Just as people need regular medical checkups to maintain good health, works of art also require periodic inspection to preserve their good condition. Public art, in particular, requires consistent observation as it is often exposed to the elements, such as rain, wind, freezing and thawing, and human interaction such as vandalism or curious hands all factors that are likely to increase the rate of deterioration. The City of Richmond recently enlisted the help of conservators to survey their collection of 74 public sculptures. Of interest to the City was determining an overall picture of the health of their collection, identifying works that needed immediate attention, as well as developing a maintenance plan that would allow them to efficiently and periodically attend to all the works in the collection.
Installed throughout the city over the last several decades, the Richmond public art collection owns a variety of public sculpture made up of different materials. With many of the works acquired just before the 2010 Olympics, the City is anxious to keep its earlier works, like Michael Swaynes Dog Party (2003), and newer acquisitions well preserved. Ranging from traditional materials like stainless steel and glass to the highly specialized GORE®TENARA® Architectural Fiber netting in Janet Echelmans sculpture Water, Sky, Garden (2009) installed at the Richmond Oval, the diversity of materials provided a challenge for the City when designing an overall maintenance plan.
How does a fine art conservator deal with an assortment of materials that are not equally resilient to the factors that challenge outdoor and public preservation? Regular condition inspections are an effective way to care for public collections. A useful tool that conservators and other collections managers use to monitor changes in an artworks condition or the overall state of a collection are condition reports. When writing a condition report, each work must be assessed individually for any previous damage and documented with photographs and details on how the damage was sustained and how further damage could be prevented. The conservator is also likely to comment on the materials used and discuss how the intrinsic nature of those materials might relate to its longevity in its current environment.
During the conservation assessment, all of the works in the Richmond collection were evaluated for damage and their materials were reviewed. The location of each artworks installation was also commented on: was the work located in an isolated area and therefore susceptible to vandalism? Was it located near the ocean, therefore subjecting it to corrosive salt water? By the end of the condition survey, the City had learned the following: their relatively young collection was in overall good condition. The majority of damage had come from vandals or other accidents rather than poor construction, inappropriate choice of materials, or unsuitable installation locations. With this information in hand, the City can now develop an appropriate maintenance plan to keep the collection in a well-preserved state for generations to come.
Previously: Theatres of the World: the conservation of two murals in the Simon Fraser University Theatre, Part 2.
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