By Craig Deller, Fellow-American Institute for Conservation, for the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation
Public art punctuates our surroundings. It reminds us of important moments in history, and it honors the fallen. It makes us smile in parks and squares and captures our attention in underpasses and stations. Unlike its privileged cousins housed in the controlled confines of art museums, public art contends with the world at large—cars, people, graffiti, censorship, ice, birds, and sun.
Madison is rich in public art and has a large and growing collection of outdoor sculpture. From the recent murals/mosaics along Allied Dr. to the oldest examples scattered around town, plus new exciting ones already in the works.. It is not surprising that most of our neighborhoods are blessed.
Every public sculpture has a story to tell—not only the story it was erected to commemorate but also the story of its care or neglect, often a reflection of how the community around it has changed over its life span.
Public art is entwined in a community’s past, with lessons to teach about history, science, civics, and the visual, performing, and literary arts. Preserving these reminders keeps alive a spirit of community and informs citizens about their communal past and help to link our downtown areas and beautify our town.
But like all our public infrastructures, such as streets and bridges, our public art must be maintained as well. Madison’s outdoor sculpture suffers from both acid rain and airborne chemical pollutants.
The Madison Arts Commission (MAC) is the primary municipal agency that funds artistic activities and initiates cultural programs that integrate, preserves, and advance arts and culture as an essential part of life in Madison.
The MAC is doing a fine job, and strongly supports the move to conserve. But it is a big job. With city and state resources being cut, new and more efficient conservation/preservation methods must be found to maintain these gifts, or we will lose a part of cultural heritage that can not be replaced. Arts funding in Wisconsin is lower than ever- 14 cents per capita compared to $6.26 per capita in our neighboring state of Minnesota.
The recent work of phase one, completed last fall on the Capital Square Fountains, is a great example. Removing two decades of hard water deposits, is typical of how, once something is neglected, the work is only made more difficult and expensive.
Madison has over 38 public sculptures, fountains, and murals spread throughout the city, and it is each district that calls one their own that should be responsible for their upkeep. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The artist’s intent is often lost when approached without understanding how both acid rain and airborne chemical pollutants affect bronze, stone or wood.
Technological advances in understanding and preserving outdoor works is at our fingertips. Laser cleaning is one, and a newer more efficient technology, Co2 blasting, are being employed internationally. Older cleaning methods are being found to do more harm than good.
The City of Madison is blessed with historic and cultural resources that are integral to the city’s high quality of life. Protection and management of these resources must be considered as they exist in a modern and changing world. In Madison, there are numerous public and private organizations whose purpose is to preserve and enhance these important resources including the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. Preservation efforts are going to have to be grassroots rather than rely on the assistance of government agencies.
We must be committed to supporting the effort being made to maintain/conserve and preserve our collected cultural heritage.