Public Art Maintenance Best Practices

Elysian Koglmeier | January 5, 2019

Way Station I (Study Chamber) by Vito Acconci. Photo credit: Middlebury College Museum of Art

Let’s be honest, maintenance is not the sexiest part of public art, but it is essential.


Public art is an investment for the future. The life of an artwork doesn’t end after its purchase or installation date. By staying on top of maintenance you save a lot of time, money and damage down the road.

But sometimes maintenance falls to the wayside.

Here are 12 ways to ensure that public projects get their due attention.

Create a maintenance plan.

I think one of the easiest mistakes for an institution to make is failing to plan for the time and resources necessary to maintain works of public art,” says Doug Perkins of Middlebury College Museum of Art.

What is typically included in a maintenance plan?

Middlebury College’s Committee on Art in Public Places (CAPP) undergoes a rigorous discussion process that evaluates staff resources, conservator costs and potential hazards.

  • First, they estimate the cost of any upfront conservation. They work up a detailed cost analysis of what’s required to get the work to the campus, to install it securely and to landscape the site appropriately.

  • They discuss ways to keep the work safe from the public (climbing, etc.) and to keep the public safe from the work (ensuring it’s well lit and people can’t accidentally walk into it, etc.).

  • CAPP then creates a plan and timeline for routine maintenance and more substantial conservation needs (repainting, e.g.).

  • They don’t “set it and forget it.” CAPP regularly reviews their long-term financial plan for collection care.

Include the maintenance plan in the artist contract.

The town of Grand Junction in Colorado requires every artist to give a maintenance sheet that states how to maintain the artwork and what materials should be used.

Photo Credit: RACC

Get more involved with the artists during the design phase.

Help the artist consider the lifetime of the piece. Get involved as early as you can in the design phase and discuss conservation with the artists. Ask, “how do you want the piece to look in 5 years? 10 years?”

Discuss materials, and if needed, guide the artist to switch out certain materials to reduce the cost of maintenance down the road.

And, sometimes you may only have resources and funding in the acquisition phase, so building in maintenance early on is a good move. Janae Huber, Collections Manager for Washington State Arts Commission, shares that their program puts a lot of upfront work in the acquisition phase to make works more durable. 

They give artists a materials and fabrication handbook to inform the artists about the environment in which they are installing.

Include conservators in the design conversation.

Washington State Arts Commission pairs artists with conservators to advise them on material and installation methods from the first moment of conceptualizing the project.  

And, the Cambridge Arts Council in Massachusetts has a conservator on staff that is available to all commissioned artists. She provides advice on materials, fabrication techniques, and preventative measures. She also helps the artist think about contextual issues such as the work's susceptibility to vandalism, accidental damage, and environmental deterioration.

Allocate a budget for maintenance.

The Regional Arts and Cultural Council (RACC) in Portland, Oregon sets aside 10% of its percent-for-art funding for maintenance.

Then determine how to allocate the budget.

Budgets provide structure, but they also do not give all of the answers. Even with a budget laid out, it is challenging to determine what works get priority and to avoid particular pieces eating up all of the budget. Keith Lachowicz, Public Art Collection Manager of RACC, explains that for some projects the budget is adequate whereas for others, it is not. “When it’s not enough, then we have to operate on triage mode.”

Smog by Tony Smith. Photo credit: Middlebury College Museum of Art

When maintenance budgets are high, get creative.

Ok, so you have maintenance funds set aside, but what if that is not enough?

Doug at Middlebury College’s Museum of Art asserts how shockingly expensive it can be to conserve outdoor works of art: “About ten years ago when we began to look at having Tony Smith’s monumental work Smog repainted, estimates ranged as high as $130K (*gulp*) leading us to search for creative solutions. In the end, we worked with a local auto body professional and developed a modified version of the car painting process which worked well for preserving the carefully welded lines of the sculpture, for a much more reasonable cost.”

Allocate additional time and resources for aging collections.

The city of Palo Alto started acquiring artworks in the 1970’s so now they have a lot of pieces that are 50+ years old. “Suddenly you are facing a lot of pieces that need immediate attention. Every piece has its own lifespan and different thresholds,” states Nadya Chuprina of the Palo Alto Public Art Program.

As the collection ages and grows, the demands get higher and higher. Most public art administrators have to pull physical records and sift through typed up notes to make sense of what kind of treatments have been done. Says Nadya, “It is a colossal amount of work. You have to reconstruct the timeline for each piece. It is very time consuming and challenging to find that time.”

That’s why it is helpful to be proactive and start noting down maintenance work that has been done in a central place so that future employees and conservators can properly care for the piece. Consider online collection management platforms like Artwork Archive to keep maintenance records.

Put volunteers to work.

Lauren Greenfield of Longmont’s Art in Public Places in Colorado enlists 15 volunteers to help survey their permanent collection. Every year they sign up for 3-5 pieces. Their job is to assess the piece, take pictures and create a write up, which Lauren then puts into her Artwork Archive account.

The 12 member volunteer art commission in Greeley, Colorado checks on 10 pieces a year looking for rust, chipping, peeling, etc. It keeps the Public Art administrator, Kim Snyder, from visiting over 160 pieces a year.

Find the right person for the conservation job.

You can find conservators through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).

Or, join the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network listserv and ask other professionals for professionals they recommend.

Kim in Greeley recommends sourcing bids for each project.

Use online tools to record, track and schedule maintenance.

Stop sifting through papers and guessing what maintenance was done in the past by using online collection management platforms like Artwork Archive. Save time and headaches by proactively recording what maintenance happened, who did it, and how much it cost. You can also:

  • Store important files like invoices, assessments, conservator notes, and images, and have them on hand no matter where you are.
  • Schedule conservation reminders so treatments are not forgotten.
  • Log key contacts like art conservators and art restorers so that there is continuity in care.
  • Create reports that show maintenance costs or maintenance history for individual works of art.

Learn from the past and avoid future mistakes with detailed maintenance records.

You can help future artists build lasting pieces by keeping detailed maintenance records. Keith of RACC shares the value of having records on hand during the research phase. If an artist comes in and says that they want to create a fiberglass piece with ‘this type of coating,’ he can pull maintenance records to outline what it means to care for that type of piece.

Records are also helpful for turnover. When an administrator leaves the program, their knowledge and experience does not have to go with them.

This All Happened More or Less by Crystal Schenk and Shelby Davis. Photo credit: RACC

Make the case for deaccessioning when the time comes.

You can more easily make the case for deaccessioning a piece if you have records that show continued maintenance and costs along with conservator recommendations.

Aliza Shiff, the past manager of Arlington Public Art in Virginia, spoke to the realities of the collection and the reasons for deaccessioning in an Americans for the Arts blog: “those that no longer meet the standards of our collection, require excessive maintenance, are damaged beyond repair, or pose hazards to the public.”

And, why do we go through all of this?

“Because caring for your public art demonstrates that you care for the community,” asserts Keith of RACC. He continues, “think of the obvious reason: compare walking by a monumental bronze sculpture in a plaza that is green with oxidation and has a buildup of bird crap on it, with that of a clean and waxed, well-maintained bronze. It says, ‘we take care of this. We care about this place.’”

Patricia Walsh, Public Art Manager for the Public Art Network at Americans for the Arts, also believes that caring for public art is not just about appearance. “It ensures that it is still reflective of who is in the community and of the community values. Maintenance keeps the work relevant.”

Maintaining public art ensures that the legacy of the work, the artist and the community will be preserved and continued.

You've got the tips. Now get the tools to properly maintain your public art collection

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