In May 2003, the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute coorganized a two-day symposium entitled "Mural Painting and Conservation in the Americas," with a program that brought together art historians, conservators, and artists. Conservation asked several symposium participants to share their perspectives on some of the issues the symposium addressed, which included the social, artistic, and political dimensions of murals, the value they hold, and the rationale and conservation techniques for ensuring their long-term survival.

Leonard Folgarait, professor of art history in the Department of Art and Art History at Vanderbilt University, is a specialist in the art of Latin America and in European and American Modernism. He is the author of So Far from Heaven: David Alfaro Siqueiros' The March of Humanity and Mexican Revolutionary Politics, and Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920—1940: Art of the New Order.

Ann Garfinkle—with the Washington, D.C., firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston—is an attorney whose practice emphasizes representation of artists, collectors, and galleries. She is chair of the Art and Museum Committee of the Washington, D.C., Bar's Art, Entertainment, and Sports Law Section. Among her other publications, Garfinkle authored a work on estate planning for artists and collectors.

Wayne Healy, a native of Los Angeles, cofounded with artist David Botello the mural team that became known as East Los Streetscapers. They have created murals and public artworks throughout the United States, Europe, and Mexico. In 1992 Healy and artist Roberto Delgado were awarded a grant by the Joint Spanish/U.S. Committee for Educational and Cultural Cooperation to paint murals in Barcelona, Spain.

Will Shank was chief conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1990 until 2000. He earned his M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, then took advanced training in paintings conservation at Harvard. Shank has restored many paintings and has conducted research on the techniques of artists as diverse as John Singleton Copley, Bruce Conner, Clyfford Still, Diego Rivera, Maxfield Parrish, and Robert Motherwell.

They spoke with Leslie Rainer, a GCI senior project specialist and a wall paintings conservator, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.

Jeffrey Levin: Given the variety of works that could be called "murals," how would each of you define a mural?

Leonard Folgarait: I would say that a mural is a painting that is indistinguishable from the wall. The fresco technique is the truest example of that. The fresco mural is the only art medium that I know that's so integrally bound to its support system. It adds a dimension to its space by virtue of the figures that are painted, by virtue of the story that it tells, and by how it engages the viewer in that story. It is a form of address to not only the material aspect of the site but also to the social existence of the site.

Will Shank: I think there are other things that can't be separated from their supports, like a watercolor, for instance, or something that soaks into a support, like canvas. I'd probably give a broader definition of a mural. It's paint applied to—or an artwork applied to—a wall.

Folgarait: Can that artwork have been made on a site other than its display site? For instance, can a large canvas be painted in a studio, rolled up, taken to another site, and put on the wall? Would that be a mural?

Shank: Commonly, it's referred to as a mural—although there is a purist school of thought that would say that a canvas painting applied to a wall is not a mural.

Leslie Rainer: What you said, Leonard, was really a good point—that it's integral to the wall. And I agree with Will that a mural can be a painting or even a tile piece applied to a wall that is integral to that wall and to the architecture. There's the example of John Singer Sargent, who painted his murals for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in his studio. But they weren't just canvases in frames put onto walls—they were created for a specific space. Wayne, what would your definition of a mural be?

Wayne Healy: Well, there're many definitions. I agree with your definition of a classical mural—the fresco. But in the 21st century, just about everything is a mural. We were painting on a busy corner once, and one of the local guys comes by and says, "Hey, man, that's really cool. You want to see my mural?" So he takes off his shirt and there's this big old tattoo across his back that he calls a mural. So everybody's got their own definition. To me, a better mural definition is that it is integrated with the wall. We're doing more and more mural painting in the studio. If it's indoor, it'll be canvas. If it's outdoor, it's fiberglass mesh and inert material. But even though the mural may be done in a studio, it's put on the wall and integrated with the wall. It takes into account the architecture and it talks to the people who see the wall. And, most always, it's edge to edge, top to bottom.

Levin: I would note that in the case of a tattoo, someone's back is pretty integral to the support of the work of art. Which fits Leonard's definition. Ann, does the law have anything to say with regard to defining murals?

Conservation image

Ann Garfinkle: Law is really a strange discipline to mix with art. The State of California passed the California Art Preservation Act [CAPA], which went into effect in 1980, but it wasn't until 1991 that an appellate judge ruled that a mural is, in fact, a painting. The argument was made by Shell Oil [which owned a building on which there was a mural] that murals were not paintings and therefore not protected under CAPA.

Levin: You're referring to murals painted on the exterior walls of buildings?

Garfinkle: Right. Murals were not an artwork covered by the act until this case was decided on appeal.

Healy: We were the test case.

Levin: Which work was it?

Healy:It was called Filling Up on Ancient Energies, and it was on a wall at a Shell gas station in Boyle Heights. One day Shell came along and started knocking the wall down. One of my cohorts on that mural was a member of the [Mural] Conservancy, and he went to the next meeting all bummed out, "Oh, man, they knocked down our wall." The legal lady with the Conservancy said, "Hey, let's go get those guys." I didn't know what a torture this legal trip was going to be. We went to the superior court first. The judge ruled against us saying, "You should appeal because you're asking me to rule on something I don't understand." So we went to the appellate court and won. I thought the big petrochemical company would just leave the poor barrio artist alone, but no, they went to the supreme court, which refused to listen to them.

Levin: So the lower court ruling held?

Garfinkle: Yes. Murals are now fine art and have been since Mr. Healy's case was decided. A federal law—the Visual Artists Rights Act [VARA]—went into effect in 1990. It basically preempts most of the California statute. Murals would fall under the VARA definition of works of visual art. What's interesting is that the California statute provides protection for 50 years beyond the life of the artist. The federal statute only goes for the life of the artist. The heirs of a muralist have CAPA rights for 50 years after the death of the artist.

Rainer: So once an artist is dead, anything can happen to that mural?

Garfinkle:Yes, under VARA but not under CAPA, which gives an additional 50 years. But if the artist kept the copyright, the artist, and his or her heirs, has standing for the length of the copyright—which now is the life of the artist plus 70 years.

Levin: What place does the outdoor mural movement have within the context of 20th-century art? There's the work created in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration, and then there's the work created in the latter part of the century, which had a lot of social and political commentary. Are we talking about one mural movement or many?

Folgarait: Those examples fit into 20th-century art history as an answer to Modernism—the growing abstraction in painting from cubism to the white painting. In the Postmodern period, when we see a return of figuration and narrative, a lot of attention has gone back to murals. Your examples have a strong commitment to the space and to the social reality of the people who make it and view it. I'm a little uncomfortable with using the word movement, even with the so-called Big Three of Mexico—Los Tres Grandes. Three hardly make a movement, and they had as many disagreements among themselves as agreements. I'm more interested in the term school, like the Mexico City school or the Guadalajara school.

Healy: I like the word movement. I like the word school. "School," in fact, is something I proposed in a recent paper proclaiming the Chicano mural movement, or the Chicano art movement more generally. If you want to bring all these different groups together, it would be under the title of neighborhood or community mural. The late Eva Cockcroft was a great champion of community murals, and she'd look at me crooked if I was doing something for corporations. "You should be doing community murals." So there's a camp established that says, "Well, that's a corporate mural, and that's an abstract mural. We do the real murals that are 'power to the people' and all that."

Folgarait: You jokingly say, "We do the real murals." It seems to me that there may be a sense of ownership on the definition of murals. Some people might say that because they work in the tradition of the Mexican school, they do the real murals. I'd never heard it phrased that way, even jokingly, but I think you've hit on something important.

Levin: Outdoor murals do seem to lend themselves to political or social commentary to a greater extent than many other art forms. Is that simply because they're public?

Garfinkle: Among the things that murals have going for them is the lower cost of making them. A community can afford murals where they can't afford large sculptural elements, which are very expensive to fabricate. And because murals are seen by everybody and adopted by a community, they lend themselves to community self-expression.

Conservation image

Folgarait: When you walk down a city street and you happen upon a mural that you weren't expecting, you're in what I'd call a socialized space. You're thinking about shopping, the work you do, your family and relationships—and the mural appears to you in the context of your social life, as opposed to when you walk through a museum, where you are in an aesthetic frame of mind and expect to see framed artworks. When art comes to you within the fabric of everything else in your world, it unavoidably becomes socialized. Some mural artists take positive advantage of that.

Levin: Wayne, is that part of the consciousness in the creation of outdoor murals? Knowing that you can exploit the dynamic that Leonard just described?

Healy: Outside, you're like a traffic signal or a bus stop bench—you're part of the scene. It's unavoidable. People walk by and say, "Hey, how you doing?" or "Oh, it's looking good." You get immediate feedback. I think of muralism as the art that's closest to performing art. You're on a stage, you've got an audience. In our case, we have designed most of our murals in the studio, and so we're not liable to make any major changes—but we have. Someone will come by and say, "Oh, that's cool. I've lived in this neighborhood for 99 years, you know..." And they'll tell you the story that, like, damn, fits. Every now and then a news event takes place, and we feel compelled to include it. Case in point was a mural we painted in 1979 called Moonscapes. I picked up the L.A. Times one morning, and there's this story on folks digging in Mexico City who hit this big old rock—this gory, beautiful stone carving of Coyolxauhqui, the Moon Goddess. We're painting Moonscapes and we think, "Man, that's got to go in there."

Garfinkle: It's really performance art. It's integrating what's happening right then and there.

Healy: Right. And we're trying to tie it to the community.

Levin: How different are contemporary mural commissions from the sort of commissions that Leonardo da Vinci received to do a fresco? Weren't his contracts specific as to what was to be painted? In the end, he may not have strictly followed the contract because he was, after all, an artist. But aren't mural commissions a part of a historical tradition?

Folgarait: It's the concept of a contract. You enter into an agreement with another party that such and such will result, whether it's an artwork or something else. But in art history we pay attention to the exceptions to that—to people who are renegades. That's what makes it interesting.

There's a paradox that's always struck me in studying murals. The community in general walks by and doesn't look at them. The fact that murals are mostly not looked at by the community because they're so familiar with them means something positive. The art has not been raised to a privileged status. It coexists with everything else. The wonderful thing about street art is that it is so inseparably part of the world that you can take it for granted and then next week look at it. It raises the level of the cultural quality of your life in that part of the city.

Levin: In California we've produced a lot of murals in recent decades, and now these works need conservation attention. If a mural created in 1979 addressed a certain need that isn't there anymore, is it okay to let it go? What concepts should govern what gets conserved?

Shank: That is the big question. I think it's really case by case. It depends on whether it's a community mural or if it's an icon or the work of a single artist. Ultimately, the one thing we do know is that there is a limited life to the material. And based on that information, intelligent choices have to be made about whether to prolong the life of a mural that's deteriorating.

Healy: If a mural is constantly being attacked from the street, it's hard to defend it. You can almost say those are the art critics that are making their commentary on it.

Levin: What if a work is no longer important to the community but a larger world sees it as being a symbol of a particular period or being an especially important work aesthetically? How do we make those judgments?

Folgarait: I wouldn't want decisions to be made based on aesthetic value. I'm the sort of person who thinks ideally that every product made by human beings is important simply because it's a marker of history. We'll never know when we need to refer back to that period in history and think, "Oh, that was a benchmark moment, regardless of the aesthetic value." I would apply very practical criteria. Given all of the opportunities for conservation, I would just conserve the murals that are most in danger. And after that, prioritize according to which ones are not quite at that level and where the damage can still be stopped.

Levin: But there must be countless numbers of murals that are salvageable. The question is—are the resources really there to do it?

Rainer: Probably not. On a project for the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, we, as conservators, looked at all of the city's murals and did condition assessments. The report was then given to a committee made up of an art historian, a social historian, an architect, and an artist. They worked together to rank the significance and conservation priorities of the city's murals according to historic, aesthetic, and community values, as well as artistic achievement and the need for conservation. At that point, the city had enough money to do 12 murals. And one of their criteria was that they had to do one in each council district.

Conservation image

Shank:I did a condition assessment of all the artwork owned by the City of Santa Monica in California, which included many murals. I talked to their city manager about their expectations, because some of the murals were in extremely bad condition and beyond repair. She said that when they set up a contract with a muralist, the understanding was that after a certain number of years, Santa Monica would assess the condition of the mural and decide what to do about it.

Rainer: Different cities have different ways of going about this. The City of Los Angeles used to have in their contracts with artists that after 10 years the building owner can decide what to do with the mural. They've now modified that to say that after 10 years, there should be an evaluation of the mural's condition.

Levin: Isn't it really the limits of the material that have determined in our minds that this is temporary art? If the materials didn't limit us, wouldn't we treat murals like other works of art and make a continuing effort to preserve them? If this was art in an interior space, then there wouldn't be any question of preserving it.

Rainer: I don't think that every piece of art is preserved.

Levin: No, but I'm putting murals in a category similar to other commissioned artwork or something obtained by a collector or collecting institution. It was paid for and put into a large area. It had value at a certain point in time.

Rainer: But the murals put up on community walls are, as Leonard said, different. They're a part of the whole community and not isolated in that way.

Levin: Okay then—if those murals could last 50 years but they lose their significance to the community well before then, does that mean, whether they're deteriorating or not, we should feel free to paint over them? If it isn't a matter of the technical challenge, then is it really a matter of its value to the community?

Garfinkle: I can tell you what Congress thought when it passed the Visual Artists Rights Act. They exempted the passage of time or the inherent nature of the materials from protection. There is no compulsion under federal law to fix natural deterioration. If something is deteriorating because of the inherent nature of the materials, no one can be blamed for it. Or if it's caused by the elements, nobody can be blamed for it, and under the statute no one can be compelled to fix it. So the answer to your question is, absolutely, this is what Congress was thinking about. Artists testified before Congress and stated that Congress should exempt the inherent nature of the materials and the passage of time. You can decide to fix it . . .

Rainer: But you are not compelled to . . .

Garfinkle: Nor will anybody be held liable under VARA for the deterioration. The arts organizations that testified before Congress felt that this was reasonable.

Folgarait: If a certain mural is deemed to be beyond salvation, is there an automatic fallback plan to do intense photodocumentation of that image? Is that a standard practice?

Shank: No. If somebody has had the foresight, like Santa Monica or Los Angeles, to hire somebody like us, then of course.

Healy: I don't know too many muralists who don't have a good stack of slides of their baby.

Rainer: It was huge help on lots of projects to have the artists there with photodocumentation of the original artwork.

Levin: And is documentation an appropriate alternative to doing conservation work on a mural that may be questionable, either in terms of its value to the community or in terms of its ability to survive?

Shank: If that's the only option.

Levin: One of the other alternatives—which may be problematic—is to move it.

Rainer: I wouldn't say that's an alternative.

Levin: Well, you may not consider it an appropriate alternative, but that's the question. Is there ever a series of circumstances where it is appropriate to do that? Leonard, since you suggested that a mural is integral to the physical structure that it's created on, I'd be very interested in your thoughts.

Folgarait: When I was in Barcelona, I visited the Museum of the History of Catalonia. You walk into an immense space, and inside they have reconstructed the interior murals of at least a dozen small Romanesque churches that were damaged or in great danger of further damage during the Spanish Civil War. The murals were removed and reconstructed inside this museum. In that case, I think they made a very ethical and practical decision. Another example is the Siqueiros mural that was recently moved to Santa Barbara. There's something that was in a private home where I never would've been able to see it, and now it's in a public space. I'm glad of both those instances.

Rainer: In my mind, when there's imminent danger of a mural being completely destroyed, those are the times you do it. I agree with you in the case of the Catalan museum. If the murals were in danger of being bombed, fine. It's a bit of a shame that they isolated them from their environment, but I understand that. In the case of the Siqueiros mural, I think that was a choice. I visited the mural when it was in the private home. Siqueiros really created that mural for that site. It was sited from the house to look out on the garden, and you looked out at eye level to the mural. It was in a protected little patio that kept the mural from any kind of damage, just a beautiful ensemble. At the same time, I agree—you can now see it in a public space, and it is available to the public. But those people who owned it could have opened up their home for interested people to see it, rather than isolating the murals from their original space.

Garfinkle: There is a very odd California case in which one lower court said that all murals can be removed.

Rainer: But then they're not murals anymore.

Shank: A mural without a wall.

Garfinkle: As I said, the law doesn't quite fit with the reality.

Shank: That has been my big frustration. I've been brought into these cases that have not wound up in court and been faced with this absurd position of removing a mural from a wall. And I've said, "You can't remove a mural from the wall." But people try to prove you can without damage. I say that the flaw is in the law.

Rainer: You can pretty much remove anything, but you will always damage it. In the Siqueiros mural case, they really limited the damage by moving the entire patio building. And that was probably the best option, rather than cutting the walls into sections.

Folgarait: I realize that I revealed myself as an art historian when I said that I appreciated the Siqueiros mural being moved because it gave me access to it. But I think that Leslie, in her articulate defense of why it was appropriate for where it was, changed my mind. After all, when a patron and an artist make a contract for a work of art that is in a private place, it's their right to keep people like me out of it. It was my academic greed that made me say that—and I appreciate your changing my mind about that particular piece.

Rainer: But there is public opinion that believes it's great that so many people can now see it. There is that trade-off.

Levin: Wayne, have you had any experience with the removal of murals?

Healy: A colleague of mine, David Botello, had a mural on a dry cleaning store in East Los Angeles. The stucco was deteriorating, so they pulled the mural off, rolled it up, and brought it to the studio. David and a worker start to delaminate this thing, and after a couple of hours they'd loosened up just a bit of it. And just observing, I said, "Do you want me to extrapolate how many hours it'll be to get the whole thing off? It'll take the rest of your life." That was all he had to hear. He said, "What am I doing this for? In two weeks I can paint the whole thing again, and it could be brand new." That project stopped and he went back to repaint the wall.

Levin: Wayne, would you agree that we ought to be doing more with mural artists in terms of educating them regarding conservation issues in order to alleviate some of the problems that their artworks could have 20 years from now?

Conservation image

Healy: I agree wholeheartedly. We learned the hard way, although we knew a little bit. We knew paint hangs better on clean walls than dirty walls. If the paint is falling off, don't paint over it—get a scraper out. I'm not saying other artists don't know that. It's just that they're in their groove to paint. I've seen artists that have wham, wham, wham, put up this great-looking piece of artwork, and two months later, it's falling off. In their enthusiasm to paint, they didn't take the time to clean and prepare the wall. And so some are self-destructing on their own, and there's nothing you can do.

Garfinkle: Are most muralists art school educated?

Healy: Not the ones I know. I know several college-educated muralists.

Garfinkle: So the question would be whether that should be taught in art schools or in art departments. I'm a trustee of an art college, Maryland Institute College of Art, and I've been trying to talk the Institute into having conservators come in and explain to the students what will happen to their materials in 5 or 10 years. I think it is important that the Los Angeles permitting process includes information on materials and the treatment of the wall, and includes a technically proficient conservator on the panel that reviews the murals so, for example, the artists know that they're using the right paint.

Rainer: L.A. has tried to take charge of this whole maintenance and longevity issue. They recently wrote guidelines for painting a mural that do list materials—and the permits do go through a commission process where a conservator is present along with other disciplines.

Levin: It seems that there's no way we can avoid the peculiar challenge that murals present. They're public art, and they're part of a structural support. We're going to have to continually grapple with the impermanence of structures, the durability of materials, and the fluctuating environment in which that work of art exists. Leonard, are these the issues that outdoor murals will always face?

Folgarait: Absolutely. You just put your finger on how indefinable, ultimately, the term mural is. I wouldn't want conservators to get too hung up philosophically on what a mural is in terms of what to do with it. I would rather conservators just approach it as the case at hand.

Garfinkle: The work of art at hand.

Folgarait: Or not even "work of art." This is material in a certain condition that needs certain attention.

Rainer: I think you're right. As conservators, if someone comes to us and asks, can you conserve this five-dollar painting from the thrift shop or can you conserve this Rembrandt?—it's not our place to judge what that five-dollar painting may really mean to them. I've worked on murals that I love. I've worked on murals that I haven't loved as much. And that's why, when we did our mural condition survey for L.A., we handed over those documents to historians and architects and the city arts manager to decide. I don't ever feel that I'm the ultimate decision maker. I'm just there to do the work.