AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Public Art Outreach Session, May 10, 2012

This group of sessions presented various projects of outdoor murals, public sculpture, and architectural elements  and how the general public was involved and/or contributed to the efforts of preservation and cataloging of the collection.

Leslie Ranier, of the Getty Conservation Institute, began the session with a discussion of the 1932 Siqueiros mural, America Tropical, located in Los Angeles across from City Hall.  Although the artist had been commissioned to portray a particular subject matter, he instead used the opportunity to comment on American imperialism.  Authorities were not amused and it was almost immediately painted over.  As years went by and the overpainting faded, the mural began to peek through.  The wall onto which the mural had been painted was partially hidden by surrounding buildings so the lack of visibility contributed to it being ‘lost’ to the public.  By the 1960s, however, there was a public call to restore the mural and the GCI became involved in the 1980s.  A temporary protective shelter was erected to provide protection.  By the 1990s, an agreement was signed with the city to provide treatment which is currently underway.   A more permanent shelter is being designed by Brooks + Scarpa Architects, along with an interpretive center  (with the help of IQ Magic) and an observation platform which will bring the public up to eye level with the restored mural. (  Outreach activities for this project include:  site visits for the public and officials to view conservation activities, screening of a 1971 documentary on the artist, staging of an opera which tells the story of the mural, production of a video of the project and its evolution, and a symposium on the legacy of Siqueiros.  These activities, along with the actual conservation work on the mural, all contribute to preserve the story of the mural and the evidence of the artist’s hand.

The next presentation was by Kristen Laise, of Heritage Preservation in Washington DC.  She discussed the evolution of their Save Outdoor Sculpture program which was able to bring together 7,000 volunteers across the country to catalog 30,000 public sculptures between 1989 and 2006.  This effort introduced the local communities to conservation and directed attention to long neglected statues.  This catalog was then made available to the public through the Smithsonian’s Inventory of American Sculpture database.  The program was carried out through a combination of federal, foundation, and corporate funds and had a presence in every state in the country.  (Sidebar:  During the course of my own work restoring public sculptures, I can’t tell you how many times I was asked if a statue was newly installed, when in fact it had been there for a hundred years.  Sometimes you just don’t see what’s in your own backyard until a project like SOS calls your attention to it.)  Children’s education was one of the targets of their outreach activities and included a traveling exhibition entitled “Preserving Memory”, an education kit called “Inside Outdoor Sculpture”, and even the introduction of a Girl Scout patch program.  I believe she mentioned that efforts to publish information on the program on YouTube are currently underway.  With an emphasis on good visual images and extensive press coverage, Kristen stated that her office had binder after binder after binder of press clippings covering the program.  Perhaps because of the huge success of the program, the National Cemetery Administration used it as a model for their own Historic Monuments Assessments program where 960 objects in 125 cemeteries were assessed, with a subsequent 76 historic monuments conserved. (Full disclosure: I was a recipient of several of those contracts.)  Kristen then reviewed their follow-up program of Rescue Public Murals which was launched in 2006.  The goal of the project was/is advocacy and documentation for public murals.  She gave an example of a mural in Atlanta which lacked these items and was unfortunately repeatedly covered with graffiti to the point that it was no longer recoverable.  Heritage Preservation has collaborated with ARTstor to publicize images of public murals ( in an effort to garner community support for their protection.  Again, Kristen emphasized the importance of good press coverage in protecting murals, the need to have community groups take ownership, and the necessity of educating the public (in particular, any neighborhood associations within the area) as to the importance of the mural.  Another aspect of the RPM program is to review existing guidelines for mural protection, to conduct artist interviews, and to do materials research to support preservation efforts.

Next up was Richard McCoy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  After an initial blog post to challenge the public to come document IMA’s outdoor art was less successful than he had hoped, Richard took another approach and went to his museum studies students at Indiana University Purdue University (IUPUI).  His assignment to them was to survey the public art within their campus and to create Wiki articles and Flickr posts to document the collection.  They used SOS materials to guide them in conducting their surveys and became familiar with the importance of primary source material in creating their Wikipedia postings.  The resulting blog attention to this project was so extensive that Wiki gave it an entry on their main page.  And because of the use of geolocators within the Wiki posts, links to other websites and pages (e.g., a fan page within Facebook) resulted in an even greater dissemination of the information.  Richard’s next effort was to bring students to the Indiana Statehouse to document the art found within the building.  During this effort, students were able to bring attention to an overlooked statue that had been shown in the 1893 World’s Fair and had since been mistakenly identified ( ). To further publicize and utilize the documentation efforts of the students, the ‘book creator’ tool within Wikipedia was enabled and guidebooks to the public art of the Statehouse were produced and sold.  At the beginning of his presentation, Richard stated that the premise of using Wikipedia is that rather than claiming ownership of the information, the author is giving the gift of knowledge.

The next speaker was Fabio Carrera from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.  Fabio has spent 25 years collecting information on public art and architectural elements created before 1797 in Venice, Italy.  His WPI engineering and science students began documenting these in the late 1980s in partnership with Earthwatch Institute volunteers, creating a wiki-based website to give access to the information to the public ( ).  Each object is given a single page within this website, leading to the creation of 3,068 pages of information; sematic tags within the pages allow you to search for like items.  Their documentation efforts have enabled the discovery that 33 pieces within the catalog are now found to be missing.  The project has continued to evolve, with efforts currently underway to create a mobile app which will serve as a guide to each of the public art wiki entries.  It is to have interactive ‘intelligence’ which will allow the viewer to view condition photos of the object while standing in front of it, to provide an updated photograph, to contribute money to its restoration, to sign up for alerts when others update the catalog entry, and other ways to stay informed.  This app is expected to be ready in the summer of 2012.  In addition to this wiki project, Fabio has started a non-profit organization called which will collaborate with UNESCO in the preservation of the public art of Venice.

This was followed by a presentation by Andrew Smith of Sculpture Conservation Studio in Los Angeles where Andrew told the story of a glass tile and mosaic mural that had been covertly installed on a train trestle in Encinitas.  The religious image (a surfing Virgin of Guadalupe) combined with the fact that the art was unsanctioned by the city, sparked controversy and the city tasked his firm with investigating how/if the mural could be removed.  Because nobody had yet claimed responsibility for its creation, Andrew and his fellow conservators were at the site attempting to understand its fabrication and how it might be removed – while the public and press watched.  A few remarks made by Andrew to an inquiring reporter regarding the artwork, spoken from the heart but perhaps made without thinking of the ramifications, went viral online and called even more attention to the project, resulting in international coverage and scrutiny of how the artwork should be seen.  This sort of attention then placed both the client and the conservator in a difficult position.  Andrew ended the presentation by prompting the audience to consider where the line is when conservators are asked to protect controversial or provocative works of art, particularly when they are not sanctioned by authorities.  And we must be careful to remain aware of the public’s perception of our efforts in this age of instantaneous media coverage.

This session was brought to a close by a short video presented by Scott Haskins which was created to publicize the efforts to save a series of freeway murals created in Los Angeles as part of the 1984 Olympics.  The murals were supposed to have been maintained and preserved in perpetuity but, instead, were being painted over by Cal Trans because of their legal obligation to address graffiti.  Part of his efforts have included the edification of highway crews to show that the graffiti tag can be removed without completely painting over the whole mural and that the mural can then be saved ( ).  A second closing note was given by Viviana Dominguez, who discussed the removal of three mural paintings from the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Haiti after the recent earthquake.  Their efforts successfully saved these 3, while 11 others were destroyed during the quake.

The presentations of the Public Art Outreach Session were all very successful in showing how important it is to involve the community in preservation efforts.  It is our responsibility to articulate the significance of public art, not only in terms of the importance of the artist or the placement of the object, but also its beauty, the artist’s vision, and how the object speaks to the soul.  The methods through which that is accomplished have grown exponentially over the past couple decades and we need to be familiar and comfortable with the ways in which we can publicize our message.

3 thoughts on “AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Public Art Outreach Session, May 10, 2012”

  1. Hey Karen,
    Nice summary of the talks! Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    I love your observation that so often public artworks aren’t noticed until they are restored or, worse yet, damaged!


  2. Hi Karen,

    Thanks so much for putting this together. I did want to note that while Andrew presented the talk, the content of the presentation was a collaborative effort between me, Andrew, and principal conservator Andrea Morse. All three of us participated in the discussion panel that followed.


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