By Timothy P. Whalen
Public art punctuates our surroundings. It reminds us of important moments in history, and it honors the fallen. It makes us smile in parks and squares and captures our attention in underpasses and stations. Unlike its privileged cousins housed in the controlled confines of art museums, public art contends with the world at largecars, people, graffiti, censorship, ice, birds, and sun. All of these factors have considerable implications for art in public spaces, which is the focus of this issue of Conservation Perspectives. How can conservators, and the others responsible for its care, be the best-equipped stewards of art in the public realm?
At the Getty Conservation Institute, we have been working for many years on conservation issues presented by public and outdoor art. The conservation of América Tropical, a monumental 1932 outdoor painted mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros in downtown Los Angeles—and its lessons generally for outdoor mural conservation—has been a long-term project of the Institute. We worked closely with our Getty Museum conservation colleagues as they prepared and conserved the Fran and Ray Stark Collection—the Museum's own collection of outdoor art. Finally, as part of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, we have been researching the problems of outdoor painted surfaces, including sculptures and murals, seeking a better understanding of the properties and behaviors of paints used for twentieth- and twenty-first-century outdoor painted artworks. Our purpose in these efforts is to establish ways that conservation professionals can improve the preservation of art in outdoor places.
Our other articles take a closer look at conservation issues related to some specific works of public art in a range of materials. In her article, Leslie Rainer, a GCI senior project specialist, recounts the difficult preservation journey of América Tropical, which, after years of neglect, became the focus of a GCI/City of Los Angeles project to conserve, protect, and make publicly accessible this significant work of public art. Modern art conservators Lydia Beerkens and Frederike Breder examine some of the conservation challenges associated with composite plastic fiberglass-reinforced polyester, a medium popular with artists in recent decades but one that poses particular technical and philosophical questions with respect to conservation treatment. Sculpture conservator Andrew Naylor describes the treatment decisions made on several historic monuments in Dublin, where threats to monuments over the years have run the gamut from bird droppings to damage from political violence. Finally, we round out our examination of public art with a conversation with two public art administrators and a public art conservator about the broad range of considerations that go into the creation and care of art located in public spaces.
Without question, public art enriches our experience of our communities, at its best prompting us to pause and reflect, as well as enjoy. While public art may pose myriad conservation challenges, its enhancement of civic life more than justifies the effort.
Timothy P. Whalen