A sculpture park without walls: the Olympic Sculpture Park
Katherine Elizabeth Brown
The Olympic Sculpture Park, one of three sites of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) opened December 2006. SAM conservators, Nicholas Dorman and Liz Brown consulted with the park’s architects and colleagues (at both other institutions and SAM) in order to blend the design with the preservation of the sculptures when possible. Prior to installation some of the works were conserved in consultation with colleagues, foundations and estates. In other instances the conservation staff worked directly with artists creating new works for the park. After almost a decade we are able to assess how the park’s design and engineering as well treatment decisions are affecting the artworks. The park holds many challenges for conservation owing to its sloped typography, location on the Puget Sound, focus on native landscapes, and porosity to the city. We are able to see directly how design decisions affect the care of the artwork, in terms of both infrastructure and siting.
Some of the initial park design has been effective in protecting the artworks. For example the steep slope with uncut grass and larger plantings around the artwork has worked well to dissuade the public from approaching and climbing the artwork. At the same time however the slope makes it more difficult for conservation to access and conserve the artwork. Some decisions such as limiting the weight tolerances for paths have increased conservation costs. In a few instances we have adjusted the landscaping. For example the ground treatment around the Richard Serra installation Wake was altered slightly in order to reduce the extreme corrosion occurring at the base while at the same time maintaining the artist intent of a unified effect. Ultrasonic thickness measurements are taken to monitor the loss.
As the setting suggests more of a park than a museum, the education of the public and techniques for protecting the artwork have been an evolving process; an on-going conversation between curator, designer, landscape architect, park patrons and conservators. Initially there was an enormous public outcry in Seattle when the museum, in reaction to damage, placed signs asking the public not to touch the artwork and we have had to work to mitigate this. It has been interesting to see how some types of damage have diminished as people have become more familiar with the park and to some extent taken ownership.
When possible, an on-going relationship with artists has been invaluable in finding conservation solutions. Although some work can be done proactively, as each piece is unique with a unique set of personalities, some lessons are learned along the way. Very often it is difficult to predict how the public will respond to a work. Some appear to invite vandalism such as the work In the Mind by Geoff McFetridge, whereas others, such as the intricate drawing installation Encounter of Waters by Sandra Cinto remained essentially pristine for over a year. Finding a balance between the artist’s choice of material, the budget and on-going maintenance is a delicate one. The sculpture Echo by Juame Plensa has produced an interesting process. Initially Plensa requested that a coating not be placed on top of his pristine surface of polyester resin and dolomite. All coatings tested and sent to him by conservation affected the appearance of the surface. In addition to long-term concerns regarding the unprotected surface, conservation has immediate graffiti apprehensions, as the piece is located directly on the waterfront between two paths. Working with the artist a compromise has been reached in which the surface is not protected against long-term degradation but does have some graffiti protection.
Interactive artworks, both temporary and permanent, have provided their own set of unusual challenges. All of the interactive works have been extremely popular and necessitated discovering methods to have these pieces function in a sculpture park with no dedicated conservation staff. An early installation by Pedro Reyes Capula XVII and XVIII, was enormously popular but required weekly conservation interventions to keep it in working order. Designing the artwork from the beginning to allow for destructive interactions as well as having a budget for a dedicated person to monitor the artwork has proven invaluable for the success of the project. The installation Western Oracle by Heather Hart was good example of this.
Sacrificial graffiti coatings perform well to protect artworks in the Olympic Sculpture Park and in a few cases painted surfaces appear to be following this idea. Although paint technology has progressed and is able to produce much more durable coatings from early alkyd paints to systems such as fluoropolymers, in some instances moving back to less durable but more easily replaced paints has been useful. One sees this in the white painted elements of Roy McMakin’s interactive installation Love & Loss. With this artwork we moved away from acrylic polyurethanes as they repeatedly failed in contact with people’s interactions and were expensive to re-apply. Instead a relatively inexpensive acrylic pool paint has worked well, in that it slowly wears over time and a fresh coat can be brushed or rolled as needed (usually biannually). The artist Ginny Ruffner, who was commissioned to make an artwork and produced Mary’s Invitation – A Place to Regard Beauty, a piece designed for interaction, suggested that she hand brush her painted surface in a random cross hatch manner. This will allow it to be easily cross-hatched over with new brushwork if it is damaged. In the final construction, this idea was not realized; however one might imagine a future where an idea such as Ruffner’s becomes an ideal solution for a small staff with small budgets.