Building Public Art To Last: Phoenix’s ‘Wear And Care’ Exhibit

After all the effort it takes to construct a piece of public art – funding, design, community interaction, actually building the thing – what happens afterwards? How do public artworks stay up and intact?

A new exhibit in Phoenix, Ariz. will give some answers. Called “Wear and Care: Conserving the Public’s Art,” the exhibit is on view at The Gallery @ City Hall, a relatively new exhibition space dedicated to Phoenix’s municipal art collection.

Since I couldn’t grab a plane to check out “Wear and Care” myself, I called up Ed Lebow, Public Art Program Director at the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, for a rundown of the exhibit.

Based on the POAC’s description – which says the exhibit explores “the impact that sunshine, sticky fingers, dirty air and other environmental factors have on artworks, both large and small, outdoors and indoors” – I expected to hear mostly about day-to-day maintenance: replacing parts, scrubbing dirt.

While this type of work plays a part in the exhibit (especially for the paintings), Lebow explained that for outdoor public art, a primary focus of the exhibit is how maintenance can be built in by design.

“You can really design durability at the ground floor,” Lebow said. “There’s a lot of troubleshooting that artists linked with engineers and also our public art managers go through.”

He cited Janet Echelman’s “Her Secret Is Patience,” at 145-foot-tall dynamic sculpture suspended above Phoenix’s Civic Space Park.

Janet Echelman,

Janet Echelman, “Her Secret Is Patience.” source: echelman.com

Structurally, “Her Secret Is Patience” is a huge net. Designers had to find a material that would survive both Phoenix’s “intense ultraviolet rays” and “monsoon winds that approach hurricane force,” as Lebow put it.

Originally, the design team intended to use a woven material with the aggressive name GORE® TENARA®. Pros: colorfast, UV-resistant. Cons: expensive, slippery. The cons won out, and designers ultimately chose to use a more affordable polyester product, making future replacements much more viable.

“Her Secret Is Patience” was installed in 2009 and the net was replaced nearly six years later. A section of the original net is on display at “Wear and Care,” alongside new polyester twine for comparison. According to exhibit documents, “sun exposure [on the original] had reduced the strength of the cordage by more than half, making it more likely to tear.”

Other examples explored at the exhibit include Ann Coe’s “Topo Magic,” a floor installation made of urethane-based terrazzo to reduce the impact of sunlight, and Yang Chyi Lee’s “The Wings,” which used specific steel and sealers for graffiti protection.

Lebow was quick to point out that by focusing on materials and design, the exhibit organizers chose one of many possible angles to explore in the limited space available.

From a more macro perspective, he said, the upkeep of public art is like the upkeep of any public infrastructure: there’s an “ongoing need… to make sure that they continue to be seamless in our lives.”

This is intuitive. You’ve got artwork right out in the middle of everyday life; rain will fall, pigeons will poop, vandals will vandalize. But there’s a cost to the necessary and unending work of maintaining public art pieces.

Therefore one of the lessons of “Wear and Care” is that community involvement and partnerships can bolster the ongoing care of Phoenix’s art collection (Lebow gave a shoutout to the Friends of Phoenix Public Art). And aside from raising funds, a sense of community ownership can greatly improve public art and infrastructure’s life expectancy, he said.

“There’s often a tendency to separate art from the other public works that we do,” he continued. “But the reality, when you have effective integration of public art in municipalities, is that these things coexist with all the other infrastructure that we build. I think art offers an interesting avenue into thinking about that, and an interesting way for people to think about their attachment to infrastructure.”