Penny Balkin Bach is the executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association in Philadelphia. A curator, writer, and educator, Ms. Bach has written extensively about public art and the environment and is the author of Public Art in Philadelphia, published by Temple University Press, and "Lessons Learned: The Past Informs the Future" in the Public Art Review.
David R. Collens joined the staff of Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, in 1974 and is curator and director of the five hundred acre sculpture park and contemporary art museum, where his responsibilities include the planning and implementation of major exhibitions and the supervision of sculpture installations.
John Griswold holds a master's degree in conservation research from Queen's University in Canada and has been involved with outdoor sculpture conservation since 1987. He is a principal of Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC, based in Beverly Hills, California, and is also on the staff of the Norton Simon Museum as conservator.
They spoke with Julie Wolfe, associate conservator in Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: It's become a given that regular maintenance is critical to the preservation ofoutdoor works of art. Is sufficient attention paid to maintenance with most outdoor collections—and if not, why not? Is it really only a matter of resources—or are the most effective approaches not being employed?
Penny Balkin Bach: In Philadelphia and other cities where works have been acquired over time, we like to think of the outdoor collection as a museum without walls. But this is a collection in a very elusive sense. In the urban ecology, many outdoor sculptures are what I would call orphans—they may no longer have an advocate. The people who commissioned them may be long gone, and there may not be a city agency that's watching out for them. Insofar as municipal agencies do have responsibility for care of a collection, it's generally not a priority. Outdoor sculpture is not alone in that. Cities often don't take care of the maintenance of their streets, parks, and many other things, so outdoor sculpture suffers along with everything else.
In Philadelphia, fortunately, we have the Fairmount Park Art Association, founded in 1872 and the oldest public art program in America. We are a private nonprofit organization, and we work closely with the city. We're able to call attention to conservation issues—regardless of who may actually own a work or have jurisdiction over it—and act as a catalyst to bring together a lot of resources. Going back to your question: is sufficient attention paid to maintenance? No. Is it a matter of resources only? No. I think there is the issue of stewardship, which is a fairly new idea in urban public settings.
Levin: Are you aware of other cities where this approach to preservation exists?
Bach: The Art Association is somewhat unique because of our historic collection, but more and more cities do have private agencies working with municipal authorities. For example, the public art program in Charlotte, North Carolina, is overseen by a private nonprofit group, and they are setting aside funds for maintenance. Also, the concept of a government percent-for-art program incorporating funding for conservation is growing. Initially there was enthusiasm for commissioning artwork, but not an understanding of what was required to take care of it. This is something people across the country are wrestling with. Now some communities are passing, for example, 1.3 percent-for-art programs, where 1 percent is for the commission of the artwork and one-third of a percent is for maintenance.
John Griswold: There has been a real evolution in the approach to stewardship, and Penny needs to take some credit for that fact. The idea of a percent-for-art programming has been a real catalyst for creating an understanding for those in government that there should be a long-range plan for commissioning work and for maintenance. Maintenance programs and long-range planning have become buzzwords in the last couple decades. The extent to which this has been implemented varies quite a bit from region to region, but it's beyond the model of the municipal government taking it on alone. The key for the long-term preservation of outdoor sculptures is a maintenance plan.
David R. Collens: From the standpoint of what is being done at Storm King Art Center, it is still a learning curve. Our sculptures remain outdoors all year long, and there are always surprises. There are endless surprises with Cor-Ten steel sculptures, for example—the wonder material that did not turn out to be one. They have problems of decaying on the inside, no matter what maintenance you do. We discuss with a variety of conservators what needs to be done to sculptures, and it is often far more than just regularly washing or waxing or taking bird droppings off of them.
Levin: What other kinds of things are involved?
Collens: Many of the sculptures are twenty to thirty years old, and they are starting to suffer. It is more than sandblasting or chemically removing paint and repainting. It is really engineering. Bolts, welds, concrete foundations underground—a whole range of things that become far larger projects then originally anticipated. The resources brought to bear on this situation are a good portion of the Art Center's fundraising efforts and budget.
Two other comments on the question of maintenance: one is that a number of collectors are moving to large-scale outdoor sculpture on their properties, and while some of the conservators being called upon to maintain these pieces properly are certainly qualified, there are many others who are not. My other comment is that the federal government started collecting large-scale sculptures for urban areas back in the 1970s with no maintenance budget. Many wonderful pieces were created, but the government was caught off guard when it came to the repair of these pieces. They needed not just painting but serious work, which meant they had to be taken down or extra money appropriated to do the work.
Bach: For a number of years there has been a focus on conservation, but not necessarily maintenance. What we've begun to do in Philadelphia, when possible, is not to get to the point where major intervention is required. Ongoing maintenance means less radical intervention in the long run. We find that regularly inspecting sculptures and trying to solve the smaller problems as they arise is an effective way to manage our resources.
Griswold: We need to realize that it's a team effort, and that ultimately things stem from the artist's original intent and expectations. These are important guiding principles for how to proceed. It often falls on conservators to referee between different concerns, perceptions, and approaches—and going straight to the artist or the artist's estate or records about intent is key. But it's also understanding what the fabricator had in mind when, say, a complex Cor-Ten piece was fabricated and installed. Was there an understanding of the material that anticipated that enclosed spaces might pose problems of condensation? What was done over time to mitigate that? Did deferred maintenance prevent whatever steps were in place to be rendered ineffective? It all ends up being a very interesting set of circumstances that force us not to do this in isolation. Conservators of outdoor sculptures who think they've got all the answers and can just step up with a recipe book on what needs to be done fall into the category that David was talking about. There are an increasing number of outdoor pieces out there and a lot of people ready to sign up for the job of maintaining them.
Levin: Penny, your collection is a mix of works that are older and made with traditional materials, as well as modern pieces with newer materials. Are you finding more problems with the newer sculptures that were not anticipated when they were first created?
Bach: Absolutely. Remember that bronze was supposed to have been an enduring material, and look what happened. No material is maintenance free. There are always going to be unexpected things that happen, and this certainly happened with bronze. In the 1980s when organizations like ours began to work on bronze sculptures, it brought attention to other problems. In the nineteenth century, no one foresaw how pollution and acid rain would affect that metal. We also didn't foresee what would happen with Cor-Ten. We need to constantly learn how to understand these materials better. A worrisome aspect of this is the reflex to commission work that is supposedly easy to maintain. I think that just because a material may require maintenance is not a reason to prevent it from being used in a public or outdoor setting.
Collens: Basically I would concur. I do not think conservators, curators, and others should be dictating to artists what materials to use. I know some conservators would like to tell sculptors to bronze everything and forget about wood and other materials. That is stepping into the creative area, and they should not.
Levin: Is there some role that conservators or people in the conservation field could have that would be appropriate?
Bach: When the Art Association commissions new work, we engage a conservator to consult with the artist to help the artist figure out how to do something—not to tell them how to do it. That puts the conservator in service to the art and the artist early in the process.
Griswold: At any given time we have a project or two that is just that—serving as advisor to a proposal that's being developed. It's exciting to work with an artist at the inception of a work of art. It's a wonderful dialogue. I've spoken to graduate classes of sculpture students, and the horror stories of the before and after tend to fascinate these artists and spark a sense of creativity. My approach with them is to tell them to bring more sophistication to the decision making process and to really express their intent. "How do you envision your work of art—with experimental materials or combining different materials in a particular environment? How do you envision that work of art aging?"
Often we have to deal with the reality that some contemporary art isn't necessarily linear in the sense of more enduring monuments. There is a lot of engagement on the part of the artist with the idea of deliberate impermanence and deterioration. Sometimes we're in the role of helping the artist have a clearer vision of how that process might run its course. As long as those commissioning the work, the public, and other stakeholders understand that a particular work of art may have a definite lifetime, then I'm all for it. An Andy Goldsworthy installation, for example, is often intended to show some sequence of decay, and the documentation and embracing of that is the process.
Julie Wolfe: If impermanence is not deliberate, how responsible are artists to ensure durability of their works?
Bach: I think that fabricators have gotten a bit of a free ride. They consult with the artist and make plans and decisions. A conservator involved in an early stage can be immensely helpful in keeping an eye on the method of fabrication. This is an area of oversight that has not been explored as it might. I think there's a lesson in the use of Cor-Ten steel. It's my understanding that the industry knew a lot more about how Cor-Ten was going to weather than the fabricators who made artworks in the 1970s. We now have inherited many problems because the work wasn't properly engineered to perform according to the known characteristics. When the artist chooses the fabricator, the fabricator really needs to be held to a high standard of performance and accountability.
Griswold: Very clearly, where the artist may fail in everyone's expectations is in the actual fabrication of a work and its performance, versus what all the drawings or mockups might have represented. The whole arena of negligence or of misrepresentation is not one we can explore in this conversation without someone who knows the legal issues. Certainly responsibility exists for anyone signing a contract to produce a tangible deliverable. But the arena of public art is fascinating because of the requirement for shared responsibility. If we just rely on a small pool of artists who know all the bureaucratic ropes and the range of materials that are likely to put facilities managers at ease, we are shortchanging the public in terms of the creative potential out there.
Collens: I agree. Years ago I was on a committee in New York City for sculpture, and the only people selected were sculptors who had a proven track record working in urban areas. A younger, less established sculptor might have a better idea artistically, but if the person did not understand the process of working with engineers, conservators, and a bureaucratic system to produce the sculpture for the subway or train station in New York, that person was not considered. This was a number of years ago, but unfortunately it ruled out some very creative people.
Griswold: The more that responsibility is shared for these works, the more we can look to the future with a clear understanding of what the expectations are and have contingency plans for what may go wrong. For example, we may anticipate that certain parts of a sculpture will have a finite life and choose the moment of creation to be the time to create a stockpile of spare parts.
Bach: The whole idea of planning along with artists and asking them to speculate or think about the unexpected is very exciting. It also means that one has the opportunity to ask artists how they want to be involved in the future. We've had some experiences where artists didn't want to be involved, and others where we carefully agreed together how something would be maintained.
Collens: Some sculptors, especially the major ones at Storm King, are very familiar with the materials that they are using, and the sculptures stand up well. Others who are less familiar with the materials might not want to be involved with the process of conservation, more than the painting and so forth. When we come up with problems, they certainly want to know about it. But clearly some sculptors do not have a lot of knowledge about the paints or welds or bolts being used. They leave it up to the fabricator.
Wolfe: John, do you agree with Penny that fabricators have gotten a free ride on this process?
Griswold: There are many well-qualified fabricators at this point in time, but even the qualified ones are rethinking what they did thirty years ago with Cor-Ten on major sculptures. For example, how do you fasten Cor-Ten with lead and have it hold up? The fastening devices are very different today then they were thirty years ago. I think everyone has learned a great deal.
Wolfe: This discussion shows how important it is for conservators to work with the artist and fabricator, in order to learn better what the artist was going for in the end. That can be lost if a conservator isn't part of the process and isn't documenting it—keeping in mind that materials change over time, appearances will alter, and better materials will become available. This raises an interesting ethical question—how much liberty can conservators take in trying a new material that we think will be more appropriate to preserve the original state?
Collens: There are a few situations at Storm King where sculptors have been involved with decisions and have chosen to refabricate—and in one case, the artist selected heavier steel than he could have afforded thirty years ago.
Griswold: It's important to get artists to record what they were thinking when they selected materials. If we can get them to articulate why they chose particular materials—and, in the long run, their performance criteria—then that might give us the freedom to steer toward what's available off the shelves fifty years hence that meet those criteria.
One other point I want to make—part of our role as conservators is helping to preserve authenticity. We have to realize that in a hundred years, for example, there may be one or two outdoor Calder pieces that retain the original paint and have therefore ended up being incredibly important as artifacts. We need to keep in mind that we look to works of art as primary documents of the artistic process. A discussion of maintenance of outdoor sculptures must at least acknowledge this growing value of authenticity. If it is collectively decided that a sculpture should be repainted, do we preserve a small part that shows the original paint, almost from an archaeological standpoint? A conservator is particularly trained in helping to facilitate that dialogue.
Collens: I'm just thinking historically of David Smith and Alexander Calder. They painted their large-scale sculptures—especially Calder—using what they considered the best paint at that point in time. But paint has improved so much that now Calder's sculptures are getting significantly better paints on them. Still, for Calder and Smith and many other historical sculptors, you should try to preserve the paints that are on the sculptures. It does not have to be a perfect paint surface. Clean and preserve as much as possible and historically valuable.
Bach: We always want to maintain as much of the original as possible. You have to begin from that point. For example, the Art Association has a Cor-Ten sculpture by Louise Nevelson, and we wrestled with refabrication. It had severe corrosion, and so we convened a roundtable to sit down and talk with us—artists, fabricators, curators—because, as stated earlier, it's a field of shared responsibility. There are different points of view, and listening to all and making an informed decision makes a lot more sense than a decision in isolation. After a very complex and wonderful discussion, we decided that we would keep as much as possible and not refabricate the Nevelson sculpture.
Levin: David, would you endorse this collective approach to decision making?
Collens: I think the diligent thing to do is bring in a broad range of people. I do recall the project the World Monuments Fund did in Romania on the Brancusi Endless Column. I was at a conference several years ago in Romania, and a range of people were brought in—engineers and metallurgists and others—to look at the core of the column and also how to resurface it. Basically, how to put it back to the way it was originally for a short time in the 1930s. A major effort goes into working on and preserving pieces, and one has to weigh the value of the object. In the case of the Brancusi column, it is one of the great sculptures of the early twentieth century.
Griswold: What about consideration of an exhibition copy when the original object, in an outdoor setting, seems to be fragile and vulnerable and also incredibly important to preserve? Is that ever an option? We can point to high-profile examples of things that could be considered outdoor sculptures in a broad sense—the Gates of Paradise in Florence, for example—that were brought indoors for their own good, and very convincing replicas put in their place. In theory you can extend that principle to significant contemporary and modern outdoor pieces. It's a difficult question, and there are legal ramifications, certainly in California and in New York, where artist rights are well established and articulated and there is risk involved in undertaking interventions without express authorization from the artist or the estate. The Henry Moore Foundation, for instance, provides a lot of important guidance to conservators.
Collens: It's very important to communicate with living sculptors or their estates or foundations.
Levin: What about the idea of an exhibition copy?
Collens: It does not appeal to me.
Bach: Every instance can be so different. For example, there was a major renovation of Philadelphia's historic waterworks, which in the early nineteenth century was a great wonder of engineering, art, and architecture. William Rush created a number of wooden sculptures for that site that are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But when the restorations of the Fairmount Waterworks were taking place, we considered the importance of the sculptures in relationship to the site, and we decided to cast fiberglass copies of Rush's The Schuylkill Freed and The Schuylkill Chained so they could be placed on top of the Entrance Houses where they were originally located. Initially it didn't seem like something I would favor, but the reproductions complete the architectural ensemble in such a way that I now can't imagine the buildings without them. Of course, the signage clearly says that the originals are in the museum. The point is that you have to consider the entire context, as well as the artist's intentions. In this case, the artist intended the sculptures to be part of the building's ornamentation, so removing them, we felt, was contrary to the spirit of his intentions.
Levin: Do aesthetic values typically trump preservation of original materials? If a work is experiencing serious deterioration and some major refabrication is necessary in order to preserve the artistic intent of the sculptor, is that the choice you make?
Bach: I think we preserve most of the aesthetics by keeping the most original material. We need also to be very aware of the public nature of public art. Not all sculptures fall into that category, but some do. If we know the artist intended the work to be in a public space, then we also have to assume that the artist, to some extent, understood that it might change materially over time. The idea of restoring a work so that it is pristine and perfect, in certain cases, may be contrary to its public nature.
Levin: Do you think that the conservation of outdoor sculptures has received the attention it requires?
Collens: I do not think it has gotten the attention it deserves or requires. Museums and collectors are investing large sums of money in outdoor sculptures, and some conservators tell me that collectors are balking at what they are charging to take care of these works. People do not realize that you have to invest the time and energy of a conservator to keep an object in good condition, whatever the material is.
Griswold: There are many areas of research that are exciting and need to be pursued, such as the corrosion of metals at sites where water is in direct contact or in the vicinity of works of art, as is so often the case. The more we draw from related fields—archaeology or corrosion engineering, for example—the more we can really understand what those dynamics are and how can we intervene in that cycle of chloride-related deterioration of bronzes. Some exciting research for outdoor painted steel is the work of Abigail Mack and her colleagues at the National Gallery, who are in hot pursuit of a more stable flat black paint, which is something of a holy grail. This is a flat black paint that we hear of being developed for radar invisibility by the military, and one of its qualities is very high durability, along with a beautiful flat black surface. Basically, the more we're open to outside influences and continue to strengthen relationships already established with NACE [the National Association of Corrosion Engineers], a lot of exciting work can be done.
Bach: With new commissions, we are making history, and fortunately we have the opportunity to find out firsthand what the artist has in mind. For example, a number of years ago we commissioned a work by Martin Puryear, who traditionally works in wood, although not exclusively. The piece that he created was a pavilion that could be walked on, and so we established early on that for reasons of safety and aesthetics, it was his preference to repair or replace the wood planks in the area where people would walk. Because we addressed the issue, it's not a question we now need to consider.
Wolfe: How much of a problem for outdoor collections is inappropriate or damaging actions by the public? Many collections have established a "no-touch" policy with respect to their outdoor sculptures—which can be difficult to enforce in a public space.
Bach: I hesitate to say this, but relatively speaking, Philadelphia's vast collection of sculpture has had surprisingly little vandalism. We find that vandalism can be curtailed if it's handled immediately. Neglect opens the door for vandalism, so the more a community respects and maintains its sculptures, the more likely it is that the works of art will be respected. Personally, I don't believe in a no-touch policy for a public collection. A no-touch policy in an urban setting just draws attention to the work and might encourage more touching than normally takes place.
This is a role for public education. When the Art Association began waxing bronzes twenty-five years ago, we received many phone calls from people complaining that someone was out there painting all of the sculptures black. People didn't understand that they had been looking at corrosion. The public education aspect to our work is really important. Signage helps people know what they're looking at. Then there are tours, information on the Web, and working with kids. After we illuminated a number of sculptures in the park, people told us that they hadn't even noticed the artworks until we lit them. Working on public awareness helps people understand that outdoor sculpture contributes to quality of life and creates a sense of respect for a tremendous civic asset.
Collens: We try to discourage people handling the sculptures. Sculptures that are very sturdy are not going to fall apart if you climb on them, and the surface is not going to be seriously damaged from the oils from your fingers. They are not master paintings of the sixteenth century. But they are not playground equipment, either. Too much handling can be difficult for the surface, and people can be rather rough with them. Unfortunately, legal liability is also a great concern.
Griswold: There are many site-specific public sculptures that have been quite literally embraced by their community, and these sculptures have taken on a kind of importance that goes beyond what the artist originally intended. There's a need people have to touch something, to engage with it. We in conservation have to acknowledge the realities, right or wrong, of how sculptures are engaged. Sometimes there are non-malicious uses and traditions that are really fascinating—for example, the New York Public Library lion sculptures, which we worked on several years ago. During the World Series, the lions ended up wearing oversized baseball caps, and at Christmastime they had wreaths around their necks. One of the lions, Patience, I believe, had developed some cracks. Based on some research and in the course of treating that sculpture, we discovered that some of those cracks had been there from the beginning. In these huge blocks of Tennessee marble, there were some flaws that the carvers had discovered in carving it, and they inserted some bronze pins to help stabilize it. In the conservation and maintenance of these public works, we had to navigate the public love and sense of ownership of these sculptures with their vulnerabilities, and come up with an outcome that balanced the need for preservation for future generations with acknowledgment of present use.