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After vandalism, National Gallery eyes added security

- - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The National Gallery of Art, the target of two vandalism attempts by the same attacker in recent months, is planning a thorough re-evaluation and upgrade of its security arrangements aimed at making what it calls "enhancements" to the protection of its treasured collection of 120,000 artworks.

The gallery's budget request to Congress for fiscal 2012 asked for funding for an assessment of "existing Gallery intrusion detection and prevention technology throughout the facilities," including "a review of the various points of entry/exit."

Based on the results, "the Gallery will begin to make the recommended security enhancements," the document continues.

On April 1, a gallery visitor named by police as Susan Burns tried to wrench a major Gaugin work, "Two Tahitian Women," off the wall. Then, on Aug 5, police say, the same woman went after Henri Matisse's "The Plumed Hat," an oil painting valued at $2.5 million. In the second incident, she is said to have grabbed the frame and slammed it repeatedly against the wall. In neither case was the painting damaged, but the frames were.

On Tuesday, the National Gallery said management was already planning a security review before these potentially disastrous exercises in violent art criticism. In an email to The Washington Times, Deborah Ziska, the gallery's chief of press and public information, said the assessment was part of "an ongoing effort" and that "there is no direct correlation between the FY 2012 budget request and these incidents." The budget request was submitted in the fall of 2010.

Such a review could hardly be more timely, given that the alleged assailant was able to manhandle two paintings with apparent impunity, despite the NGA's "protective functions" costing nearly $23 million in FY 2011.

The National Gallery is now seeking a total of $23,509,000 for its security screen in 2012 — up nearly $700,000 from the current year — in an overall budget request of $138 million.

The gallery's security plans go beyond vandalism prevention: Even before the review is carried out, it is seeking half a million dollars in its budget request for some significant additions to the overall security program already in place, including the installation of bollards to protect "vulnerable entrances from explosive-laden vehicles."

The NGA also wants to add "security cameras and surveillance devices, such as intelligent video systems and devices (e.g., air-intake monitors)." For the first time, the NGA wants to introduce a drug-testing program for all its special police officers. About $35,000 would go for background checks of job applicants to help determine their suitability for positions that would put them in contact with valuable works of art.

The extent to which these plans will go into operation ultimately depends on what Congress approves. But the National Gallery has a good record of getting what it wants from the Hill.

In an introduction to its pending budget request, the NGA outlined its responsibility to "protect its landmark buildings and grounds, its irreplaceable art collection, the staff, and the millions of visitors it welcomes each year."

"The Gallery's prominent location on the National Mall at the foot of the Capitol adds even greater urgency to the need to harden security measures against a wide range of means and methods of possible attack."