By Hafthor Yngvason

When the City of Cambridge in Massachusetts adopted a percent-for-art ordinance in 1979 under the auspices of our official art agency, the Cambridge Arts Council, many of its finest murals had already been painted. According to Al Gowan, the Arts Council's first administrator, the mural movement in Cambridge began in the early 1970s, inspired by the success of Summerthing, a city of Boston program that brought the arts to local neighborhoods. By the end of the decade, more than 40 murals were completed in Cambridge—not bad for a city of six and a half square miles.

Murals continued to be commissioned in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the advent of a formal percent-for-art program, more durable materials, such as ceramic tile and mosaic, were emphasized. Only 20 painted murals were commissioned after the 1970s—16 of which still exist. Of the 40 murals painted during the 1970s, only four were extant in 1996 when the Arts Council did the first comprehensive assessment of its public art collection. Today the city's official collection of 135 publicly sited artworks includes only these 20 painted murals; the remaining works are sculpture, stained glass, ceramic, and tile pieces.

Like many public art agencies, the Arts Council, during the first decades of its existence, conserved its artworks on an ad hoc basis. Without a comprehensive view of the collection, some pieces were restored, while others—perhaps more important but lesser-known works—fell apart. Conservation decisions were based on outside pressure and on the availability of funds. No regular maintenance took place. As the collection grew and aged, however, the problems became too demanding for only occasional care. With a city full of murals and sculptures in disrepair, the Arts Council was forced to look for a consistent and sustainable approach. This led to the establishment of a multistepped conservation and maintenance program in 1996.

The first step in our program was a condition assessment by professional conservators of every artwork in the city's collection, followed by restoration of sculptures and murals that were in critical condition, then less-demanding conservation projects, and, finally, routine maintenance for all the artworks. With a small amount of annual funding provided by the city, professional conservators are now hired each spring to inspect the artworks, clean them, remove graffiti, and apply protective coatings. They also provide recommendations for conservation treatment as needed and counsel artists for new commissions.

While the conservation and maintenance program has been of great benefit to the collection, it would be disingenuous to suggest that every step in the process has been uncontroversial or free of compromise.

Problems of the Collection

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Many of Cambridge's early murals were developed as temporary solutions to urban blight. Rundown buildings, graffiti-covered security doors, and expanses of brick and cinder block walls were dressed up with brilliant murals without consideration of the works' permanence. In some instances, the instability of the surface was an integral part of the work—as in a dazzling series of mini-murals painted by Andi Dietrich on the crumbling corners of dilapidated buildings—but in most cases the problems were simply ignored. Community-initiated murals were often painted, as the condition assessments have shown, with cheap house paint directly on wood shingles, cinder blocks, and bricks, with minimal attention to durability. No resources were available for expensive surface preparation, such as the repointing of brick walls.

The annual assessment reports also highlighted a pattern of problems with the locations of the murals. Graffti, chewing gum, bumper sticker adhesive, and paper residues from handbills were found on back wall murals located within arm's reach. In addition, some murals were suggested for placement on a wall with a history of graffiti as a means of deterring the problem. Unfortunately, the result was murals tagged with graffiti. Most of the problems, however, were incidental to ordinary city life—shoe and scuff marks, spatters and abrasions—caused by pedestrians and anything on wheels, from cars and bicycles to trash bins and pushcarts.

The 1996 condition assessments offered a comparative evaluation of all the artworks so that priorities could be established. In some instances, conservators argued against repainting some murals—if, for example, the substrate needed excessive repairs. But if we had hoped that an independent assessment would provide us with an algorithm for every decision, we had underestimated the complexity of our situation.

We had expected to weigh the murals' physical conditions against a variety of cultural concerns. What we were not prepared for was how frequently the two measures seemed to work together against our interests. Some of the best-loved murals were in deplorable condition, perhaps explained by the spontaneous way they came into being. Many of the works could be "saved" only by re-creating them.

Our basic options may have been clear—often the conservators' recommendations read simply, "deaccession or repaint"—but the choices were not so simple. If a mural is meaningful to a community, should it ever be removed? Should it be replaced with a new one? Should a destroyed mural be re-created? By whom?

Two murals illustrate how the Arts Council addressed these questions. Both are products of the 1970s, inspired by community action, optimism, and changing ideas about citizen involvement in the shaping of neighborhoods.

Two Murals

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In 1976 the newly established Arts Council organized a competition for creative, artistic ideas to enhance the city. The winning proposal called for the creation of a mural on a large rear wall of a shopping center. The mural, painted in 1977 by Jeff Oberdorfer and a group of neighborhood residents, is an architectural depiction of triple-decker houses, painted in the style and scale of the abutting residences. It successfully transformed the unsightly wall into an extension of the neighborhood. In 1989 Al Gowan, now a professor at Massachusetts College of Art, and his students added a second mural on the wall, covering 600 more square feet of cinder block with green pastures and a depiction of the estate that had once stood on the site.

A decade later, a new developer bought the building and began renovations. The prospect that the murals would be lost as the wall was repaired was a real concern. With the help of Gowan, the Arts Council was able to convince the new developer to restore the two existing murals and to pay for the addition of a third.

In another Cambridge neighborhood, on the rear wall of a shopping center, is Beat the Belt. Painted by Bernard LaCasse, the mural commemorates the citizens who successfully defeated a proposed eight-lane highway project that would have split the city in half. This was one of the great struggles of the 1970s, and it is fittingly represented in a populist image of ordinary people stopping a bulldozer from displacing their neighborhoods.

The mural has been used by the Cambridge public schools to initiate discussion about the importance of an active citizenry and of the freedom to speak out against government action. It is full of lessons about the basic tenets of the social contract, supported by a tangible example that should not be forgotten.

If these two examples illustrate varied functions of murals and varied reasons for retaining them—neighborhood beautification and community action—they also exemplify another complexity of the comprehensive approach to mural conservation. Both murals required conservation far beyond inpainting and consolidation. The Arts Council was left with the question of who was qualified to do the work. One, Beat the Belt, was an artist's interpretation of a narrative moment, painted in an accessible but individual style, while the other was an architectural screen of neighboring houses, designed to camouflage an eyesore.

In the first case, we were fortunate to be able to bring LaCasse back to repaint his mural. In the second, we hired a muralist experienced in painting architectural murals of the same scale. An architectural muralist was the appropriate choice, since what was important was to maintain the original mural's style. Minor changes in color and graphic detail would not change the meaning of the mural as long as those changes were in keeping with the original.

In addressing the same question with other murals in the collection, we decided, as a general rule, to search for the original artists to repaint their own work. Many of the artists were, fortunately, still active, while others were happy to come out of retirement. Once the artists heard that their works had established an enduring presence in the city, they were eager to bring them back to their original brilliance.

The outcome was not always so successful. Neighborhood Mural, a 1981 mural by Lisa Carter on a prominent wall in west Cambridge, was in such poor condition by 1996 that the conservator declared it destroyed. Carter agreed. The brick substrate and the mortar joints were so friable that a new mural would not have lasted through the freeze-thaw cycle of the first winter. The mural had to be deaccessioned, but the experience was educational and illustrative of issues that came increasingly into focus as the conservation and maintenance program developed—namely, the importance of site selection and site preparation.

A Comprehensive Approach

Six years into the conservation and maintenance program, the collection is now in a stable condition, largely because of the comprehensive approach. The benefits of having qualified conservators on board who know the art and monitor its condition from year to year are indisputable. Besides enabling us to respond to vandalism and minor problems in a timely fashion, the cumulative information of their annual assessments has provided a guide to where and how new art would thrive in the city, and this has translated into more careful commissioning practices.

The Cambridge Arts Council now makes the services of professional conservators available to all commissioned artists for advice on materials, fabrication techniques, and preventative measures, as well as on such contextual issues as the work's susceptibility to vandalism, accidental damage, and environmental deterioration. Such measures will not make murals permanent, but they will make the responsibility of maintenance much lighter. Permanence is not the ultimate goal—rather, the goal is reduction of physical deterioration in order to extend the life of a valued work of public art.

Hafthor Yngvason, director of public art at the Cambridge Arts Council, was the editor of Conservation and Maintenance of Contemporary Public Art, published in 2002.