not be touched. We urge the public to be conscientious during their visits to art and historical institutions, to preserve the collections on view and insure the safety of all.
With the popularity of “Instagram museums” inviting active audience participation, this event is not entirely surprising given the playful aspects of Matthews’ sculptures.
Museum director Alice Anne Schwab told Hyperallergic the Susquehanna has never experienced something of this sort in the past. She says that the museum will not be pursuing financial repercussions against the mother and daughter, as there was no malice in their mistake. In June of 2018, two parents were ordered to pay $132,000 after their five-year-old son knocked over a statue in a community center in Kansas City.
“We have begun the process with our insurance company to address the damages. The sculpture is still on view, in a form altered by the artist according to his preference,” Schwab relayed.