By Kristin Kelly

In many respects, murals are an archetypal form of 20th-century art, constituting an important historical record and valued not only as a means of artistic expression but also as a representation of the social and political concerns of individuals and communities. In recognition of the significance of 20th-century mural painting—and the relatively little attention the subject has received—the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute cosponsored a spring 2003 symposium devoted to current research and practice in art history and conservation of 20th-century mural painting in the Americas.

The program of the symposium, which was entitled "Mural Painting and Conservation in the Americas," was organized by Leonard Folgarait, a professor of art history at Vanderbilt University, and Will Shank, former chief conservator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and now in private practice. Designed to provide a forum for discussion regarding the many meanings and functions of murals, this two-day event, held May 16 and 17, 2003, brought together a variety of disciplines that included art historians, conservators and conservation scientists, muralists, paint manufacturers, community leaders, and legal experts. The group took a holistic and big-picture approach to the subject, with presentations covering the social, artistic, and political dimensions of murals, the value they hold for different constituencies, and the rationale and conservation techniques for ensuring their long-term survival.

As adjunct public programming, a lecture on the conservation of mural paintings in the Chicago public schools opened the symposium on the evening of May 15. The presentation, "Art for the People: The History and Preservation of Chicago's Progressive and WPA-Era Murals," described the long-term Mural Preservation Project, in which the Chicago Conservation Center (CCC) worked to preserve hundreds of murals in the Chicago public schools. Barry Baumann and Heather Becker of the CCC described the hunt for and conservation and restoration of these murals—which are important both as art and as part of the history of Chicago—as well as the partnership forged with the Chicago Board of Education to preserve these historic works. A chance meeting between a teacher at one of the Chicago high schools and Baumann years earlier led the CCC to the project, which has become a model for conservation projects of this type around the country.

conservation image

This Chicago success story was sharply contrasted two days later with stories of the lack of preservation—and, indeed, deliberate destruction—of many of Chicago's outdoor public murals, as described by John Pitman Weber, a muralist and a professor at Elmhurst College, and Jon Pounds, the executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group. Weber and Pounds attributed the loss of early Chicago outdoor community murals primarily to the short life span of the spaces of urban America and to the murals outlasting the community consensus that they originally reflected and helped to shape.

With the 20th century now history, we can begin to examine with greater perspective the outdoor murals of the century and to discuss the meanings and the values associated with them. Among the symposium topics were interpretation and reinterpretation of well-known and much-analyzed works, the values associated with various murals, analysis of why murals are destroyed, and important current questions surrounding what will be saved and what will not be saved. The symposium's program was organized to achieve a balanced consideration of overarching and philosophical concerns and the more technical and practical issues related to their preservation.

The first day of the symposium was dedicated to the art history of the murals. Anthony Lee, associate professor in the Department of Art and chair of the American Studies Program at Mt. Holyoke College, gave the keynote address, called "Art History. Murals. Boogie," a title intended to convey "something of the lively energy and raucous dance between art history and mural." Focusing on Diego Rivera's monumental composition Detroit Industry, painted in the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932, Lee traced various interpretations of this work through the last three decades, contrasting Realist with Modernist interpretations. He ended by suggesting that Detroit Industry could be examined in terms of gender, race, and transnationalism, an approach that might lead to seeing the work differently.

Desmond Rochfort, president of Alberta College of Design and Art, discussed "The Aesthetics of Murals and How They Work," drawing primarily on examples in Europe to illustrate his points. Bruce Campbell, assistant professor of modern and classical languages and literature at St. John's University in Minnesota, spoke on "Issues in Patronage: State Sponsorship vs. Grassroots Development," discussing both the legacy of the Mexican school of mural painting and more contemporary mural work. Alicia Azuela, a professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas in Mexico City, spoke on the topic of the "Destruction of Murals," with primary emphasis on David Alfaro Siqueiros and the murals he painted in Los Angeles in 1932, including América Tropical (see below).

On the second day of the symposium, Walter Boelsterly Urrutia, director of the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Registro del Patrimonio Artístico Mueble, Mexico City, gave the keynote address, "Mural Technologies: Paintings and Their Conservation." His presentation was devoted to current conservation theory and practice, to legal and ethical considerations, and to the paint materials used to create murals. His comprehensive talk dealt with the history of Mexico's mural paintings, the wide range of media used in Mexican murals, and the many factors that need to be considered in the conservation of murals in Mexico.

Leslie Rainer, a mural conservator and GCI senior project specialist, spoke on "Approaches to the Treatment of Murals in the Americas," putting the conservation of the contemporary murals of Los Angeles in the context of mural conservation generally. Rainer described in detail three approaches: traditional work by conservators, artist and conservator collaborations, and repainting of the mural in part or in toto by the artist.

Ann Garfinkle of the law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston in Washington, D.C., spoke on "The Legal and Ethical Considerations of Mural Conservation: Issues and Debates." Garfinkle discussed the U.S. Visual Artists Rights Act and the California Art Preservation Act, highlighted the differences between the two, and placed mural painting and its conservation into a legal context. Garfinkle concluded with advice for muralists and for property owners on how to structure their arrangements in order to avoid a later need for the services of a lawyer.

The final presentations of the second day were made by Mark Golden from Golden Artist Paints, Mame Cohalan from KEIM Mineral Coatings, and V.C. Bud Jenkins from California Polytechnic University, Pomona, who gave presentations on various paint systems used frequently by muralists in outdoor settings.

The impetus behind the symposium was the desire to bring together the many groups invested in the painting and conservation of murals to discuss common concerns and to have the work of each group of professionals involved inform the other groups. By the end of the symposium, the consensus was that this had been achieved.

Concurrent with the symposium, the GCI hosted a meeting of interested conservators, art historians, and nonprofit administrators to consider forming a group dedicated to the inventory and preservation of outdoor murals in the United States, an initiative similar to the one undertaken by Heritage Preservation on outdoor sculpture. It is too soon to know if there will be results from this preliminary and informal gathering, but the symposium did bring new attention and interest to the preservation of this valuable—but somewhat overlooked—segment of public art.

Kristin Kelly is head of Public Programs & Communications at the GCI.

The Conservation of América Tropical

conservation image

The effort to conserve and shelter the 1932 mural América Tropical, painted by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros on the exterior of the Italian Hall in El Pueblo Historical Monument in Los Angeles, took a major step forward in the fall of 2002.

Measuring approximately 18 feet by 80 feet, the mural depicts a crucified Indian amid a tropical landscape of pre-Columbian ruins. One of the revolutionary soldiers in the upper right-hand corner aims his gun at an American eagle, who perches, wings outspread, atop the double crucifix in the center of the composition.

conservation image

In preparation for a full visual examination of the mural surface to ensure its ability to withstand the construction phase of the project, the previously existing shelter, built of plywood and fiberglass panels, was torn down in late October 2002, exposing the mural for the first time in a decade.

A team of conservators, led by Getty Conservation Institute Senior Project Specialist Leslie Rainer, extensively documented the current condition of the mural and stabilized areas of delaminated plaster. Working with GCI scientists and J. Paul Getty Museum conservators, they collected samples of paint, plaster, metal, and wood for further investigation into the composition of the materials used in the mural and in the painted metal shutters and wooden door that are integrated into the mural design. The samples are being analyzed in the GCI's laboratories. Results from this analysis will help determine methods and materials to be used in the final phase of treatment.

conservation image

Following the documentation and the conservation work, a team from the Preparation Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum worked with the architectural firm of Pugh + Scarpa to design and install a temporary rigid cover to protect the mural during the construction period.

The Siqueiros mural project is a collaboration of the El Pueblo Historical Monument—a department of the City of Los Angeles—and the Getty Conservation Institute. Funding for this project has been provided by the City of Los Angeles and by generous donations from private foundations and groups of committed individuals—in particular the Friends of Heritage Preservation—as well as by the GCI.