Still-life Preserver

The life of an outdoor sculpture is a tough one. Which is why SOS! wants to hold public agencies accountable for the works of art.

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."

In Dade the problem is aggravated by numerous public art programs whose territory often overlaps. Local SOS! volunteers have so far recorded 350 pieces of outdoor sculpture, historic monuments, and high-relief murals; they expect to find another 150 works by the time the project is completed later this fall. Most obvious among the local works are those that were commissioned by Metro-Dade's Art in Public Places. (Whenever the county constructs a new public space, 1.5 percent of the budgeted funds are set aside for the program to purchase art to be displayed inside, outside, or around it.) But there is also an Art in State Buildings program, based in Tallahassee, which commissions art for state buildings with one half of one percent of construction costs. The Government Services Administration performs a similar function for federal buildings. Individual municipalities, including the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, have their own public art programs. Still more outdoor works, such as those outside churches and corporate offices, not to mention museums and private homes, will also be logged for the SOS! database.

Local SOS! coordinator Sean Schwinghammer makes regular rounds to assess the state of the area's public art. Deterioration is a nettlesome problem in Florida, he reports, owing to intense sunlight and the sea air. There are also the human factors, he adds, which include but are not limited to vandalism and neglect.

Schwinghammer points out Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels, a four-year-old fountain outside the Metro-Dade Government Center downtown. The piece isn't popular merely because it is an eye-arresting work of art; its sloping sections are coveted by local skateboarders. Although Art in Public Places recently spent about $10,000 to have the sculpture repainted, Schwinghammer says the skateboarders were back scratching it up the next day. The SOS! coordinator has learned that homeless people, too, have found ways to make use of local installations, often taking advantage of the shade or shelter they provide. While this enhances the functionality of the works, Schwinghammer explains, it also tends to hasten wear.

The statues on Cuban Memorial Boulevard off SW Thirteenth Avenue in Little Havana are another popular gathering spot, which can be detrimental to the works. On a recent afternoon, mercenaries involved in a recruiting effort to wage war on Cuba were camped out on cots around a Bay of Pigs monument. Yellow plastic police-line tape had been draped on the already damaged statue in a feeble attempt to prevent people from leaning on it. Nearby the bust of a Bay of Pigs veteran was covered with gifts of candy, as well as a plastic bag that appeared to contain chicken bones. Down the street a votive candle had been placed at the base of a statue of a Virgin with a baby Jesus. The Christ child was missing a hand, and ants nested in cracks along the Virgin's body.

Once the damage has been identified, of course, it still must be repaired. Vivian Donell Rodriguez, director of Art in Public Places, is appealing to corporations to join the county in private/public sponsorships to maintain the program's artworks. She'd also like to see city officials take more responsibility.

"This is a huge cultural heritage and we have to take care of it properly," Rodriguez insists. "We'd like help from some of the municipalities. We feel it's in their best interest to get involved."

Some agencies are cooperative. Florida International University, for instance, exhibits two dozen outdoor pieces on its South Campus, works by artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Joan Mir cents, Louise Nevelson, and Richard Serra. The entire collection, which is on extended loan from local collector Martin Margolies, was painted and protectively oiled this past summer at the behest of FIU Art Museum director Dahlia Morgan. FIU is footing the bill.

And then there is the City of Miami. Despite several attempts, SOS!'s Schwinghammer hasn't even been able to ascertain where the city is storing the artworks that used to be displayed in Bicentennial Park, much less what condition they're in. The park was once home to a number of large abstract sculptures and several historical busts. They were gradually removed, Schwinghammer says he's been told, because of concerns about damage inflicted by homeless residents or because they obstructed the Grand Prix track. But no one so far can enumerate or locate the pieces. "When you remove art, you have to keep track of where it's been stored. But they remove it and it's gone," Schwinghammer sighs. "Bureaucracy robs us of a lot of sculpture.

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