Converse with a Conservator | Outdoor Sculpture
Alright, well people are joining, so I want to get started. It is wonderful to welcome you guys to our brand-new program. I wanted to say welcome. This is the first of our series, and I always like to start my programs with the most exciting part, which is housekeeping. So, first, I just want to let you know to keep your internet browser page open, and there you will find a survey. Please fill it out at the end of the program. So, as a reminder, this program is being recorded, but only the panelists’ audio and camera will show up, and our intern, Armando Rivera, who's been with us all the way since last summer, is working behind the scenes in case you have any technical issues, so feel free to message him in the chat box if any issues arise. We also are featuring closed captioning, so please hit the CC button at the bottom to utilize this offering.
So we would like to also gratefully acknowledge the diverse and vibrant native communities who make their home here in Washington, D.C., the native peoples on whose ancestral homelands the museum has gathered, and the labor of people who were enslaved in constructing the Smithsonian American Art Museum's historic building.
So now a little bit more about this program—as I mentioned before, this is the very first one of a monthly series in which you get to have a dialogue with the conservator du jour. Since your camera and mic are off, please submit your questions through the Q&A feature. I will be your host and moderator, and I will get to as many questions as we can in these 45 minutes. So a little bit about me—I am the program manager here at the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is a lot to say, so we will often just refer to it as Lunder and SAAM just for brevity. Lunder Conservation Center was the first completely visible art conservation lab on permanent display at a museum, so that means that my job as program manager is to offer programs in person and now online, so we're very excited to have this be an online program and reach so many more of you. As you can see on my shirt, the art doctor is in. So, for this first one, our art doctor is objects conservator Ariel O'Connor, and she will be speaking about preserving outdoor sculpture. This is a topic very near and dear to my heart because my first museum job was actually at a sculpture park out in Massachusetts, so that's where I fell in love with the medium, and I also saw firsthand all the harsh conditions that this artwork go through. So, Ariel, to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be working at SAAM?
ARIEL O’CONNOR: Absolutely. Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. We gave this tour last year in person around the outdoor sculpture, and we're really thrilled to be able to do this as our first digital experience for conservation, so thank you for joining us all. I am an objects conservator, which means I work on everything three-dimensional, and depending on what museum you're at, that could be ceramics or glass or plastics. It could be something incredibly tiny; it could be something the size of our building, like we're going to talk about today—outdoor sculpture. My background is in medicine a little bit. I was pre-med in college, and I wanted to be a surgeon because I loved doing tiny, detailed work with my hands and fixing things that broke in my parents’ house, and then I realized I could be a surgeon for art and I loved that, and I switched to art conservation. I worked a few different museums in the past. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, the Walters Art Museum. I slowly started making my way down south and then ended up at Washington, D.C., at SAAM in 2016.
LH: Wonderful. So, now that we've learned a little bit more about you, I want to hear a little bit about, just to get us started, how is preserving outdoor sculpture different than your approach with objects inside the galleries?
AO: Yeah, that's very interesting because I did not work on outdoor sculpture before I came to SAAM. So my first experience being a decisionmaker with outdoor sculpture was at SAAM. I had worked on some before grad school, and I was doing a lot of cleaning and maintenance, but SAAM was the first time that I really had these incredibly large, amazing sculptures made out of multi-materials that I had to approach as a conservator. When I first started, I was approaching them like my indoor treatment experience—small scale, every aspect of the material is important, its originality is important, you try to preserve things as long as possible, and I quickly realized that the world of outdoor sculpture is much more like automobiles than it is about sculpture because the artist's intent and the aesthetics are so important to the process, and the harsh environment outside means that those materials are not going to last. They’re not going to last. Think about really, really old cars. You might see an old car that has this clear coat that's peeling, or it looks chalky. I mean, cars are in that same environment outside like our sculptures are, right? So it's got UV and acid rain and bird poop and all of these things, so I started flipping much more to the way of thinking of restoration than conservation. We can talk about that in terms of the future, but I made that shift as I learned more about outdoor sculpture at SAAM.
LH: That is great, and questions are already coming in, but I just know—you mentioned like automobiles—and I know that you've done a treatment that's quite similar to that, so can we start off looking at that artwork? Then I’m going to transition into some of our questions from the audience.
AO: Absolutely. One of my favorite outdoor sculptures is on our G Street entrance, so for those who have been to the museum before, they've seen this sculpture. For those who may be able to visit when it's safe again after COVID, it's a fiberglass sculpture by an artist named Luis Jiménez, and it's called “Vaquero,” which means “cowboy.” I love this sculpture. It is made entirely of fiberglass with a special plastic called a urethane, and Corvette Stingray was made out of fiberglass—the hot rod, the low riders. So the artist, Jiménez, is playing with that material and the idea of this American icon, these cars, and this very quintessential public monument of a man on a horse, where in Washington, D.C., you see them everywhere in a different material, and Jiménez says, “No, I’m going to use this fiberglass material. I’m going to use the idea of a Mexican or a Spanish-influenced cowboy, this American icon, and I’m going to flip it, and I’m going to make a different equestrian statue for America.” Fiberglass is a material that has a very long life, but it's not forever, so we've had to do a lot of conservation treatments on this piece.
LH: Didn't it also move around, too?
AO: Yeah, it did. We had it here for a while on G Street entrance and then it went through a large conservation treatment in 2013. So it went to a conservator in Ohio who's very familiar with these materials and Jiménez's work, and he did a lot of restoration for us on the clear coat that was peeling away and some of the fading paints, and when it came back, we installed it around the corner. We installed it on 7th Street up a little bit higher. You could see it from the street, and it was a location that we were hoping you would be able to see the sight lines better, but it actually was less visible, and we had some very exciting wins for our Washington Capitals. The Caps won the Stanley Cup in 2018, and the fence and the plinth could not hold the excitement of the fans, and so it we found it was a little bit more accessible, and so we decided to move it back around to G Street because it was such an iconic place for the sculpture, so a couple years ago we actually chose to move it back again to G Street.
LH: I just put in the chat box a video of it moving because that's always fun to see. We did get a question about “Vaquero,” about, actually, the artist. Did Jiménez make the blue mustang sculpture in front of DIA out of fiberglass as well? Do you know? I’m not familiar with that sculpture.
AO: That's a fantastic question. I’m not familiar with that particular sculpture, but we certainly can look into that for you, and Jiménez worked quite often in fiberglass. There may be people on this call that that know the answer to that, but the DIA has a wonderful sculpture collection as well.
AO: If anybody wants to try and guess how much the sculpture weigh, that's something for me, from small size objects to big size objects, I think it's really fascinating. So you think of fiberglass as being lightweight, but you think about all the resin that goes on it and it's got a steel armature, so if you want to guess how much you think it weighs, we'll tell you in a little bit.
LH: Maybe advance the slide because you can show one where you're in the picture, and it gives you a better sense of the scale.
AO: That's a good idea.
LH: Oh, one of our other conservators, Leah Bright, is on the call and she says, yes, that one is fiberglass, too. Thank you, Leah.
AO: Thank you, Leah.
LH: Okay, so we have a guess. Someone said 7,500 pounds.
LH: I think that's a pretty good guess.
AO: That's a pretty good guess. I always guess too low for sculptures.
LH: I have no idea how you could guess. I’m curious—will you let us know?
AO: I will. Do you want to guess, Laura?
LH: Oh, goodness. Well, I’ve seen the inside, so I know that there is some hollowness to it, as opposed to being completely—
AO: Yeah, it's completely hollow, but it has a steel tube that goes through it.
LH: I’m going to say three tons. Well, we got some other ones. Some people said ten thousand pounds, two tons—I’m going to go with three tons.
AO: Three thousand pounds.
LH: Oh, okay, so I should have said three thousand pounds instead of three tons because that's double. That's great. So the closest one is the person who said two tons. Okay, and someone had asked about making the images larger on the screen, so what you can do is you can make this full screen and, also, we'll make sure to give links to the artworks. I’ll put it in so you can look at them on your internet browser and really zoom in. A really nice feature that our website has is that you can press zoom and really see all the different layers of it. Okay, so another question, switching gears a little bit. We have a question about how you clean outdoor bronze sculptures.
AO: We do have outdoor bronze sculptures. We have three sculptures that are near our museum, and then we have three that are a little bit farther away from our museum, and one of them is a bronze, so I’ll flip to the slide of that while I’m talking about bronzes. So we'll go through some of our other sculptures—we'll come back to these. But bronze sculptures and bronzer brass—these are copper alloys, so they have copper in them, and one of the things that you often see with copper alloy sculptures, especially when they're intended to be darker, like brown or different colored patinas, is that you start to see this oxidation, these copper oxidation products. So when the copper mixes with the oxygen, it turns green. It can be a passivating layer. It can be pretty stable, but it can also be corrosive. It depends on what it is. If, aesthetically, you don't want it to look green, one of the things that you have to do is try to protect it from oxygen. So if you're cleaning the sculpture—we usually have wax layers on our bronze sculptures and different mixes of waxes—so, often, what we have to do—and every sculpture is very different, so I’m giving you general recommendations. They're not specific to a particular sculpture. You'd really need someone to look at yours. But we remove the wax layer and then we can clean it with water and really soft brushes. We don't want to scratch it because bronzes are not that hard. So we want to clean them with really soft brushes. Sometimes we use chamois cloths. We might use a little detergent if it's dirty, and then once it's cleaned up, the green areas, sometimes you have to re-patinate them. So you're putting a chemical on it to turn the color back to what the artist did originally, and then we try to protect it again from the elements, from oxygen, so we put wax on it again. It's kind of like a sunscreen for sculpture. It doesn't last that long, but it buys us a year or two years depending on your environment, and then we repeat the process again.
LH: So that leads us into another question because you're talking a little bit about the treatment and the materials that you use. Someone recently saw a conservator at another museum using what appeared to be a blow torch on a bronze sculpture. Now, they want to know is that standard practice, and, if so, what is the purpose? They want to know is that gently removing the wax coating?
AO: That's a really great question because conservators do use blow torches very carefully and strategically on a sculpture where it's safe to do that. One example of that might be—it's not often removing a wax layer. Sometimes we do that with solvents. Sometimes we do that with something called dry ice blasting. But quite often, there are metals that when you patinate them, the metal needs to be hot for the chemical patina to stick. So you might see a quick blow torch to heat the metal before you put a chemical on it for a patina, but you also might see a blow torch at the very end of a wax layer. That reason is—I will show you a slide where we're applying some wax.
LH: Oh, should I show mine?
AO: Yeah, you have a brush!
LH: Yes, I have here some fun tools.
AO: Okay, this is probably that same brush that you can see our conservation technician, Casey Magrys, on the right using. When we apply waxes, it's this interesting combination of a soft enough wax that it can get into all the crevices but hard enough that it protects it. Laura's showing you one called Trewax; it's a boat wax. These are commercial products. Sometimes we use one called Butcher's Bowling Alley Wax. That's actually a wax that's on bowling alleys, and sometimes conservators make their own proprietary mixtures. I don't know if you've ever made candles or played with beeswax or different kind of waxes—they're not that thin, right? They're not that easy to apply, so we kind of apply them with pouncing with that brush. You kind of tap that brush on the surface. Yeah, so pounce-pounce-pounce-pounce. It gives it kind of a whitish color, and then if you quickly run a blowtorch over it, it melts the wax into those crevices, so it's used very carefully and very strategically in a way that is safe for the sculpture.
LH: I can tell you this is the same brush because when I just tap-tap-tapped, it made quite a mess on my computer. Okay, so we have some more questions about this. So they want to know how long would it take to remove the old coating clean and re-wax this bronze sculpture?
AO: This particular bronze sculpture? Yep. A lot of it is dependent on how many nooks and crannies there are because it takes a lot of time. This particular sculpture, we usually block off about two days, but often it's weather dependent, right? So sometimes we have to prepare a whole week because we don't know what the weather is going to be like. You don't want it to be so hot that the sculpture is too hot, but you don't want it to be too cool because the wax won't melt very easily. So for something like that, if you're removing a wax coating using solvents, you're putting it on a wet rag and you're wiping it off, and that's not quick, but you change out rags. The rags like that, we get them from the hardware store like you do boxes of rags. We sometimes actually use cloth diapers. They're really thick. Yeah, Laura has one. Yeah, they're really thick and they're very absorbent, so that's helpful.
LH: Not used for babies, though.
AO: Nope, they're new cloth diapers. Yeah, chamois cloths—we probably wouldn't use that for cleaning. We'd use that at the end for buffing, so it depends on the size of the sculpture. But this one, about two days to do the removal. Now, there are other ways of doing the removal that aren't using solvents because of the environmental impact, and you can rent dry ice machines. There's different types of dry ice blasting, and that's another way that you can remove the coating if the sculpture can take that.
LH: So some follow-up questions is what happens to the expired wax on the surface of the bronze or metal sculpture? Does it have its own chemical reaction, and does it need to be cleaned off?
AO: The wax often burns away with UV. It doesn't last that long. One of the challenges with wax mixtures is that you're constantly trying to get that balance between soft enough to go into all the nooks and crannies and protect the sculpture and be able to be applied but hard enough that it buys you at least a year or two years. So it's kind of tricky.
LH: Well, one question—again, I don't know if you know this—but because we always like to say conservation is the three-legged stool where you take into account the studio art, as well as the history and the chemistry, so thinking about the history in of who Robert Emmet was, someone asked that they know there's a public school named Robert Emmet Academy and is this the same Emmet? Did this come across in your research at all?
AO: Oh, fantastic question. No, no it didn't, but Robert Emmet is an Irish patriot, and it's very possible that it is, but that's something we can look into. I don't know.
LH: Did you mention where this is located? Because it's not at the museum.
AO: This is one of our three sculptures not at the museum in Washington, D.C. This is up Massachusetts Avenue. It's in a small park that is owned by the National Park Service, and last year, it was renamed Robert Emmet Park. So it's there and it's near the Irish embassy, so if anyone's in Washington, D.C., on the call and you are in the neighborhood and you want to walk by, you can certainly go see the Robert Emmet statue. We are preparing to do a big cleaning shortly. So in the middle of September, we have a conservator that's coming to do exactly what we talked about. It's been two years since the last wax layer was on, so if you happen to go soon, you'll notice that some of it has started to turn a little green. You see a little blanching—we call this word blanching when it gets a white haze kind of color—and so what he's going to do is remove the wax, as you're asking about. There is a little bit of wax residue. Some burns off; not all does. So you remove it, and then he's going to clean it with a little detergent and water, and that park doesn't have water, so he has to bring in his own water and truck, and then he's going to do a bit of patination where it turned green, and then he's going to re-wax it. So we hope to do that in mid-September. It's been a little tricky during COVID to make sure that we can do it safely and we can do it with the permits, but we're at the point where we're able to do that, so that treatment should happen soon.
LH: Someone was asking about what kinds of detergent cleanser takes off old wax, and as a follow-up know that there's different things for cleaning, so we can also pivot into other cleaning solvents and detergents that you use.
AO: Yeah, the detergents won't take off wax. Detergents won't solubilize wax. They'll take off the oily residue; they'll take off the dirt and the bird poop. But a solvent that would take off wax—depends on your mixture—but something like Mineral Spirits, Stoddard’s, in that family, is what you can use to solubilize waxes.
LH: How about for our other sculptures?
AO: For detergents for other sculptures? Yeah, the Luis Jiménez, the fiberglass coating. We have a Roy Lichtenstein “Modern Head.” I’ll show you that image while we're talking. Those sculptures are cleaned. You wouldn't want to use solvents on those because those sculptures have a paint layer or a plastic coating, and so solvents could damage that. So, in this case, we use water and sometimes we mix in a little detergent because we need that sort of grime-fighting power. These sculptures are in a city, so we've got exhaust from cars, we have bird poop, we have acid rain, we have general wear and tear from the UV from the sun, and so soap and a little buffing can go a long way to helping that aesthetic part of the sculpture. One of the things that we used a lot—Laura, do you have some?
LH: Do I ever…
AO: So that is actually, for a sculpture that you see on the left-hand side, and you can see us cleaning it on the base to get a sense of scale—it's 30 feet tall—we wouldn't even use half of that bottle. We'd use probably even less. I mean, it's such a small amount that you need, and we can calculate how much we need. It's something called CMC—it's a critical micelle count, if any there are any chemists that are on the call. But that is a detergent that we use for cleaning sculptures for a couple reasons. Does anyone recognize what it is? If you want to guess what this mystery blue liquid is, you can throw it in the chat.
LH: Well, I’ll give a hint that it is a household item, but it is not for babies. It's not a cloth diaper. Ooh, we got a lot of people. We have some very smart people. It is a resounding “Dawn.”
AO: It is Dawn; that’s correct. It is a broad-spectrum detergent. It works on a lot of different types of dirt and grease, and one of the other reasons why we like it is because we know our water is going to drain to the Chesapeake, and we want to choose something that's safe for the environment, too.
LH: Great. Okay, so we have a lot of people with Dawn. It's great. In case anyone doesn't know, Dawn is a dishwasher liquid detergent. Let's see here. Okay, so another question about the waxes. Do you consider the climate of D.C. when choosing which wax or treatment to use? Would you use a different wax where there's some place that is not as humid?
AO: Yeah, absolutely. Conservation—when people ask us questions, we often start with, “It depends,” because so much is dependent on the particular material and the sculpture. But for outdoor sculptures, you're absolutely right that the environment makes all the difference. For stone sculptures, you have issues with freeze-thaw. For D.C., it's a very hot space, especially for those of us who were here this summer. None of my tomato plants grew. It was so hot this summer. So, yes, absolutely, and that's why a lot of conservators make their own proprietary waxes because they can tailor the soft waxes and the hard waxes and different mixtures to their particular environment, and sometimes you might try one and you find it doesn't last as long as you hope and then you modify the mixture next time. It may be that an off-the-shelf product works well for you, and you might have to mix your own, but environment absolutely plays a part in how long something will last.
LH: Now, on the same line of thinking about materials, we have a question about the water you use. Is this water straight out of the tap or is it deionized or treated to remove ions in the water?
AO: Yeah, it's a great question. We write on our treatment reports “municipal city water” because it's D.C. tap water. For a sculpture that is this size, it would be very challenging for us to set up a deionizing column or distilled column should we need it, but in this particular case, we don't need it. These sculptures aren't going to be damaged in any particular ways by extra ions in the water. Sometimes you do have to think about it for marbles because the pH of your water is actually quite important for marble sculpture. Here's an experiment that you can actually do at home. If you go to a hardware store or you get one delivered online, you can get a polished marble tile. You know, they have those bathroom tiles—really, really shiny. Take a drop of your tap water, and if you happen to have a way to test it for pH—I know a lot of people have kids doing science experiments from home and stuff—test and see. Sometimes it might be around 7. Put a drop of that water on that polished marble tile. pH of 7, which you might think of as neutral, will etch the surface of your marble. So we modify our cleaning water to be a higher pH for the particular scenario. We sometimes add in some calcium and things like that because we don't want the water to leech something out of our sculpture when we're cleaning. But for these outdoor sculptures, we don't have that scenario, and they're also so large, it would be very challenging. Also, immediately, there's rain that would wash away, so we don't, but it's a really great question to think about.
LH: So someone asked a question about marble, so this is a perfect transition. How do you protect marble or stone sculptures from the elements?
AO: If it's outside? Yeah, there's a lot of marble outside. There's a lot of marble in gardens, and one of the challenges with marble—well, you've got a lot of challenges with marble. One is the color. If it's a light-colored marble, you can have biological growth. So you can get lichens and you can have algae, and these things have little roots that will permeate the structure of the marble, so you could have a physical thing that's on the marble. You can also have problems with freeze-thaw. So if you're in an area where it gets below freezing, which a lot of places it does, you could have tiny little cracks, and when water gets in it during the day when it's warm, at night it freezes, and you can have mechanical damage. So understanding that intent and location is important. If you aren't able to move a statue inside, one of the things you can do is have a cover made for it. I know a lot of museums have done this for their outdoor sculpture. You could even have a company that makes tent awnings make you something that you can slip over it. You want something that's still breathable because you don't want to trap air, but that's a really good way to provide a buffer for the really harsh times outside.
LH: I know this is a transition only because I’m thinking of a sculpture that is not an outdoor sculpture for us, but it's in the lab because it was once outside, and it was marble. So someone asked about the use of lasers for cleaning, and I know you've been thinking about that for this marble sculpture.
AO: Yeah, one of the things that I love about our field is that, similar to medicine, we're constantly evolving, and we are a small enough field that quite often we're adapting technologies from other place, but sometimes we are able to have equipment or materials designed for us. Lasers have been in use in conservation for a while now and they keep getting better and better and more tunable. We can tune wavelengths and pulse rate, and we have a lot of control over it. They work really well in certain situations, and they don't in others. For marble, it will work really well if you have a dark stain. So if this is your marble surface and this is your thing on it, you want your lasers to absorb into this layer and reflect off of this. So sometimes you can use water, sometimes you can change your setting, and if you have a dark stain, sometimes it's really great. But it takes a lot of skill and it takes an operator that really truly understands how to understand those nuances, and so there are several people at the Smithsonian who are trained for a particular type of laser. We could rent one should we need to. There are many conservatives around the country who use lasers quite effectively, and sometimes it is the only safe way to clean something, but quite often it doesn't work. We've tried it for Corten. So, Laura, I’m going to fast forward to Borofsky.
AO: We have a sculpture around the other side of the museum's building, and it's by Jonathan Borofsky. It's called “Man with Briefcase,” and this is another similarly gigantic sculpture, and it's made out of a type of steel called Corten. It's a weathering steel, and this has a very velvety surface. It's a rust layer, but it's a stable rust layer, and one of the things that I’m, well, honestly terrified about as a conservator is something happening to the sculpture—a lot of bird poop that comes on it or there's an issue with the surface—because I can't clean it. I can't touch the surface. I’ll disrupt that rust, and you'll always see it, so I don't really know how I would clean something, and I’ve started to test lasers. So I had a panel made of different paints and bird poop and an oil and sunscreen and a lot of different materials, and, so far, I have not had luck with lasers on it, but one of the things in conservation that's really great is sometimes we have to wait for science to catch up with the problem. So this is a scenario where lasers haven't worked here, but they would work wonderfully on certain marbles.
LH: You've mentioned these collaborations, and there was a question that we have about if you collaborate with structural engineers or other specialists often, as your work involves working on large, outdoor objects, and what aspects of deterioration do you deal with or choose not to deal with?
AO: Absolutely. Collaboration is so important with sculptures that are this size and different materials. We have a lot of partners in D.C. that we collaborate with, both for conservation materials, for moving materials, for installing them safely, and my most recent collaboration with structural engineers was when we moved “Vaquero” from 7th Street around to G Street, and we had structural engineers look at the plinth, look at the way that we were going to attach it, look at the way it was before, and make some modifications so that when we put it in place, it is safe. So in that role, I had a back seat, and they were the ones who had expertise about how to move it, how to install it. My role was installing shoes on the bottom of it, so we had these pieces of soft plastic that we were able to silicone to the bottom of the fiberglass to give it a little bit of a safe pad that it could rest on when it got bolted in place. So, quite often, I’m there with a hard hat in the background when the structural parts are happening, and then when it's my turn—I used to be a ballet dancer—it's sort of a coordinated choreography of them having it set up. I came underneath with my conservation colleagues, and we were able to install those shoes before it was put in place.
LH: Don't you have a picture of one of the shoes that we could show?
AO: I have a picture for a different sculpture.
LH: Yeah, I'd show that just so we can see that it's not an actual shoe.
AO: It's not an actual shoe. No, those would not be comfortable. Alright, so if you look at these. I’m going to back up one. This is this sculpture, “Modern Head,” and if you look at the base, look at the photo on the right where we're cleaning it with Dawn, as you all guessed. Because of the way that the sculpture is made and our concrete plinth, they’re different heights underneath those feet, and what we initially installed them with were pieces of plywood so we’d get the piece level, and then what we did last year was we switched them out with these pieces of plastic tie bar. So when I say things like shoes, they're different plastic materials depending on if we need something hard or soft. We have different a few different colors we can choose, and we put them underneath the sculpture so it has a bit of a protection from the ground, and it also allows a little bit of air flow and water drainage.
LH: Great. Now, thinking about this, you've mentioned this around D.C., and in the D.C. area, we have a lot of National Park Service outdoor sculptures that are totally separate from the Smithsonian American Art Museum outdoor sculptures. So can you tell us what NPS, or National Park Service, does to conserve the outdoor sculptures in their care in the D.C. area? Do you speak with them at all?
AO: Absolutely. National Park Service has a similar program to many of the other outdoor sculptures in a museum context. Their scale is so much bigger than ours because they have sculptures around the country. I have colleagues of mine from grad school who work for National Park Service in their paper conservation lab, so, often, those will be in labs. But for their outdoor sculpture, they have teams of conservators by region, and they work with curators and art historians, and for their preservation, as I’ve described, they're actively cleaning and monitoring and doing condition checks and wax coatings and depending on what the particular sculpture needs. But their scale is really impressive and across the country. But a lot of outdoor sculpture maintenance is really similar.
LH: Yeah, and I know you're often talking within the field right to see how changes have happened. Of course, outdoor sculpture has been in the media a lot right now, and so it's really important for you to know what's happening and what your best practices are, right?
AO: Yeah, absolutely. Our field is very collaborative, both with outside colleagues, as the person who asked the question about structural engineers, and within our conservation field. We all tend to have different specialties, and there are many conservators who specialize in very large-scale monuments, and we have riggers who specialize in moving these very large-scale monuments, and so we're constantly collaborating with them. I have talked recently with conservators at National Park Service, and I constantly keep in touch with colleagues. The Getty Museum, a couple years ago, put together a seminar for conservation of outdoor sculpture, and it was the first time that a lot of us were brought together in one space to discuss this as a group and to start thinking about strategies moving forward for preservation of some of these sculptures. There's material on the Getty's website if you look for outdoor sculpture conservation; a lot of that is free. It's really wonderful to have a network of people because so much of this is dependent on weather and location, and it's an ongoing maintenance. Like your car, it's not the same as a small sculpture you can put inside, and you can put a vitrine on it and say as a conservator, “I’m going to keep this protected and safe.” These are supposed to be outdoors, right? They're supposed to be accessible. This is artist intent, and that means maintenance and collaboration.
LH: I’m so glad you said that because we have a couple questions about artist intent. So one is how do you balance the intentions of the artists, the needs of the art piece, and the practical concerns of outdoor conservation when making decisions about what to do for an object?
AO: Yeah, artist intent is so important, and stakeholders are very important, really understanding who are the stakeholders that should be at the table when you're making those kinds of decisions. If artists are alive or artists’ foundations are alive, their voice is part of that conversation. Our curatorial department, their voice is part of the conversation. Our museum's directors and our conservators—and so all of those people collectively together are really the ones that make that decision, and it's dependent on every sculpture.
LH: Along those same lines, someone was asking about how you research these sources to understand the artist's intent, especially if the artist is no longer living, and how do you make up for a lack of firsthand conversation?
AO: Yeah, you always want to honor the artist’s intent, and you always have the challenge of accessibility versus intent, and you hope that the artist has left some information about their wishes. Often, when artists’ works are brought into our collection, we have the chance to interview them, and there are a lot of conservators who do artist interviews so that a sculpture that is in a particular state, we might be able to predict what the artist will hope for when we have to make a choice about a new paint layer or a new location. So artist foundations and archivists and curators and artist notes and all of that can weave together, and sometimes all of those together, hopefully, we can make a decision.
LH: So that is to say that is very involved, and a couple of people are asking how you manage this. So what's your maintenance schedule for cleaning these objects, and how often do you do these cleanings? Because obviously, when you're looking at the scale, they're all very large.
AO: They are very large. So our maintenance schedule depends on the type of material. So what we do at SAAM is my colleague, Casey Magrys, and I have a document we put together for each one of our sculptures, and it lists what it needs, how often it needs it, when we have to start making—it's really project management. We have to hire a lift that can take us up 30 feet in the air, so we have to reserve that. We have to reserve the sidewalks in D.C. So we have a calendar, so it kind of gives us a heads up when it's getting close to when we have to make these reservations, and we have to get park service permits from the National Park Service when our sculptures are on their property. So we have a document that outlines what each one needs, and then we have a calendar update annually that reminds us when we have to start doing things. In terms of frequency, the piece we're looking at now, “Modern Head,” we try to wash it every year, but sometimes we can go every two years. So it's one to two year intervals. I’ll go back to the “Vaquero.” This piece, because it was recently conserved and it has a much stronger urethane coating, we don't have to wash it every year, but we want to at least get eyes on it every year. So we do something called a condition diagram. Here's what one of them looks like. This was ours from last year. Casey Magrys made this design. Here's where we can note cracks and we can note caulking, and sometimes that will help us plan for the next year whether we need a little bit more caulk or we need it to be fully washed. This is a coating where a lot of the dirt doesn't stick to it, so it's really quite easy. Some of them it's annually; some of them it can go up to five or six years. It depends on the deterioration of the coating or how recently it's been conserved.
LH: This diagram in particular leads into a good question, which is have you captured any of the outdoor sculptures with 3D mapping to better understand how to approach any conservation treatments?
AO: We haven't, but there are so many people who do, and I think it's a fantastic tool. Because one of the challenges for us is, as you see, these are 2D ways to capture a three-dimensional sculpture, and so there are many conservators who can do laser scanning and photogrammetry, and I would love in the future to see our field transition to a way to have a sort of three-dimensional condition report that you can move around. Right now, we have to have four different diagrams. I’ll go forward to the slide that shows some of the materials we prep when we're cleaning outdoor sculpture. If you look on the left, we have actual clipboards. Sometimes when you're up on a lift 60 feet in the air, holding an iPad is tricky to try to work on it or holding a model that's sort of three-dimensional is a little bit difficult, so we often have flat, two-dimensional documentation we do when we're up in the air, and that can be transitioned onto something that is more accurate of the shape of it.
LH: I think we have a picture of that if you go to you and Casey up on the lift with the “Vaquero.”
AO: The “Vaquero”?
AO: Yeah, you're right, Laura. Right, so what's happening—I’m on the right taking photographs of a particular crack that we found, and Casey’s on the left, and she's taking notes with a pencil because it won't bleed when it gets wet. So sometimes outdoors is not the best for iPads. Inside, we can use a little bit more technology for documentation. But it's a great question, and I would love to be able to develop that in the future.
LH: So a couple of people have asked different questions about doing what they call touch-ups or inpainting to match the patinas. You want to speak to any examples that you've done with that?
AO: Yeah, let me show you a picture on “Modern Head,” Roy Lichtenstein. These are examples of some of the things that we find every year when we look at the sculpture, and if you look on the upper left—so this sculpture is made out of stainless steel, and it's painted blue. This is a series of five. Four of them are stainless steel. Ours is the only one that's painted blue, and we're starting to see this get to the end of the lifetime of the paint layer. It was painted in 2008, so we're starting to notice some things like this where the paint is lifting and peeling a little bit. Water can get underneath. This is an example of the difference between an indoor treatment and an outdoor treatment. Indoor treatment—that's easy. If there's a little missing paint, I can do a fill. I can glue that down. I can do a fill, I can sand it and paint it if that's a desired outcome, and it will solve the problem. But a lot of the glues that I use aren't going to hold up outside. So part of the Getty workshop that we did was learning from other conservators who have developed methods to do these small touch-ups for areas like that because when you want to repaint an entire sculpture this size, it can be incredibly expensive, and so what we hope as conservators is that we can buy the coating a little bit more time and we can make sure that it looks as good as possible, so that's part of what we do when we wash it. Look on the lower left. You see how the base has this chalky, whitish appearance? That's paint deteriorating, and it's a natural part of the process of UV hitting it. It’s something we call “inherent vice.” It's just built into the challenges of the artwork and the material being very matte. Glossy paint holds together a little longer. Matte paint doesn't, so by cleaning off that layer, we can make it look better a little longer. We can remove the bird poop. I’m going to, when I return, hopefully try testing a little area to fill that missing part of paint and see if I can get my materials to hold up outside. But outside is really challenging. Stuff doesn't last outside, and we try to keep it up with maintenance so we don't have to repaint it too often.
LH: Alright, so I’m going to ask one more question. I did not get to all of them. There’s so many wonderful questions. So are artists more conscious of their materials for outdoor sculptures now in the light of these maintenance issues?
AO: That's a fantastic question. For living artists, where we have the opportunity to talk with them about what they want things to look like, that's a conversation that I know conservation colleagues often have actively. Sometimes artists are, and sometimes I’ve heard from artists that they really do want to preference a particular aesthetic and a particular look. In another case, it might be that that particular material is more important, and so as the material ages or changes, that's part of the artwork, and it's so important for us as conservators not simply to say, “Well, this needs to be a certain way,” but to understand what an artist wants or what the artist's intent is. Part of the challenge that I know, specifically with outdoor sculpture, and so I’ll give an example related to the question. There are artists that really, really love matte paint. For example, if you've seen Tony Smith sculptures or Joel Shapiro sculptures. This one is a good example, the Lichtenstein blue. It's this beautiful, velvety, matte paint color, but there's not a lot of binder around those matte paint particles, so it is much, much easier for these paint coatings to start breaking down faster, and they look white and chalky. I know one example of a Joel Shapiro sculpture outside a museum in Denver that was a similar color to this and almost a year or two after the sculpture was painted and installed, it started looking white and chalky, and the artist was really upset about that, and he actually opted to change for slightly more gloss so it would last longer, and so it changed his aesthetic. But we are also trying to work on developing better paints so that we can make that aesthetic last longer, and the U.S. Army Paint Research Laboratory is working with the National Gallery of Art and conservators to develop better matte paints because they have to do it for protecting chemical warfare or for protecting from the sun and harsh environments where they have tanks, and so we're actually using Army research technology to make a better matte paint for outdoor sculptures so we can try to meet that artist's intent.
LH: Very cool. Well, there's so much more we could talk about, but because we're out of time here—we're already two minutes over—would you mind going to our last slide? This won't be the last time. We'll pull Ariel back, and we're going to be offering this whole year-long series, every month a different topic. You'll see in my long chat I just entered in, we have a feedback form. Please fill this out, the survey. We really want to hear from you. We have a couple months planned out, but we still have a lot of flexibility, so we really want to hear what time works well for you, what topics you want, and I wanted to do a little plug for our next one on Thursday, October 8. We're going to do our next Converse with a Conservator with our Media Conservator, Dan Finn, and that's going to be on video and performance art. So switching gears a little bit, and then if you have any young kids and you're doing your own homeschooling, we do have on September 24 our early education family program, and we're going to be talking about how we preserve wearable art. So I put those links in. Ariel, you've been wonderful. I learned so much, and I hope everyone has a wonderful evening. Thank you.
AO: Thank you so much for joining, and thank you for your fantastic questions.
Learn how museum conservators protect, maintain, and preserve outdoor sculpture.
On Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Smithsonian American Art Museum objects conservator Ariel O’Connor hosted a lively online conversation about the various treatments needed to preserve outdoor artworks like Luis Jiménez’s Vaquero, Roy Lichtenstein’s Modern Head, and Alexander Calder’s Gwenfritz in an ever-changing landscape.