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1. Saving public sculpture................................................................................................................................. 1
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Saving public sculpture
Author: Grant, Daniel
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Abstract: As many public works of art fall into disrepair, artists must increase their awareness about the
durability of their artwork, including sculpture. Art is not considered to have a life expectancy, but the growing
maintenance issue raises the question of just how permanent public art is.
Full text: Headnote
With many public works of art in dire condition, artists must take more responsibility in ensuring the longevity of
Just a few years after its completion, in 1991, Athena Tacha's granite public sculpture Memory Path was
becoming unrecognizably stained and corroded at its site in Sarasota, Florida. The photographic images
sandblasted into sections of the stone were rapidly losing their clarity, and the formerly smooth surface was
increasingly pitted. Why? City maintenance workers were hosing down the work and watering the surrounding
grass with recycled water, which is acidic and has a high bacteria count. Unfortunately, repairing the artwork
has been a slow and unsatisfactory process.
Memory Path, however, received a better fate than Marianthe, another of Tacha's public works of art.
Commissioned by the University of South Florida at Fort Myers in 1985, the sculpture--constructed of bricks and
metal supports in a spiral maze--was scrapped last February when rust weakened the entire structure and
made it a potential hazard to students who might walk on or near it. "I leave very specific maintenance
instructions, and no one follows them," says Tacha. "A damaged work is detrimental to my reputation, and
removing a work both damages and lessens my reputation, first because there is nothing left for people to see,
and second, because it leaves the impression my work isn't durable."
The condition of outdoor monuments and other artworks has been a subject of concern since the 1980s. A five-
year study by the Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization Save Outdoor Sculpture, completed in 1995,
identified 32,000 artworks throughout the United States, half of which were in need of significant conservation
treatment, 10 percent urgently. The main causes of the deterioration are vandalism, pollution or the climate,
cars or trucks that crash into the work, the fragility of the materials, and failure to provide regular and
A growing number of public (frequently outdoor) works of art have been commissioned since the 1970s, spurred
by Percent-for-Art regulations that require governmental agencies to spend between one-half of one percent
and one percent of building construction or renovation funds on the acquisition of artwork for those sites. In
addition, many airports and transportation authorities, corporations, and universities have set aside money for
the purchase of large-scale sculptures and murals. Unfortunately, this growth has been accompanied by
increasing complaints that no one is taking care of these pieces, leading to their rapid deterioration.
"They never kept my work in good repair," New York City sculptor Nancy Holt says about her 1984 Waterwork
installation on the grounds of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, which finally removed the piece in 1995.
"They just slowly let it fall apart." Another New York sculptor, Judy Pfaff, found that a 1992 public piece
anchored to a Miami police station, which had been commissioned by the Dade County Percent-for-- Art
ordinance, was badly damaged by a roof leak at the station. Ironically, the work's name was Aqua Vitae, and it
was totally destroyed.
In the early 1990s, a public work representing a sharecropper shack by Athens, Georgia. sculptor Beverly
Buchanan, which was owned by the city of Atlanta and located in a municipal park, was damaged by homeless
people. Instead of repairing the piece, the city removed the bolts that kept the sculpture in place and put it in
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storage, where it has remained. Buchanan's lawyer in Atlanta, William Gignilliat, says, "We've been able to keep
the city from destroying it, but that's about it. They have no intention of repairing or putting it on display ever
Art is not considered to have a life expectancy, but the growing maintenance issue raises the question of just
how permanent public art is. "Personally, I'm a proponent of temporary public works of art," says Jack Becker,
the editor of Public Art Review, the leading journal in the field. "The owners of too many of these works just
don't accept responsibility for them." Tom Eccles, the director of the Public Art Fund in New York City, which
primarily commissions short-term installations of public works of art, agrees. "Contractually, 20 years is as far as
anyone can go," he says. "A private developer may commission a work and be very enthusiastic about it, but
buildings change hands over time, and no one wants to be tied to a work in perpetuity." That is certainly the
problem faced by Forrest Myers, an artist in Brooklyn, whose 1972 sculptural installation on the exterior wall of
a building at the intersection of Houston Street and Broadway in New York City became a source of contention
with the property's new owner. In 1997, the owner announced that he wanted to remove the sculpture, replacing
it with billboard signage through which he could earn thousands of dollars. The city's Landmarks Preservation
Commission stopped the owner from taking down Myers' piece, but according to the artist, "he switched tactics,
using what I call 'demolition by neglect.' He is not making repairs on the wall or repainting it; he put scaffolding
around the wall and my work, claiming that there is a safety hazard. Basically he wants to make it look so bad
that the city will require him to take it down." Myers has formed a committee to raise money to save the wall.
Changing ownership was also the problem faced by Tacha. In the early 1990s, the University of South Florida
sold the land on which Marianthe was located to Edison Community College, which never repaired or provided
maintenance to the work, even after Save Outdoor Sculpture notified Edison that repairs were needed. Although
her commissioning contract with the University of South Florida required the institution to provide regular
maintenance, Tacha, who lives in Washington, DC, says that she "cannot afford a protracted breach of contract
lawsuit in Florida courts against two institutions with unlimited legal resources, nor can I afford the emotional
drain of it." For its part, Edison Community College claimed that the extensive rust that made the piece unstable
within only 14 years proved that the work itself was improperly constructed and composed of nondurable
materials. Because the contractor she used to construct the work had died (no one for her to sue) and the Ohio-
based engineer who assisted in the design had retired, Tacha decided that all she could do was walk away from
Legal complications and emotional turmoil also convinced Pfaff not to pursue her contractual rights for the work
at the Miami police station. "I had so much trouble installing it and the police's reaction was so negative that I
didn't want anything more to do with it," she says. Similarly, New York sculptor Alan Sonfist decided to forgo a
lawsuit against the city of St. Louis when it tore down a work that city maintenance workers had not properly
maintained. "I didn't want to spend a month or two in St. Louis pursuing this; I thought I'd get an ulcer," he says.
Ultimately, Tacha, Pfaff, and Sonfist were paid in full for their respective works, and the loss was primarily to
their reputations. Their works exist now only in the photographic documentation of the installations.
Artists have been protected from unsoughtafter changes to, or the wholesale destruction of, their work by the
Visual Artists Rights Act, which was enacted into law in 1990. An amendment to the federal copyright law, the
act allows artists to disassociate themselves from artworks that have been altered and bring a lawsuit in the
event of destruction. The law does not cover damage to the work caused by a lack of maintenance (an
exception exists in the law for the "modification of a work of visual art as the result of the passing of time or
inherent nature of materials"). Only one legal case filed under the act has been decided in the artist's favor,
involving Indianapolis sculptor Jan Randolph Martin, who sued the city of Indianapolis in 1996 for demolishing a
public sculpture that he had created on land that the city had subsequently acquired. He was awarded 20,000 in
statutory damages and $131,000 in attorney's fees and court costs. Although the decision created a useful
precedent for other artists who seek to defend their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act, the high cost of
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legal and court fees as compared to the potential payment for damages reveals why some artists choose not to
pursue their legal options and, instead, walk away. "You make something; you put it out in the world and hope
that people will respond," says New York City sculptor Mary Miss. "Certainly, you hope at least that it will not be
so damaged or neglected that it's no longer the same piece you created. Under the law, you can remove your
name from it that's not much consolation."
The key to ensuring that one's installed public artwork is properly maintained, lawyers for the artists claim, is to
write maintenance instructions clearly into the commissioning agreement. Ann Garfinkle, an attorney in
Washington, DC, who has represented Tacha and other artists involved in public art commissions, stated that
contracts should ideally include clauses requiring a budget for maintenance and repairs; periodic inspections of
the work (with photographs taken of the piece and a condition report written up by the inspector); regular
maintenance (such as cleaning, regrouting, or repainting); immediate notification of the artist in the event of
damage; a requirement that the artist meet with someone to discuss how best to conserve the work; and
monetary damages to the artist if the owner fails to live up to the maintenance agreement.
A growing number of cities and counties with Percent-for-Art statutes-- Buffalo, Dayton, Denver, Richmond, St.
Paul, and Broward County, Florida-- have adjusted these laws to include money for maintenance. "We changed
from a one-percent-for-art program to a two-percent-for-art program, using the extra money for care and
preservation," says Nancy Knutson of the Broward Cultural Affairs Council, which oversees the public art
program. The General Services Administration's annual budget for maintenance and conservation edges close
to $1 million.
Artists themselves, however, need to use the most durable materials and understand the types of care that their
materials and designs require. "Part of the challenge of creating public art is combining appropriate materials
and an artistic vision," Sonfist says. "If you are putting something into the ground, you have to consider the
acidity of the soil. If you are working in a place that is very humid or very dry, you have to know how your
materials will interact with that environment. Furthermore, when the piece is created and installed, the
maintenance should be clearly spelled out in writing for the owners."
In many cases, the artists don't know how their work will hold up, nor do they understand how to maintain it or
repair damage. Early on in the General Services Administration's art conservation program, "artists came in to
do conservation, and deterioration recurred," says Alicia Weber, the chief of the fine arts program. "After that,
we stopped using the artists and relied exclusively on conservators. Artists generally seem happy to defer to the
It is rare that the individuals or panelists involved in selecting public art include conservators, engineers, or
others with a specific knowledge of how an artwork, which they see in design or a small-scale model, should be
cared for and the long-term costs of its upkeep. Two notable exceptions are the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art
Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, and the Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadelphia, where maintenance
and conservation concerns are part of the selection process.
"We're too small a museum to have a fulltime art conservator," says Jane Weinke, the curator of collections at
Leigh Yawkey Woodson, "so I've spent a lot of time with conservators at the Upper Midwest Conservation
Association [a regional conservation lab that works for small museums in the geographical area] to learn how to
take care of works and to spot the ones that are going to need a lot of care. Seeing as a conservator sees
certainly makes you look at artworks differently." That knowledge of the durability of materials and how they
interact with the environment has benefited the museum, which regularly purchases artworks for its sculpture
garden. In fact, three of the museum's 12 outside sculptures are regularly brought in for the winter for repair and
to limit their exposure to the elements. She notes that artists sometimes provide instructions for the
maintenance of their work, but their ideas are frequently not appropriate to the conditions at the museum. "The
waxes and patinas that they recommend may work where they live, but they don't work in the upper Midwest,"
she says. "When we've followed their suggestions, the works haven't weathered well."
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At the Fairmount Park Art Association, how the pieces are going to hold up is a key element in the
commissioning process, and the staff works with artists to "find the most durable materials that still meet the
integrity of the artistic idea," according to Laura Griffith, the assistant director. One project on which this
maintenance-conscious approach has worked successfully is Jody Pinto's Fingerspan, a 1987 piece of
functional art (a bridge) located at Fairmount Park. The idea for the bridge over a water hole went through
numerous permutations before it was finally constructed, starting first as a wooden pier, switching to Cor-ten
steel, and finally developing an open-lattice weave of weathering steel for the floor of the bridge in order to
permit drainage of water and lessen the likelihood of the metal rusting.
The Fairmount Park Art Association's knowledge was hard won, having seen the damage caused by collecting
water in an early commissioned piece by Louise Nevelson, Atmosphere and Environment XII. In that work,
made of Corten steel, water filtered through cracks and eventually began pushing out the boxes that composed
the work. The piece had to be completely disassembled and drainage holes drilled in before it could be installed
The Art Association required an engineer to approve Pinto's design and its materials before it went into
construction, and Pinto worked with an engineer in Philadelphia, Samuel Y. Harris, who found the most
appropriate gauge of steel and the types of joints and bolting needed for the work's structural integrity. The
project offered a great learning experience for the artist, who has subsequently done a number of functional
public artworks. "The needs of maintenance really change the design," she says. "When you try to develop an
idea with maintenance and conservation in mind, it forces you to simplify the design."
Daniel Grant is the author of The Fine Artist's Career Guide, How to Start and Succeed as an Artist, and The
Artist's Resource Handbook, (all Allworth Press, New York, New York), among other books and magazine and
newspaper articles. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Subject: Sculpture; Public art;
Publication title: American Artist
Number of pages: 5
Publication year: 2000
Publication date: Aug 2000
Publisher: Nielsen Business Media
Place of publication: New York
Country of publication: United States
Publication subject: Art, Museums And Art Galleries
Source type: Magazines
Language of publication: English
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