McCullough Park in Muncie, Ind., has always been special to Mark Kreps. As a child, Kreps played in the park, and he feels a certain bond with its namesake, entrepreneur George McCullough, the man who brought streetcars to Muncie, formed what became the city’s chamber of commerce and founded its local newspaper, the Star Press.
Over the years, the neighborhood around the park deteriorated, and the number of visitors dropped off. Combined with vegetation overgrowth, that meant that people no longer saw the statue of McCullough that graced the park. Gradually, the statue, like the park, fell into decline.
The deterioration of the monument to the man so important to Muncie’s history galvanized Kreps. He approached the city’s parks board and detailed his concerns. The parks board agreed that the statue needed to be rehabilitated and moved. However, with no budget for sculpture preservation, the approval was about as far as the city could go. “They approved it and said it was up to me to do it,” Kreps says.
That was when Kreps discovered Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a joint project of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and Heritage Preservation, a Washington, D.C.-based private non-profit organization. In existence since 1989, SOS! provides seed money for outdoor sculpture restoration efforts. (According to the American Institute for Conservation, the Washington, D.C.-based membership organization for conservation professionals, the term “conservation” involves examination, scientific analysis, research and restoration of an object, while “restoration” refers simply to the reconstruction of the aesthetic appearance of an object. In this article, they are used interchangeably.)
With encouragement from SOS!, Kreps assembled a committee composed of a local art historian, the parks superintendent and representatives of interested agencies. The committee raised the necessary conservation money through grants and resident and foundation donations. Additionally — and perhaps more importantly — it helped convince the community that the project was worthy of its interest.
“There is something to public acceptance of projects like this,” Kreps says. “The public bought into it. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
Cleaned and patched, George McCullough now stands proudly in a more visible area of the park overlooking the White River. The committee has since overseen the restoration of two more statues.
For the most part, Kreps’ experience with outdoor sculpture conservation is not unusual. Many cities take serious pride in their monuments and statues, but few have the wherewithal to make maintenance of those assets a regular item in their budgets. Consequently, a significant part of the preservation of any city’s public artwork falls to local concerned residents and public arts commissions.
“You’ve got city agencies — public works, parks and rec — that have many different responsibilities,” says SOS! Director Susan Nichols. “They are charged with other things, and, oh, by the way, they have public sculptures. It’s not necessarily on their radar screen.”
SOS! helps put it there, Nichols says. The organization provides annual grants under its Conservation Treatment Award Program for the conservation of eligible sculptures. Underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts and Target stores, the awards totaled more than $234,000 last year. Additionally, SOS! provides up to $850 in assessment award funds that help cities finance a visit and consultation by a conservation expert, who will look at sculptures and suggest a plan of action. Intended to jumpstart local government restoration efforts, the organization provides what Nichols considers “a model of what we hope will happen on a local level.”
Across the country, more than 1,400 public sculptures currently are undergoing restoration. They include pieces that reflect local history (like Los Angeles County’s “Hugo Reid Family,” a depiction of an interracial family and sculptor Preston Prescott’s only public art installation), national history (Cleveland’s “Abraham Lincoln,” a 1929 piece by Max Kalish), world history (Chicago’s “Fountain of Time,” Lorado Taft’s masterpiece that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent), and countless generals and other historical figures. They are not all beautiful, but they are all important, according to Nichols. “They represent all the ways in which the creative spirit of America has been demonstrated,” Nichols says. “There’s some stuff that’s really dreadful, but that’s not the point.”
No one is really sure just how many publicly accessible outdoor sculptures exist in the United States. The best estimate is around 32,000, a figure based on an extensive survey conducted by 7,000 nationwide SOS! volunteers between 1990 and 1996. Of that 32,000, Nichols says, “half were well-cared for, half were not. Ten percent were in urgent need of conservation.”
Collaboration is key
Deferred maintenance is the culprit in the deterioration of most outdoor sculpture. But it is compounded by what Nichols calls “an increasingly aggressive atmosphere,” specifically, acid deposition. “Acid rain eliminates the ‘fingerprint’ of the artist,” she says.
The problem of deferred maintenance tends to affect more than just the piece of art, according to Nichols. “If your statue is in good shape, people respect the space around it,” she says. “If it has deteriorated, you’ll see litter and graffiti.”
“The two biggest mistakes cities can make in regard to their outdoor sculptures are lack of planning for maintenance when the works are commissioned and lack of budgeting for maintenance,” says Glenn Wharton, a sculpture conservator and author, with Virginia Naudé, of “Guide to Maintenance of Outdoor Sculpture.”“It’s irresponsible to create a work of art and put it in a public environment without considering how it’s going to be taken care of.”
The creation of public art — and, by extension, its maintenance — is a collaborative process, involving the artist, public arts agencies, local government leaders and the community’s residents, Wharton insists. Lack of commitment from any one individual or group can result in failure of the entire enterprise.
Consequently, the best thing a conservator can be is a good listener, and the best thing he can have is the realization that, despite his years of training, he is not always going to get his way. Wharton learned that first-hand when he was hired to restore a monument to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I. The statue, now on the tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, had been lost at sea on its journey from Paris, where it was cast, to Hawaii. Found years later by a fisherman, it was finally installed, and a local tradition of painting the king in lifelike colors developed.
Wharton was hired to restore the statue, and, in the course of his initial investigation, he determined that it had originally been covered in gold leaf (the statue’s twin, commissioned upon its disappearance, stands in Honolulu — covered in gold leaf). “I asked the community, ‘Do you want to keep painting it, or do you want to honor the artist’s original intent?’” Wharton remembers. “There was a split. That led to 18 months of working with the community. I worked extensively with high school students, senior citizens, all kinds of people to engage them in thinking about their past.”
In the end, a vote was taken. Seventy-one percent of the voters opted to go with the paint. “I had all kinds of conflicting feelings about this project,” Wharton says. “But I was a cultural outsider. I couldn’t go in and work in the ordinary way. I didn’t have a choice. So we took all the paint off, addressed the corrosion, and repainted the statue using industrial quality paint rather than the house paint the local people had been using.”
Wharton’s experience in Hawaii demonstrates the deep feelings local residents have for their public sculptures. And, increasingly, cities and counties are reacting to those feelings. Many have begun collecting “Percent for Public Art” taxes, garnering a small amount of the cost of the construction of new public facilities for murals and sculptures. Still, the money collected under many of those programs goes largely to the creation of public art, rather than to its maintenance.
Philadelphia, a city that prides itself on its wealth of public art assets, is notable not only because its 42-year-old Percent for Art program is one of the nation’s oldest, but also because conservation is a significant part of that program. The city funds its public art aquisition and maintenance in three ways: through an annual application to its capital budget, through private organization grants, and through capital projects undertaken by the various city departments. For example, if the public works department is renovating a building in or around which public art is located, it is required to fund the conservation, relocation and/or storage of that work as part of the project.
Beginning in 1997, the city undertook a survey of its 500-piece, city-owned collection. Guided by a conservator, the survey was used to create a comprehensive database of public artworks with condition assessments and recommendations for treatments.
“We have one of the largest public art collections in the world,” says Public Art Program Assistant Jessica Senker. “It’s world-renowned, and the city values it.” The survey gave the city an idea of “what we have and what condition it is in,” Senker says.
The public has responded well to ongoing restoration efforts. “It’s surprising,” Senker says. “When we’re doing a project, people stop and ask questions. They say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”
Because of that support, Philadelphia is in the enviable — and unusual — position of being able to finance its public art conservation. In Cleveland, the non-profit Sculpture Center handles the task. Like Philadelphia, The Sculpture Center has undertaken a survey of public art. However, unlike the survey conducted by the City of Brotherly Love, The Sculpture Center’s survey encompasses the entire state’s works of public art.
The Ohio Outdoor Sculpture Inventory is ongoing and, thus far, has catalogued more than 800 works. Its goal, like that of the Philly survey, is to promote the care and preservation of outdoor sculpture.
Starting with its 1996 restoration of the statues of city founder Moses Cleaveland and former mayor Tom Johnson, The Sculpture Center has funded annual sculpture maintenance and conservation. The group takes its work seriously. “We don’t always go with the lowest bid,” says Juilee Decker, coordinator of the Outdoor Sculpture Conservation and Education program. “We go with the quality of work. We had one project where the low bid was $5,000 and the high bid was $30,000. Some of the cost is materials. Of course, if you’re adding a nose where a nose is broken off, it costs more.”
The Sculpture Center currently is working on 13 projects involving 31 pieces. The city does not help financially with sculpture renovation, but it supports the efforts through in-kind donations. “The city will give us a crane from public works,” Decker says. “That can save us between $6,000 and $10,000. It also loans us water trucks. I’ve heard other people say their cities don’t cooperate, but we don’t have that problem. We have a good relationship with the city. It helps us with bureaucratic red tape — forms and permits. We can call anyone from parks and rec and get what we need to accomplish the job.”
In Tucson and Pima County, Ariz., the situation is similar. “We’ve had great luck with parks and rec,” says Tucson-Pima Arts Council Public Art Specialist Beth Hancock. “We did a complete inventory and even trained some parks and rec personnel in maintenance.”
One of the arts council’s problems was demystifying the process for city workers reluctant to deal with deteriorating sculpture. “They would say, ‘It’s art. We can’t touch it, can we?’” Hancock says. “We’d say, ‘Sure. Hose it down!’”
Making the city see the value of maintenance as well as creation was another problem. “Our 1 percent program started in the 1980s,” Hancock says. “But only 1 percent of 1 percent is set aside for maintenance, and we have some pretty strict-minded attorneys.”
Tucson did get an SOS! grant to do a condition assessment. The conservation task force, established as a condition of the grant, included city staff. “We got the cost estimates, and jaws dropped,” Hancock says. “But we said, ‘Hey, these are city assets.’” The parks and rec department agreed, and, now, its annual budget includes an allocation for maintenance and restoration of its outdoor sculpture.
Escondido, Calif., in San Diego County, takes a different tack. According to Susan Pollack, a consultant to the city’s public arts program, a city ordinance mandates that any developer who includes a work of public art as part of a new development — and any future owners of the development — are responsible for the maintenance of that work. Developers must file a document with the county recorder’s office describing the piece and attesting that they understand their responsibility. The document also serves as notice to future owners of the property that they are purchasing that responsibility as well as the development itself. “If the developer fails to maintain the art, the city will assess a fee — it’s 15 cents per square foot for the first 2,000 square feet — and handle the repairs and maintenance,” Pollack says.
Escondido’s program acknowledges that creation of public art is only half the battle. Regular maintenance can ensure that the works are enjoyed far into the future by people who may recognize their subject matter only as a point of history.
“Not doing [regular maintenance] is short-sighted,” Hancock says. “Why wait ’til your car blows up when all you need to do is change the oil?”
The problem, though, is that, with water quality, crime, infrastructure and sprawl issues to worry about, many cities do not see changing the oil as a reasonable alternative. Public art conservationists could not disagree more with that line of thinking. “It’s important for people to realize that the environment they inhabit on a daily basis can dramatically change overnight,” says Cleveland’s Decker. “It’s up to everyone to take care of it — from grass to sky and everything in between.”
For more information, contact:
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
1717 K Street N.W., Suite 200
Washington D.C. 20006
Heritage Preservation (Save Outdoor Sculpture!)
1730 K Street N.W., Suite 566
Washington D.C. 20006
The Sculpture Center
1834 East 123rd St.
Cleveland OH 44106-1910
Philadelphia Public Art office
One Parkway, 1515 Arch Street
Philadelphia PA 19102