City Opens New Art Jail

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City Opens New Art Jail

An art jail guard watches over three prisoners.
An art jail guard watches over three prisoners.

SAN FRANCISCO—City officials announced the opening of a new maximum-security art jail Tuesday, unveiling a modern detention facility designed to imprison a large population of high-profile paintings and sculptures.

The brightly lit four-story structure, located in the heart of San Francisco's downtown, is sectioned off into 30 cell blocks, each confining nearly 1,000 pieces of art in small, sparse rooms where guards can keep a close eye on them at all times.

"Our goal was to create an institution capable of housing some of the world's most sophisticated and renown artworks," said art jail warden and distinguished Rembrandt scholar Dominique Paulson. "By keeping these masterpieces within our walls—whether temporarily or on a permanent basis—we hope to do a great service to our city and to society as a whole."

A prisoner in solitary confinement.

According to Paulson, the new art jail will maintain strict visiting hours between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with lights out occurring promptly afterward.

The facility will reportedly be closed to the public on Mondays.

Sources confirmed the art jail's inmates include some of the most hardened terra-cotta statues in the world, as well as numerous depraved creations from the Rococo period, many of them not having seen the light of day in years. Paulson told reporters that just before Tuesday's opening, a collection of Fauvist canvasses and four large pre-Columbian petroglyphs had been transferred to her facility.

"They keep sending us more every day," Paulson said. "It's good to rotate new pieces in now and then, but if they send us any more shards of Etruscan pottery, we're going to have a serious overcrowding problem in our Hall of the Ancients exhibit."

"It's hard to find room for new acquisitions in there, because most of that wing is occupied by high-value artifacts that will likely be here forever," Paulson added.

In addition to a video surveillance system that monitors all 48,000 square feet of the new building, art jail officials said they have installed motion-activated alarms that run through every floor and wall in order to minimize any chance of the imprisoned art getting loose.

"I run a pretty tight ship around here, and I think that makes all the difference," said Ernie Wilhelm, head of the art jail's 400-person security team. "For every piece of art that's in here, there are four or five people who'd love to get it out. As a result, everything is secured and totally locked down in its place, with the exception of a couple interactive installations and the Calder mobile hanging in the atrium."

The artworks are reportedly confined at different security levels, with particularly prominent or notorious paintings being held in rooms all by themselves, where they hang on otherwise bare walls and are kept under close scrutiny by guards.

Paulson has defended this practice of solitary confinement to reporters, arguing that it is used rarely and claiming that many works in the art jail, including most of the contemporary sculptures, are allowed to spend time in the open-air courtyard.

"If you want to maintain order, you have to put each piece in its proper place," said Paulson, explaining that inmates were strictly divided by genre, artist, and form. "The Pointillist works are with the other Pointillist works. The Monets are with the Monets. The ancient Hellenistic reliefs are a little older so they have their own area."

Most visitors to the art jail on Tuesday said they were grateful for the opportunity to see the prisoners, though some acknowledged the experience was emotionally complicated for them.

"My dad's been in places like this ever since I can remember," said Jim Rothko, standing outside the Abstract Expressionist cell block. "I always try to come by and see him from time to time, but it's hard. Deep down, though, I have to admit this is where he belongs."


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