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Art conservator Garth Francis is at work outside the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts (TOPA), restoring renowned pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's Mermaid sculpture. It's a job Francis estimates will cost the City of Miami Beach nearly $10,000.
Francis, a specialist in outdoor sculpture restoration, holds up two snapshots of the metal and reinforced-concrete piece, a twenty-foot-high striped silhouette of a mermaid sitting in a real pool of water. In the first photograph, which shows the work as it looked when it was installed in 1979, the figure's hair is a vivid canary yellow, the concrete "waves" around the pool an electric ultramarine. In the second, more recent photo, the hair is a pale yellow shade, the waves a faded sky blue. The stripes on the mermaid's body, which used to blare Lichtenstein's trademark bright red, have turned a common brick color. Overall, the entire painted surface appears cracked and buckled, as if several coats of paint have been applied.
What caused such damage to the sculpture? Was it normal wear and tear, perhaps? The devastating effects of salt air? An artist who used cheap materials?
"A lot of artwork is damaged irreversibly by people who are not authorized or qualified to maintain it," Francis offers. "Nobody at the city seems to want to talk about it, but a maintenance man did come by and apologize for getting the colors wrong."
Indeed, it appears as though no one at the Miami Beach City Manager's Office knows exactly who gave the order, but staffers there confirm that a city employee was dispatched to touch up the Mermaid on more than one occasion. "I don't know when and I don't know how it was painted incorrectly," admits Kaslyn Mohamed, who as the city's special projects coordinator is overseeing the current restoration. "But I understand that it was done by the building maintenance department over the past couple of years." Adds Mohamed: "The sculpture is something the city hasn't paid much attention to."
It turns out city officials had little to do with installing the $100,000 artwork in the first place. The Mermaid was commissioned through the efforts of a group of local art-lovers who wanted to see the landscape of Miami Beach marked by an important contemporary piece of public art. The group obtained a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which they matched with contributions through fundraising. An NEA panel selected Lichtenstein, who owns a home on South Beach, to create a work specifically for the Washington Avenue location.
"At that time, Lichtenstein had not done a major outdoor sculpture," recalls art collector Ruth Sackner, who along with her husband Marvin was instrumental in organizing the project. "It was a plus and a coup that he was going to do something in Miami Beach."
Sackner and others say the gift to the city was met with indifference by Miami Beach officials, under whose jurisdiction it fell to maintain the sculpture once it was in place. The piece wasn't even insured until a few years ago, and only then at the insistence of Diane Camber, director of the Bass Museum of Art. While TOPA underwent renovations in the late Eighties, few precautions were taken to shield the Mermaid from construction debris.
Repeatedly during the past few years, Ruth Sackner had asked city officials to have the sculpture restored, and the issue was also raised by employees of Metro-Dade's Art in Public Places program. But before Mohamed became Miami Beach's special projects coordinator in early 1993, no one took charge of the project.
"It was scandalous," says Marvin Ross Friedman, a local art dealer who was part of the committee that commissioned the work. "The city has been derelict in promptly caring for a major work of art by a major American artist. Finally they've taken some affirmative steps."
To rescue the Mermaid, Garth Francis will use custom polyurethane paints approved by Lichtenstein himself A after he removes several layers of old paint. The conservator will also repair rust damage to the steel frame and clean the pool of water scum. "Changing the artist's intent can null and void a work of art," he comments. "I'm really excited about bringing this sculpture back to life. People won't even recognize it when they drive by, it will be so vivid."
The neglected Lichtenstein is only one local example of a problem that is being addressed by Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!), a Washington, D.C.-based organization funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property. With the help of local volunteers, SOS! is identifying every outdoor work of sculpture in the U.S. and assembling a computer database of information about each piece that includes its title, artist, date and source of commission, and condition. Once the database is complete, SOS! will wage a campaign to promote proper artwork maintenance by appealing to local government entities, corporations, and community groups.
"Answering the question of who has jurisdiction over a work may be the most important aspect of the survey," says Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. "Often no one remembers how the sculptures were commissioned or who's responsible for them."