Public Art Assessment & Conservation
Every two years Arlington Public Art contracts a conservator to review our collection of more than 60 permanent artworks and for the first time this year our portable works—60 framed artworks hung in county buildings. This year’s review was recently completed and I am now reviewing the condition reports and making decisions with the rest of the Public Art staff on specific conservation and maintenance actions to take.
Some of the findings in the reports are straightforward and the recommendations are simple to implement. For example, mend the fence around a play sculpture in a park; or clean the dust and dead bugs out of a stained glass skylight at a community center. We have good relationships with other county departments especially Parks & Recreation and our Public Art Master Plan (see page 82) makes clear that sponsoring county departments are responsible for maintaining artworks in their facilities or sites.
Artworks that were commissioned by private property owners as a community benefit through the county’s site plan process are also reviewed by our contract conservator. Our Public Art Master Plan states that the site owner is responsible for maintaining the work of art as a community benefit in perpetuity. When these artworks need attention, I contact the property owners to have the work done. This often includes recommending products or specialists and I consult with the artist, if possible, and the maintenance plan submitted at the project’s completion.
Other findings in the conservation reports require a bit more interpretation, or at least a follow-up visit on my part and discussions with staff and stakeholders. For example, one report recommended removing or re-siting an outdoor community-made ceramic tile mural in order to prevent further loss to the piece (a few tiles have been lost).
I consulted with colleagues, visited the site, and talked with the lead artist. No funding source exists to reinstall the piece in another location, the artist does not find the situation too dire, and the community is attached to the piece. Ultimately, we chose to leave the piece where it was rather than to sacrifice it entirely.
According to the preamble to American Institute for Conservation’s code of ethics, a professional conservator’s primary goal is “the preservation of cultural property” defined as “material that has significance that may be artistic, historical, scientific, religious, or social, and is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future generations.”
The code of ethics further states: “While recognizing the right of society to make appropriate and respectful use of cultural property, the conservation professional shall serve as an advocate for the preservation of cultural property.”
I am not sure that every object in our collection fits that definition of cultural property, nor will it always be worthy of the resources required to preserve it for future generations. It is not always practical to treat all of our projects this way because preserving objects often requires removing them from public view or limiting the public’s interaction with them.
To my thinking, public art must be in the public realm and we strive to commission public art that can survive the public realm. We select artists based on track records of creating durable, low maintenance projects and we review artists’ concepts for compatibility with the realities of the intended environment. But, when unforeseen circumstances arise (or when projects don’t turn out as our best intentions would have them), we are sometimes faced with tricky decisions about our responsibilities to the artwork and to the communities we serve.
We balance the conservator’s preservation-centric perspective with the realities, needs, and demands of the community and the program as a whole. Our de-accessioning policy allows us to let go of artworks that no longer meet the standards of our collection, require excessive maintenance, are damaged beyond repair, or pose hazards to the public. It prevents us from having to use precious resources (money, as well as staff time) on pieces that may no longer deserve such allocations.
For example, we are now re-evaluating our portable works. We have found that we are not staffed to properly steward and adequately rotate this collection of framed artworks, which has a different set of demands than our permanent pieces. We are looking into ways to repurpose the pieces that will allow them to have a more vital public presence and at the same time allow us to pass their ownership on to others.
Harder to de-accession, though, are pieces that have had significant community involvement and support in their physical creation. The catch-22 is that these are often the pieces that don’t stand the test of time (either structurally or aesthetically). We have learned that it is important to establish the expected lifespan of a community-initiated project up front. It is much easier to extend that lifespan if all goes well than to tell community members that you are removing an artwork they thought was permanent (and likely not replacing it with anything).
Maintenance of a collection is important for many reasons. But the bottom line is that if artworks become eyesores, we risk losing both public and internal support for our programs.