The "M" Word

By Heather Galloway posted 07-29-2019 14:10


This past June I travelled to Minneapolis to help guide a pre-conference session titled “Long-term Expectations for the Care and Management of Public Art” at a meeting for the advocacy group the Americans for the Arts.

The goal was to break attendees into smaller discussions where people could share ideas and experiences from their work in the care of public art. Along with me, the organizers included three administrators involved in the management of public art in New York City, Lexington, KY and Los Angeles, CA. To spark discussion, we started the session with five-minute introductions from all of the organizers presenting their perspective on three topics that arose from our planning discussions:

P is for Public – How do we utilize public input and foster public support?    

The M Word – How do we manage maintenance?

Nothing is Forever – How do we address the realities of art and monuments that are perceived to have outlived their purpose either materialistically or socially?

As the only conservator amongst the organizers and probably the only conservator at the session, I focused my time on introducing AIC and what it could offer them in attaining their goals. With only five minutes I had to be concise and focused on the following essentials: 

  1. That we were professionally organized, and that the AIC website could help them find us with the Find a Conservator function.
  2. That we understood that they needed to rely on a variety of help and that we wanted all members of their team to have our best professional advice. For that, FAIC supports the website Connecting to Collections Care. On that website they could find free webinars, low-cost courses and a community platform where they could pose questions that were monitored by volunteer conservators.
  3. That we were willing to discuss with them ways to address the possibility of obsolescence in public art and monuments whether it is having to deaccession objects due to safety hazards posed by poorly aging materials or safely removing or covering monuments that have fallen out of favor.

In preparation for my part I tried to revisit my own experiences in the maintenance of public murals and monuments and to reacquaint myself with larger campaigns of public outreach, such as Save Outdoor Sculpture and Rescue Public Murals. SOS and Rescue Public Murals were efforts begun by Heritage Preservation, which closed in 2015, and are no longer maintained. That fact alone can help demonstrate why administrators who oversee the hiring of conservators and other collection care personnel consider maintenance the “M word”. Establishing a public art project, just like establishing public outreach campaign, is hard and then comes the work of maintaining them. It requires continual update and effort and all constituents can lose interest. 

In the 90s when SOS was designing a brochure on how to plan for an outdoor sculpture, Cleveland, where I work, was already considered a leader in requiring all new outdoor sculptures to have a maintenance budget. The local SOS Cleveland effort did much to document and condition check outdoor works and Cleveland’s Claes Oldenburg sculpture the Free Stamp was pictured on the SOS brochure with a quote from Oldenburg testifying to the importance of “periodic restoration and a budget”. I think it is fair to say that the Free Stamp has enjoyed proper maintenance over the years going through its last major restoration in 2014. 

That is not to say that there aren’t moments of faltering in Cleveland since the genesis of its progressive policies. The most notable case that I am aware of came in 2016 when, in advance of the Republican National Convention, Marshall Frederick’s 46’ tall bronze monument The Fountain of Eternal Life received a glossy coat of green paint, covering over the intended blue green chemical patina that had last been applied in 1991 and further maintained in 2008. 

  The Fountain of Eternal Life, Cleveland, OH 2012

  The Fountain of Eternal Life, Cleveland, OH 2018

This uniform and glossy coating obliterated the subtlety and variation of the patinated bronze, ignored the specifications of the artist and fell short of reducing the cycle of care. When I recently checked in on it just three years after it had been painted, I found that the paint was already starting to chip away.

How did this happen in a town that counts at least two sizable well-known firms within 50 miles of the sculpture that could have aided the city in the care of this work? Both are searchable in the AIC website and both have consulted on this sculpture in the past. In 2016 I reached out to area conservators to try and reconstruct what had happened, but no one seemed particularly sure. While I haven’t taken the time to do exhaustive research, I was reminded just how time-consuming it can be to figure out the maze of public officials, and how to get your questions heard, and how easy it is to move on without answers. 

I am sure changes in management, pressures in time and budget, and a forgotten history of past care could all be among the factors that led to this monument being painted. Even the exemplary Sculpture Center in Cleveland, which does so much to promote and preserve sculpture in Cleveland and which maintains the Ohio Outdoor Sculpture Inventory, ironically includes images of The Fountain of Eternal Life with its new paint job. It is so easy to lose track of things, even a 46’ tall bronze. 

What is clear to me from watching my own community’s ups and downs in the maintenance of its public monuments and art is that I don't have the time and energy to advocate alone. I need the involvement of my professional peers as well as our professional allies. Advocacy is a task that requires maintenance as well. It can seem discouraging which is why it is important at conferences like these to use the opportunity to make connections, share ideas, take heart, be inspired by the energy of others and once again recommit to the M word and maintain our efforts at advocacy. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to show up in Minneapolis because I know that when I do show up, I am not alone as a member of AIC. 

#AFTACON #advocacy #outreach #SOSOutdoorSculpture #PublicArt