Why Risk It? Risk Management and Your Art Collection

Artwork Archive | April 2, 2018 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Photo by Nina Ž. 

We are all (at least vaguely) aware that our collections face risks.

It’s entirely unpleasant to sit around and consider the range of external forces that may affect your collection. 

But how can we be proactive in assessing those risks and determining how to best mitigate the possible damage?

Psychologists have noted interesting trends in the way humans view risk:


“Risk perception is rarely entirely rational. Instead, people assess risks using a mixture of cognitive skills (weighing the evidence, using reasoning and logic to reach conclusions) and emotional appraisals (intuition or imagination)”

(Harvard Mental Health Letter, The Psychology of Risk Perception)


Understanding how our brains approach risk is helpful in forming a clear-eyed view of the threats we actually face—not just those we think we face. That perspective will inform a more effective preparedness strategy based on the reality of your situation.

Threats to collections include sudden, catastrophic events (such as natural disasters) as well as gradual processes of deterioration due to poor environmental controls. Make sure you’re prepared for both types of damage.

So what exactly is at stake?

Risks threaten not only a possible value loss to the objects in your collection, but also a possible value loss for provenance and associated information. By maintaining your inventory with Artwork Archive, you are taking a big step in mitigating potential risks to loss of information.

How can you protect the value of the objects themselves?

The Foundation of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC) offers several resources to help collectors and collecting institutions care for their objects. FAIC’s “Risk Evaluation and Planning Program” includes several helpful tools to walk you through the process of evaluating risks, making the task less overwhelming and more manageable.

The risk prioritization worksheet is one of the helpful exercises you can complete.

The table will prompt you to consider a variety of hazards: exterior natural disasters, exterior incidents in the surrounding community, and interior events. You’ll mark the likelihood of occurrence on a scale of 1-5 (1 being not likely and 5 being very likely) and multiply that by the perceived severity of damage on a scale of 1-5 (1 being no damage and 5 being severe damage). 

That number will determine your risk rating.















Ex: Flood 4 X 4 16 HIGH
Ex: Bigfoot rampage 1 X 5 5 LOW

Risk Rating of 1-5? That’s a relatively low risk. No need to lose sleep.

Risk Rating of 6-15? A risk worth considering. Develop plans for how to address.

Risk Rating of 16-25? A high risk that needs to be carefully prepared for.

Some other things to keep in mind.

Your collection may be stored in several different locations.

If that’s the case, make sure you complete the risk prioritization worksheet for each facility. Once you’re aware of the high-risk events facing your collection, you can start planning.

Make sure that you have appropriate supplies on hand. Likewise, make sure that anyone near the collection has been trained in response procedures. Capture your plans in a written document and distribute copies (both print and digital) to those who need to be in the loop.

Want additional help in carrying out a risk assessment and developing a plan?

Conduct an “Advanced Search” with the American Institute for Conservation’s “Find a Conservator” tool to look for professionals who can help with disaster planning. These peer-reviewed experts can provide guidance on the process and you can sleep easier,

Jessica Unger is the Emergency Programs Coordinator at the Foundation of the
American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
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