LOS ANGELES — When I was an art conservation technician in Southern California, I had the opportunity to treat and maintain public artworks around the region. Our team went everywhere, tenderly washing sculptures, plucking off chewing gum, applying fresh layers of wax. The work was Sisyphean but satisfying, some real Mierle-Laderman-Ukeles-type of moments.
At the same time, it was gut-wrenching. In many underserved neighborhoods, civic and public art projects created through extensive community events, sometimes years-long collaborations with residents, were often found in extreme states of disrepair. There were thick blankets of car-exhaust soot, dust from car tires, sticky bird guano, holes caused by severe corrosion, peeling paint, weeds growing in unintended places, patina loss, and caked layers of mineral deposits from hard water. Not to mention the human-made marks left due to the artwork sitting for years without care and intervention.
It’s a fair question to ask about the financial cost of repairing work in extreme conditions like these. It’s the question conservation professionals are asked about the most, aside from the panicked “Can you fix it?!” I would argue, though, that there is a different kind of cost more pressing to consider. What harm does the continued neglect of public art do to the community over time?
In the arts sector, we talk a great deal about how the arts aid in the mental wellbeing of those participating in them — improving post-traumatic stress disorder responses for veterans, creating emotionally supportive spaces for incarcerated people, providing for the mental health of patients in hospitals, and fortifying self-esteem for folks with autism. Specifically in public art, researchers have illustrated how collaborative and co-creative public artworks significantly impact community members in terms of feeling seen and acknowledged. In all these ways public art can spark a transformative event, not just in transforming space but in facilitating the way communities heal and move forward in that space.
But transformative and permanent public installations only remain so through meaningful long-term care from all stakeholders involved. Otherwise, it would be like seeing a therapist for a single session, having an “Ah-ha!” revelation, without then doing the work of digging through the experiences that got you there.
Not many commissioners are thinking about how damaging this negligence could be. Sure, there is a lot of consideration for how to avoid intense community backlash by being more thoughtful about siting decisions and early engagement with community members. “Tilted Arc” (1981), a 1980s public art installation gone wrong, is a well-known example to learn from. There is also increased awareness around problematic monuments (for example, Confederate monuments) and the direct impacts they have on people of color in terms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Yet, the deterioration of co-productive public art and the relationship of that deterioration to public health remain unexplored.
Imagine a public artwork created by a BIPOC artist, an LGBTQIA2S+ artist, a woman or gender non-conforming artist, or an artist with disabilities, in collaboration with community that is left to decay. What kind of message does this send about a commitment to care for these communities? Where does all the developmental work of commissioning a diverse selection of public artists for permanent projects ultimately end up?
Public art professionals across the country indicate the lack of resources and staff in their public art programs as a pain point for many issues they wish they could address. Suppose they work in civic departments or other major commissioning entities? In that case, they are at the whims of whatever the current administration wants to focus on. Municipal codes and ordinances for long-term maintenance and conservation of public artworks are often ineffective or non-existent. Collections care and conservation professionals are a limited cadre in places outside of bicoastal and major urban areas. And public art collections themselves, which are spread across vast geographic regions, vary in materials and in number.
While this is all true, plenty of people recognize the importance of caring for public artwork, for the sake of the work, and the communities that this work identifies and affirms. Artist Bob Haozous visits his work “Gate/Negate” (2000) in Santa Fe regularly, to retouch the hundreds of painted names of indigenous tribes that no longer exist. Jeanelle Austin, the lead caretaker of the George Floyd Global Memorial in Minneapolis, has tended to thousands of offerings of street art since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Muralist and scholar Judy Baca has advocated for decades to protect Chicana/o murals in Los Angeles against the dangers faced due to the withdrawal of city support. Clearly, this labor is more than about preserving memory, but keeping alive and well the creations that allow for community recognition and healing.
There is something to be said, too, about the potential unconscious and conscious biases at play in public art and conservation fields. Local public art agencies in the United States and members of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) largely comprise White, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual women, as found in two separate 2018 surveys conducted by Americans for the Arts and the AIC. A demographic arguably less likely to have experienced serious kinds of community divestment and therefore less likely to see a neglected community artwork as part of a larger system of care.
Despite these challenges, we desperately need to shift our thinking about public art maintenance as more than the care for cultural heritage. Most of the time, public artworks can be repaired and conserved in a relatively short period of time. The wellbeing of our communities is much harder to mend.