Wednesday, 28 December 2011

EAC: Conservation Project - The Convergence

The following article was taken from the Edmonton Arts Council's 'Public Art Monthly' publication. If you are interested in receiving the publication please send an email

Conservation can be a pretty solitary job; there aren’t a lot of us out there. Like any other job, it’s easy to second guess oneself without having someone to bounce ideas off of…. You can’t be an expert at everything.

Public art conservation poses many challenges: new and non-traditional materials are often used, many people can be involved at various stages of making the artwork, it has to stand up to extreme exposure, and the location might not be ideal. All of this is can be out of your control and you are left holding the bag, trying to figure out what to do with it if/when conservation work is required.

With new projects, the Edmonton Arts Council conservator (me) is involved from the proposal stage through design, fabrication and installation, and afterwards for the life of the artwork. Unfortunately, with the majority of artworks in the civic collection I don’t have the benefit of this level of intimate first-hand knowledge. Generally, these are older pieces and I am making assessments of artworks for which I have few files or limited details. So it can be a big relief when an artist is willing and wants to be involved in the conservation of their artwork. This is the case with the recent restoration of The Convergence by Tony Bloom.

The Convergence, a series of painted steel spires and a functioning fountain, has stood at the East end of the Victoria Promenade at the intersection of 117 St/100Ave for over 20 years. Over the years the condition of the artwork has deteriorated. Concrete was in poor shape and old repairs were failing, paint was discolored and hazy, and rust was developing. After making a preliminary condition assessment, I contacted Tony.

In conservation we look to minimal intervention, to try to retain as much of the original material as possible and make our presence invisible, to not impose with our mark or interfere with what the artist is trying to achieve. With this project we considered the age of the artwork and the extent of deterioration while being realistic to its function, materials, design and exposure. In this case some level of refurbishment is an expected process to not only extend the physical lifespan of the art, but also to uphold the artist’s concept. There’s a big difference between aging gracefully and deteriorating with age; and it was agreed that the intention of this conservation campaign was to bring the artwork back to a representation of its original state while honoring its history, function and age with the intention to take care of and maintain it from that point on.

Tony and I met at the sculpture and discussed the work, its current state, and drew up a plan of what needed attention. This was the autumn of 2009. The subsequent hours of research, planning and decision-making went into action when restoration began nearly two years later.

Tony easily invested over 60 hours in the project, which included site visits, consultations, digging for old files, and doing quality checks as the work progressed. He supplied original engin
eer renderings that showed the construction of the fountain, mechanical elements, anchoring and attachment points, and other material specifications.

After looking at options for doing the work in situ, it was decided the best approach was to remove the concrete, extract the painted steel spires, repaint them, and then re-install everything. Among other concerns, the close proximity to high-density residential and pedestrian traffic was an issue for paint removal and repainting--the solvents in industrial grade paints are toxic and you can’t control wind and dust.

The metal spires were removed and taken to Calgary for repainting. We met to inspect the spires and we were happy to see that 1) they arrived safely (most art damage occurs in transit), 2) there was no visible damage or wear that would affect the mechanical function of the fountain, and 3) the portions buried under concrete and soil for 20 years were in very good structural condition…. and the original blue paint was well preserved. This was important for getting an accurate color match for repainting. In addition, we were able to have those areas preserved so that future conservation work (i.e. repainting) would have that as a color reference and paint sample for any analysis.

Through the repainting process, I saw the spires during the priming process and Tony travelled to Calgary a number of times to see paint removal, priming and to sign off on the final painting. It was great to have someone to tag team at this point; if one of us couldn’t be there, the other could.

On a technical note, the only change made to the spires was that an additional primer was added before painting. The addition of a zinc-rich primer beneath the epoxy-based primer was added as extra corrosion protection, especially for the areas of the fountain elements that would be indirect contact with water and submerged beneath the concrete. The bases of the spires mounted in the ground were coated with a bitumen-based waterproofing agent before backfilling, as per the original specifications (if it ain’t broke...).

While we had confidence that the work would be high quality, there’s a level of reassurance when you can see it for yourself. When I was a practicing artist I needed control over everything that was produced. Now as a conservator I feel like I need to have even more control, because I am no longer acting on behalf of my own interests. There are other stakeholders involved, issues of legality and ethics that need to be upheld. The level of accountability to someone else’s art (and the artist, and the owner, and the community that see it everyday) makes it difficult to relinquish any level of control, and for me it was almost unbearable to not be able to physically look over someone’s shoulder to see every pass of the spray gun. I can only assume this is something one gets used to over time. Needless to say, I was happy to see the newly repainted sculpture come back to Edmonton.

The painted spires were re-installed quickly with no surprises. My only regret was that I wasn’t on site when the last one went up — apparently a crowd of onlookers from the community had gathered, and when the final spire went in, they all cheered.

This brings me to another point: Taking care of a public art collection is not something that can be done by one person. The public plays a huge role in preventive conservation: claiming ownership. When an artwork is appreciated in its location and the community embraces it, we know that it will be safe with others helping to watch over it. While applause feels great, more important is the overall awareness or re-realization of the artwork in their space. Ultimately my hope is that caring about art translates into caring for art.

Not everything went completely as planned with this project. The original renderings showed locations and routing of mechanical piping within the concrete base to the fountain spires. When concrete removal began it was quickly noted that this was not accurate. Drainage and overflow valves were not where they were shown, and some components had been left unfinished (for example, a small spout and drain located at the centre of the concrete base was never completed nor functional). Measurements of the base on the renderings did not completely match the as-built product, so adjustments were necessary to accommodate this while ensuring that the base looked cohesive.

The other concern that I had was that I wanted the newly poured concrete to have the same feel and appearance of the old concrete. This is something that only happens with age, it develops a patina. So keeping in mind that its appearance will change as it ages, how it looks now versus how it will look in 7-10 years was a big topic of discussion.

Conservation is often a solitary job, so having these types of conversations with Tony were extremely helpful. This treatment was never about making the artwork perfect, but to get it to a high level of condition, to bring it back to a representation of what he intended while developing an open dialogue with someone that is an expert in his field – and that’s much more interesting than reading a file.

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