41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 30, "Rethinking the Monumental: A Creative Approach to the Preservation of a Landmark Tony Smith Outdoor Sculpture,” by John Steele and Abigail Mack

This talk had so much to like: an incredible case study of Tony Smith’s massive Gracehoper, a great film clip featuring 1970’s Detroit, and a nuanced look at how community and stakeholder values influence the preservation of public art. But most valuable was the clear exposition of the collaborative decision-making process that went into creating a treatment plan for this Detroit landmark.
Gracehoper is owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts and sits on the Museum’s north lawn.  It’s the largest of Smith’s sculptures to be fabricated during his lifetime and is roughly 22 feet high and 46 feet long, with a whopping 3,800 square feet of surface area. Smith designed a cardboard maquette for the sculpture in 1961, but the full-size version wasn’t fabricated until 1972. In a delightful short film clip, we were able to see the fabricated steel sections being trucked into Detroit and listen to Smith talk about the joy of seeing this monumental sculpture installed.  Although not part of the clip shown, Tony Smith mused that Gracehoper, “looks like someone’s nightmare…I guess the reason that it’s not my nightmare is because it’s on the lawn of the Detroit Museum.”

Gracehoper at the DIA

41 years later the sculpture is, if not a nightmare, then a very challenging conservation project. The painted exterior – meant to be a “dull semi-gloss” black specified by Smith – is now faded, streaked and disfigured by graffiti. Corrosion has created rusty staining and caused paint to lift. The sculpture now desperately needs conservation treatment not only to restore its appearance, but also to insure its preservation for the future; unless existing corrosion is removed and the surface recoated, corrosion on outdoor sculptures like this one will continue, eventually undermining structural integrity.
The project team assembled to develop a treatment plan included conservators John Steele and Abigail Mack; John is the DIA’s Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Abigail, of Abigail Mack Art Conservation LLC, specializes in the conservation of modern outdoor sculpture. Also on the team were the DIA’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Rebecca Hart; James Sejd, President of the industrial painting company ASCo; and Sarah Auld, Director of the Tony Smith Estate. Together, they considered the monumental size of the sculpture, its current condition, Smith’s desired aesthetic for Gracehoper, and current coatings technology.
Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that as the team weighed treatment options, the DIA was facing an important regional tax vote which would, if successful, support operations for the Museum over the next ten years (it was successful, by the way).  The Museum could not afford negative public opinion, and the Gracehoper project team knew that their recommendations would need to be sensitive to cost and feasibility as well as conservation goals. This was no mean feat for research and treatment on a sculpture of this size. It’s also worth noting that the DIA did an amazing job of raising funds for this project; the cost of treating Gracehoper will be paid exclusively by grants and private donations.
Ultimately, the project team decided to treat Gracehoper on-site and to repaint the surface using a roller-applied high performance paint. But the simplicity of this statement belies the complexity of the decision-making process. The team investigated every aspect of the sculpture’s current condition and evaluated an amazing number of treatment options. They were guided by 2 primary questions: 1) Could the sculpture be treated on-site or would it need to be disassembled and treated in an off-site facility? 2) What paint would best match Tony Smith’s aesthetics while also meeting the team’s requirements for durability, application, maintenance, and availability?
As a resident of metro-Detroit, I’ve watched the progress of this project with interest for several years. I was fortunate to have an insider’s look at the investigative process and clearly remember the massive whiteboard flow-chart in the DIA’s Objects Conservation Lab that tracked the group’s decisions as they worked through questions and weighed possible approaches. Although attendees of this talk didn’t get to see the whiteboard with all its scribbled queries and findings, John and Abigail’s talk suggested it by elegantly following the group’s comprehensive and carefully considered research. I suspect that this will be the most important and useful aspect of this paper for most conservators – not the details of the final treatment plan, since every painted outdoor sculpture is different and most are not as large as Gracehoper  – but the way in which the team developed it.
For conservators considering similar projects with painted outdoor sculpture, or conservators considering ANY large-scale treatment project, this paper provides a great guide for what questions to ask and how to find the answers. Look for it in the OSG 2013 post-prints! Treatment of Gracehoper is slated to begin in July of 2013, so stay tuned to learn how it goes.