Maintaining Portland's Public Art
Plans for a new public building have been approved. The call goes out for accompanying public art proposals, and a heated competition among artists ensues. A work is commissioned and produced, followed by a grand dedication ceremony, where a gleaming piece of art is unveiled for all to appreciate.
For most, that’s the end of the story.
Not for Keith Lachowicz, who is responsible for managing and maintaining roughly 2,000 pieces of art owned by the city of Portland and Multnomah County. They range from a watercolor of Willamette River barges to a 16-inch-high bust of Picasso made from Erector Set-like pieces of steel to the 6.5-ton Portlandia statue.
Lachowicz is the public art collections manager for the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) which administers the Percent for Art (PDF download) programs for both the city and county. Those programs set aside 2 percent of the costs of large construction projects to acquire, install and maintain public art.
One-tenth of that set-aside goes to maintenance. Grants, donations and other monies also help fund a function that’s essential, Lachowicz says, but often overlooked. “People don’t think about how we’re going to put this piece here and it’s going to be here forever.”
Of the $1.8 million RACC devoted to public art in the last fiscal year, between $40,000 and $50,000 went toward maintenance, Lachowicz says. That covered most of the day-to-day upkeep costs as well as assessments for bigger-ticket fixes and matching funds required by grants. “It’d be great if we had more money for maintenance,” says Lachowicz. “But it’s a system that works pretty well.”
Regular Sweeps of the Transit Mall
The public art that requires “the most energy and effort” to maintain, Lachowicz says, are the 170-odd outdoor sculptures, the highest concentration of which are in the downtown core.
That’s where Lachowicz most frequently dispatches Tim Stigliano, RACC’s part-time public art maintenance technician, to perform routine maintenance and simple graffiti abatement. His work ranges from trimming hedges to replacing light bulbs to waxing and buffing bronze sculptures. “Every single piece in the collection definitely needs regular upkeep,” says Stigliano.
On a recent afternoon, Stigliano collected his rolling cart of brushes, solvents, rags, hoses and other sundry tools from the RACC office on the North Park Blocks and spent several hours visiting art along the transit mall. He investigated reported vandalism to the large fountain at Southwest Sixth and Pine (he couldn’t find any), waxed and buffed the “Floribunda” bronze across from the Fifth Avenue food carts, scraped off gum and removed pen marks from the base of a Southwest Sixth Avenue equestrian statue, and scrubbed clean one of the whimsical “Burls Will Be Burls” statuettes along West Burnside.
“Nothing too eventful today, which was a good thing,” says Stigliano, who has a degree in painting and also works as an art preparator. “Sometimes I have my work cut out for me. The taggers are using everything from fire extinguishers loaded with paint to what they call LED throwies” — a small light-emitting diode attached to a wristwatch battery and a magnet, which vandals toss and tuck into “impossible-to-reach” places, Stigliano says.
Most of the maintenance work is reactive. Lachowicz receives calls from employees at city and county bureaus such as Parks and Water, and from members of the public, all of whom alert him to vandalism or needed repairs.
Some pieces require more attention than others — and for different reasons. Although artist Bill Bane’s bronze of Vera Katz on the Eastbank Esplanade gets its share of “positive attention,” such as hats and flowers and yarn-bombed sweaters, Lachowicz says, it also attracts lipstick, paint and even recently, according to Stigliano, “a mohawk of cake frosting.” Two indoor fountains — one in the East County Health Facility in Gresham, the other at the 911 Center on Southeast Powell — require at least monthly cleanings.
More complicated maintenance issues are handled by Lachowicz and William Rihel, a public art program specialist. They recently worked together to diagnose and repair a problem with the acoustic components of artist Donald Fels’ “Drawing on the River” sculpture in Cathedral Park. Some of the tines in the music box-like player had rusted off, resulting in unplayed notes.
Other repair projects require calls to fabricators, gilders and art conservators, and servicing major installations requires plenty of advance planning. Lachowicz says he’s in the early stages of a plan to clean Portlandia in 2014 or 2015, which will require coordinating with other work planned by city facilities staff and raising outside funds. “Just scaffolding for that piece is in excess of $20,000.”
Holding Down Costs
Lachowicz solicits money and labor to help maintain the collection. A grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust helped restore, among other works, the 87-year-old bronze sculpture of George Washington on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. Volunteers from the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center clean the polished granite of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park.
Whenever possible, Lachowicz tries to make the art itself more maintenance-friendly by identifying potential problems during the design process. When Lachowicz noted that the wind-activated chimes atop five 20-foot-high “Song Cycles” in Elizabeth Caruthers Park would be hard to access, the artist proposed mounting them on hinged flagpoles.
Sure enough, broken spokes and other problems with the sculpture soon required attention. “So that forethought about maintenance paid off,” he says, eliminating the need to hire a boom lift to make the repairs.
Lachowicz also documents how large artwork is installed, something he’s paid more attention to ever since he had to temporarily remove about a dozen pieces along the transit mall during its 2007–2009 reconstruction — a job complicated by the fact that “some pieces had great photos of how they went in, and others had none at all.”
For the city’s newest public artwork, Jorge Pardo’s “Streetcar Stop for Portland,” at the east end of the Broadway Bridge, Lachowicz made sure photographs were taken before, during and after the shelter’s installation. Potential vandalism notwithstanding, he doesn’t anticipate problems with its steel support structure or fiberglass-wrapped panels.
“I’m always ever hopeful,” he says, “that the maintenance is going to be minimal.”