SUSAN GRAY was (until July 2012) the senior cultural planner at CRA/LA, the designated local authority and successor to the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, overseeing major public art and cultural revitalization efforts in economically challenged regions of Los Angeles.
FRIEDERIKE WAENTIG has been involved with the preservation of public art in the city of Cologne, as a professor of conservation at the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences of the University of Applied Sciences; she specializes in the use of synthetic materials in art.
RURI YAMPOLSKY has been the director of the Public Art Program for the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs for the City of Seattle since 2006; for fifteen years, she was a project manager at the agency, overseeing the integration of art into large-scale capital construction projects.
They spoke with RACHEL RIVENC, an assistant scientist at the GCI, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
RACHEL RIVENC: Let's start by defining public art and its function.
RURI YAMPOLSKY: Art in public places is all art in the public realm, regardless of who has provided it—be it a museum, a corporate entity, or a government agency. I define public art as art funded by government. When we established our public art program in Seattle in 1973, we included in the preamble to our one-percent-for-art ordinance that the city accepts responsibility for expanding public experience with spatial art. Such art enables people to better understand their communities and individual lives. It also speaks to the ideas of engaging people in civic dialogue, of creating community, and of creating place and space.
SUSAN GRAY: The Art Program Policy of the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles mandates that developers working with financial assistance from the agency are obligated to dedicate one percent of their hard and soft construction costs toward an art plan, which may manifest in public art or some other permanent physical improvement of an artistic nature. The policy is very prescriptive, and we have strict guidelines.
FRIEDERIKE WAENTIG: Every city has to define for itself what public art is. In Cologne, it's public art paid for by the city, as well as gifts from groups and from artists. It includes not only public places, but also private places where the public can see the art. Public art is a tradition. Even if people don't consider what it means to take care of the art, they still want cultural things in their public spaces. Inhabitants of cities in Europe are active in commenting on public art, particularly in the last twenty years, as more modern art, especially abstract public art, is installed. If you don't communicate what an artwork is about, people will say, "No, we don't want it. We want something we can understand, and we don't know what this is."
YAMPOLSKY: In Seattle we involve the community in different ways. As we develop calls for artists, we might ask community members to outline their interests for the upcoming project. We include community members in the selection process as well, and in ongoing conversations with the artist.
GRAY: Our art program traditionally connects to our Redevelopment Plans, which have been officially adopted for a neighborhood. In those plans, created in direct consultation with the community, certain visions are put forward, such as seeing open-space-development beautification carried out in a particular way. That shapes our thinking about how the community can be involved in the artist selection process and in the type of artwork concept and application.
RIVENC: How is maintenance funded, once a work is created?
YAMPOLSKY: Our ordinance forbids using percent-for-art funds for maintenance, as they are typically capital funds, often raised through bonds and levies. We're allocated separate funds for conservation, which has to cover 380 permanently sited artworks and 2,800 portable artworks. Our conservation funds—which come from a portion of real estate sales taxes—pay for a staff conservator, a van, materials, rentals, and consultants we may need for specific works. While at the end of the year, we find we have to defer some conservation to the next year, the funds we get are generous relative to a lot of other programs.
GRAY: With our public art commissions, the developer must spend their onsite allocation on design, fabrication, and installation. They can't keep a reserve for maintenance. The care of the artwork is the property owner's operating expense, and we have legal covenants to ensure that the work is kept in place and appropriate maintenance performed. However, a portion of the developer's one-percent budget is deposited into a Cultural Trust Fund established for that particular Redevelopment Project Area, and we can use these funds for conservation and restoration of artwork that CRA/LA or a community partner or city department has commissioned.
WAENTIG: In Germany most museums are public and financed by the government, so the owners of the artworks are primarily the city or the county, and they are responsible for conservation and maintenance. We have some public art that is private, and they handle the conservation. We have a similar one-percent-for-art program if you construct a public building, but by law, this money is only for the creation and installation of art, not maintenance. The city and the county have to cover that. With older art, they sometimes try to list it as a monument so that the monuments department has to cover maintenance and conservation. If it's not that old, the cultural department has to take care of it. If they assign the public art to a museum, it's on their budget to cover conservation. It sounds chaotic—and it is.
RIVENC: How much does politics influence funding?
GRAY: Elected officials are decision makers, and they influence other people's decisions. They can speak to department heads about identifying other funding sources. For example, a portion of a cleaning budget might become a restoration fund—or a park improvement project budget that included replacement furnishings suddenly becomes a restoration budget for a park monument. It's a matter of prioritizing funds and not necessarily providing more money.
WAENTIG: They can influence things in a good or bad way—that's the problem. A mayor can tell you which way things will go without relying on the people who know this stuff. Sometimes he's just doing what another politician wants. It's good to have politicians who are interested in art and culture, but it's a problem if you have a mayor who is not educated in cultural matters.
JEFFREY LEVIN: What are the most important issues that these works face as a result of being out in the open with public access?
GRAY: They're vulnerable to the elements, obviously, and to the public, with their fingerprints, their spilt sodas, and their gum. Regular maintenance for sculpture in the public domain is completely different than for sculpture in a museum. You're talking about exposure that may require a robust periodic cleaning schedule on a limited budget. You need someone competent to perform these services—not necessarily a conservator, but someone appropriately trained and hopefully paid for their time and materials. Placement of the art is key to minimizing unwanted contact. There are all manner of things we need to take into account, in consultation with the artist, to help protect the artwork and reduce maintenance: weather patterns, positioning of the landscaping sprinklers, level of security and surveillance, the work's nearness to a public thoroughfare, and its exposure to pollutants.
WAENTIG: With museums, people go because they want to go to the museum. With public art, it can be there in front of you whether you want it or not. You have to explain the artwork and tell people what it is, because preserving the art only works if it is accepted. The problem is that artworks often are not accepted.
RIVENC: But even when it is accepted, people touch it or interact with it, and that can damage it, right?
GRAY: We have a work by Catherine Hardwicke, Hollywood and La Brea Gateway on Hollywood Boulevard, which tourists pose with daily, having their photographs taken with the statues. It's always the same spots on the artwork that show loss of the surface coating and need to be monitored and treated by a conservator. Another example in Hollywood is a couch made out of cast concrete with a robust industrial surface coating. You'd think it would be impermeable, but people by the hundreds touch it daily, spill sodas on it, and leave shoe scuff marks on it. People love that piece, but that comes at a cost with regard to care.
LEVIN: Friederike was suggesting that a museum visitor enters with a certain presumption about physically respecting objects—a presumption that doesn't exist when artworks are in a public space.
YAMPOLSKY: Right. It's something you encounter. We try to provide access to public art, and while we don't expect that everyone will love each artwork, we hope the art draws people out of their routines and makes them aware of their environment. Public art is part of an urbanism related to design of the public realm. We expect that people will touch any art we put out there and hope it will be in a good way, but if you create a certain kind of surface, it can attract skateboarders or vandalism. When we review qualifications of artists during selection of permanently sited artworks, we generally look for art constructed in durable materials. At the same time, we don't always limit commissions to people with experience doing public art. If we think an artist's work can be translated into a medium that's more durable—such as porcelain, enamel on metal, or ceramic tile—then we provide those opportunities, understanding that the work will be out in the elements.
LEVIN: What about situations where concerned members of the public take it upon themselves to clean a work of public art, but they don't do it properly and damage it in the process?
GRAY: You may have a tag on a sculpture that's easily removed with a little acetone and a soft sponge, but some well-meaning volunteer or untrained custodian comes along with a heavy-duty solvent or an abrasive cleaner and a scouring pad, and the tag is removed—along with the actual surface coating or structure that may be expensive to repair. You need to fix that problem, but it's also a matter of research and advocacy, identifying who these volunteers are, and getting them on board to report problems to appropriate personnel.
LEVIN: Have there been efforts to organize community volunteers to be stewards of public art in their neighborhoods?
YAMPOLSKY: It is in our work plan to develop workshops regarding artwork stewardship in communities. They may focus on taking care of an artwork in the neighborhood, or center on creating awareness about the artwork. Our conservator can only inspect each artwork once or twice a year, so if people in the community know they can call us when they notice a problem, that can be very helpful. We've also talked about developing a program to train community volunteers to perform routine cleaning.
WAENTIG: In Cologne there are people who will call a museum or the cultural heritage department when there's a sculpture with some painting on it or some scratches that need to be taken care of. Cologne has a community helpline that people can call if they have general questions or see problems with some public art. It's very important to have people engaged in this. If your conservator is visiting an object only twice a year, it's not enough.
YAMPOLSKY: That's why it's great to let residents know whom to call if they spot a problem. We have a graffiti hotline and if the graffiti is on an artwork, the hotline lets us know. We contract with other city departments to perform graffiti removal in situations where they can't do damage, but if the tagging is on bronze or on a delicate surface, we send our conservator.
RIVENC: If it's a vertical surface, it's a target for graffiti. If it's a horizontal surface, it's going to be skateboarded. How do you deter these responses?
YAMPOLSKY: We work with the artist during the development of an artwork. We don't want to preclude works that present a large surface, so we encourage artists to create surfaces from which graffiti can be easily cleaned. Also, surfaces with a lot of texture tend to be less attractive to taggers. We don't want to tell an artist, "You can't do that because it will be tagged." But we want to make caring for a project more manageable knowing that it can be tagged. We've used antigraffiti coating—usually the artist provides the initial coat, and then we're responsible for recoating. There are times when artists are resistant to coatings. Once you add a coating, it might change the color or the finish of stone. We try to find something the artist is comfortable with.
GRAY: Sometimes the preferred sealant is proprietary, along with the removal agent, and then we need to buy that product in bulk, which has a shelf life and will need to be replaced. Where possible, we try to use a coating that can be cleaned with some inexpensive, off-the-shelf, environmentally friendly product.
WAENTIG: Doesn't it depend on the material? We had a wooden object on the top of a museum that had bleached out and had some pest infestation, but we couldn't convince the museum director to put it inside, even though we couldn't really find a coating or a sealant we could use. With wood, you either put it in storage or in a museum, or acknowledge that there's a certain lifetime for the object, and then it's gone.
YAMPOLSKY: In the Pacific Northwest, there is a large First Nations population, and over the years, Seattle has received a number of wood totem poles as gifts. Traditionally, totem poles are meant to deteriorate. You don't restore them—you just replace them with something else. But you can't have art in public places that ultimately falls down. So our approach, particularly with older totem poles, is to remove any insect infestation and biological growth and apply a wood preservative. We don't restore them but try to keep them in a state of stasis so that they don't deteriorate further. Handling tag removal on wood is difficult. Removing graffiti often leads to ghosting, particularly on wood. But I try not to discourage the use of wood because it is so important to native communities.
GRAY: There are basically two sorts of taggers in Los Angeles: gang-related taggers where it's identification—"This is my area, keep out"—and then urban street artists making aerosol art. The street artists are talented and competitive. They love risk and getting to places that no one else can. So we do whatever we can to plan for tagging, making the artwork hard to reach or placing it in a well-patrolled location, with a surface that allows easy tag removal, if possible.
YAMPOLSKY: It's important to clean it quickly. Taggers move on to another place if they feel that their tag isn't staying there long.
WAENTIG: We had a situation in an old industrial part of Cologne where taggers were invited to go and spray for a whole weekend on a wall that had been apportioned so that everyone could get one piece. And it worked. The taggers liked it, and tagging around the area was less after that. In another situation, we had a school building with an artwork made out of steel stripes, called Playing Children. It's fixed on a brick wall, and when taggers sprayed, they respected the artwork—the spraying was only on the brick and not on the art. But the city department team that cleaned it had no conservator, so they sandblasted not only the wall but also the painted steel stripes. The paint is now gone, and the artwork has started to rust. The city team didn't respect the artwork, but the young people who were spraying did.
RIVENC: Since there is no anti-skateboarding coating, can you provide protection through the design of the work?
GRAY: You can, either by breaking up the work architecturally or by mitigation with integrated anti-skateboarding devices. You want the artist to design these measures as part of the original work, rather than installing them retroactively.
YAMPOLSKY: We had a skate park that was displaced because of new construction, and the skateboarding community felt that the city owed them another park. So we engaged an artist, paid the artist's design fee, and then the Seattle Center built the skate park. The artist, consultants, and members of the skateboarding community were involved in the process. The artist designed a glass perimeter wall and a glass skatable element, then digitally enlarged and enhanced images of old skateboard decks and incorporated them as the imagery on the glass. The skateboarders appreciated not only the fact that they had a skatable artwork but also the fact that the artist understood their culture. Engaging communities that don't normally have art associated with their facilities goes a long way toward gaining their trust and sense of ownership of the art.
LEVIN: In many ways, the conservation of public art has become less about treatment and more about management, which includes preventive conservation. Can we talk about that evolution?
WAENTIG: Conservation is quite a young profession. In the beginning, the person who restored an artwork was a craftsperson or an artist. With the establishment of an academic conservation education, curricula included the sciences, the humanities, and the crafts. When I began studying conservation in the mid-1980s, we didn't have a subject called preventive conservation. It was called "climate, light, and atmosphere." It was really just measuring relative humidity and light and taking care of the temperature. Today preventive conservation is about management: taking care of maintenance, monitoring, and risk management. What we have learned in the profession's development is that conservation does not start with a treatment. With public art, it's taking a broader look and researching the work's environment—the buildings and people in its surroundings—as well as the artist and the materials in its construction.
YAMPOLSKY: It is important to have a record of the materials used to create an artwork. We contractually obligate the artist to fill out forms describing the intention for the artwork, the dimensions, and the materials used, and we require the artist to obtain extended warranties when electronic equipment is part of the work. We also request detailed maintenance instructions. Our contract states that we will maintain the artworks as long as we have funding. We also include in the contract the ability for the city to deaccession artworks. We typically expect artworks to last thirty years, but for digital artworks we shorten that to ten.
RIVENC: It seems that in Los Angeles and Seattle—because you're involved in commissioning artwork—you have an opportunity to manage the life of the object from the beginning.
GRAY: Conservation and management of the artwork are discussed three times contractually. During the schematic design, the property owner commissioning the artwork (and long-term steward of the work), the artist, a conservator, and operations people discuss how the artwork is expected to age, how people will interact with it, and how the space will be used. At that point, it may be apparent that "this location isn't going to work—we need to move it to a safer location." The property owner might also think, "This will cost me more annually for cleaning than I thought—maybe I should upgrade materials to protect my investment." This conversation is held again in the final design phase, in case we need to tweak the proposal. Finally, once the project is implemented, there's the documentation phase where the material data, the warranty manuals, and the construction drawings are bundled together, including a document from artists about how they expect the work to age and what is acceptable to them in terms of fading, chipping, or cracking.
WAENTIG: The location of the artwork is important. In Cologne we discuss the location of the art not only with the curator, the city, and the monuments care department but also with the police. The police can tell us, "This area is okay, but don't go to this area—it will be destroyed." We also work with the street departments and gardening departments. The artwork needs to be in a safe area, and an area where we have people to care for it.
LEVIN: We're discussing issues that are exceedingly complex and political and that would be entirely foreign to a museum curator. Clearly, communication among government agencies with respect to these works is critical.
YAMPOLSKY: For security reasons, Seattle Public Utilities covered our reservoirs and, in so doing, created large areas of land that became parks, under the jurisdiction of our parks department. We wrote a memorandum regarding who would take care of an artwork created in one of these parks—a work with a volcano-shaped cone as part of a large water feature. Under the agreement, the water utility would construct the water feature, and the parks department would pay for it, but then they had to agree who was responsible for some of the maintenance. We handle the maintenance of the cone surface, but the innards, the plumbing, are the responsibility of the parks department. However, they needed to negotiate with the water department—whose contractor built the water feature—about who is responsible if something leaks.
GRAY: We've had situations where an informal arrangement had been made between department heads about picking up the bill for a maintenance or operating cost, and then, years later, the department realized that they were paying for the water to clean a sculpture or for the staff time to clean the artwork, and then they started billing us for the services—a cost we hadn't budgeted for. You need to fully document these arrangements.
WAENTIG: Different departments compete, or don't talk to each other, or don't know that there's another department taking care of an artwork. And there is the basic problem of understanding what art is. You can't use the same cleaning methods you would on a traffic lamp. Perhaps because the profession of conservation is so young, this is not as clear as it should be. If you hurt your hand, you go to a doctor for treatment, not to a street worker. Conservation has to do better in telling the public what the profession is about.
RIVENC: How important is it to have a conservator on staff?
YAMPOLSKY: We have had a full-time conservator for the last eight years. Previously we used consultants. It's great having someone who is not just an in-house resource but is also available for emergencies. If it's graffiti, she can go out at a moment's notice and deal with it. And she's also a resource for other departments. The parks department sometimes commissions or accepts their own artworks, and they don't have a process for maintaining them. Our conservator gives them technical assistance, and in return, they allow her to use their truck, which has its own water tank, so when she has to pressure-wash an artwork, she doesn't have to unload a cistern from our van.
GRAY: We've always had to contract conservation services for work the CRA/LA commissioned directly. In recent years I had a conservation associate who worked with me inspecting and documenting the works throughout the collection and then identifying issues. We would prioritize the problems, then contract with a conservator to do specialized work or to provide education to the stakeholders. If a private developer owned the artwork, we'd help the developer match the need with the proper skill set within the conservation community.
LEVIN: Do most of the artists you work with appreciate the complications associated with public art?
GRAY: Most of our artists have a sophisticated knowledge of public art protocols and expectations, as well as of our responsibilities toward the general public. But every now and then, you come across somebody who doesn't get it. I had one piece start to fail within a few years because of skateboard damage, and when I contacted the artist to discuss design modification, the response was, "Well, just treat it like a Roman ruin."
YAMPOLSKY: Public art, as a field, is not for every artist, and there are some who say, "I will never do this again." But most understand the process. There's a whole level of administration that our artists have to manage—and that's not unique to Seattle. There's a lot of consensus building in the way we do things in Seattle, and the artist has to have a stomach for engaging with many different people. Artists deal not only with us but with the managers of the capital project and with community members.
WAENTIG: What I see with younger artists is quite a low understanding of this process. The older the artist, the greater their understanding of the importance of material choice and maintenance conservation. In Germany, artists are primarily trained in creativity, not in materials. Understanding of materials and maintenance is minimal. Only when artists get older and their work is being bought by museums or collectors do they start thinking about the preservation of their art materially.
GRAY: Artists are often not making everything in their own studios, and so they develop special relationships with materials suppliers and fabricators. They become masters of certain approaches and perhaps don't feel comfortable doing something else. But generally, it's a very sophisticated group we work with. For example, I had one artist detect an incorrect paint specification for a surface adjacent to, but unrelated to, the artwork, and that artist told me, "You might want to share this with the construction crew."
YAMPOLSKY: A lot of artists we work with have design backgrounds or were trained as architects. For them, public art is about urbanism and shaping environment. They understand that they're doing something for the community and creating a sense of place. Some artists delve deeply into the history of a site, and sometimes they illuminate that for the community.
WAENTIG: We have been working with an artist who is only producing kinetic artworks for the outdoors, because he wants to create works everybody can see. From the 1960s until today, he has changed materials. He started with Plexiglas and some electronic parts, and then, recognizing that these didn't work well, started to work just with wind. Then he recognized that plastics were not durable, and switched to metals. Today he still works only on outdoor sculptures, but is also looking for landscapes that really fit the work and communicate with the community. That's different from artists who just produce artworks and sell to collectors or museums.
LEVIN: Can you encapsulate in a few words what we should think about in terms of the future of public art?
GRAY: Stewardship. Our art program in Los Angeles is ending as part of California's closure of all redevelopment activities, so we need to think about our legacy. I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility right now to ensure that the collection is taken care of and that there are mechanisms in place for stewardship.
WAENTIG: Communication and education. As a teacher, I think about education but also about communication. And the question we have to communicate is—should we give every object a certain lifetime? Do we say, "Okay, this object will only last this long, and then the artist can take it back or it's going to be destroyed or die." In Cologne, we get more and more artworks. Where's the end? Communicating this question is the challenge.
YAMPOLSKY: Innovation and adaptation. You're always looking for innovative ways to make public art relevant. Doing so means using newer materials and newer media, and figuring out ways to make art relevant to the time. But there is adaptation too—as needs change, different types of art may become relevant. How do you adapt your program to embrace those different needs while maintaining and conserving those forms for future generations?