Cleaning up city statues brings new life to old art

It was the kind of fanfare usually reserved for a splashy new work of art. Balloons. Live music. Speechmaking by city officials. The crowd waiting eagerly for the white sheeting draped over the object to be pulled aside.

Under the cloth was a Lorado Taft sculpture of George Washington flanked by two Revolutionary War financiers, a piece that had already been unveiled a good 42 years ago. This second celebration was in honor of the fact that the fluorescent green of the corroded bronze figures, the black streaks on the granite base, and the hornets' nests and bird droppings accumulating ever since had been cleaned off for the very first time.

Chicago officials deliberately chose one of the city's dirtiest and most visible downtown monuments for the city's first sculpture scrubdown. Their hope: that the striking before-and-after contrast will encourage the private sector to give generously to Chicago's new ''Preserve a Statue Fund.'' The Missouri-based Bon Ami Company had donated money for this first project, which included a thorough cleaning with nylon wool, as well as a hand buffing after each of three coats of hot wax.

Chicago will formalize its pitch for more help from the private sector with a the Richard J. Daley Plaza and its rust-colored steel Picasso sculpture on a permanent nightly basis.

Upkeep is decidedly the less glamorous side of public art. It is an aspect few city officials think about when they acquire works. And they find it hard to beat the drums for contributions for upkeep later.

''If you're getting a big new sculpture, you have no trouble getting money for it - everybody wants to get in on the act,'' says Joan Cowan, who heads up the Chicago Department of Public Works restoration program. ''But if you want to clean dirty 19th-century sculptures, there's no glamour in it.''

Yet from the cleaning of the Statue of Liberty in New York City to Baltimore's methodical scrubdown and waxing of 30 city sculptures (with 30 more to go), there are signs of new interest in conserving public art. Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., are all involved such cleanups.

''There's a renaissance going on - cities are becoming more aware that some of these beautiful old pieces that lend a historical base to the community need to be preserved,'' observes Chicago's Joan Cowan. ''Conservators and preservationists are popping up all over the place - it's a whole new field.''

''Art is not forever unless it's maintained, and I think there's a growing awareness of that,'' says Richard Hunt, president of the Chicago Sculpture Society. ''Some sculptures, such as the Picasso in Daley Plaza, are more care-free than others, but works of art in public places suffer from pollution along with everything else. You put up a building with the knowledge that you'll have to wash the windows and repair the roof one day. But the general feeling has been that sculptures, though often made of the same materials, should last forever with no care.''

City dwellers appear to be noticing the difference a good cleaning can make. Consider Richmond, where the Virginia Legislature ordered the cleanup of all sculptures within the capitol grounds.

''You can see all sorts of little details now, like veins and muscles in legs , that weren't visible before - it's beautiful,'' says Sharon Crouch of the clerk's office of the Virginia House of Delegates.

''We're the first city to take on comprehensive treatment of our bronze statues, and we were a little concerned at first because people in Baltimore are used to seeing things in a certain way,'' says Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. ''But we've received lots of favorable comments since the work has been done - people are very pleased.''

''Metal doesn't breathe and it doesn't talk, but all this activity sort of makes these figures come back to life again - it makes them much more compelling ,'' says Chicago's Joan Cowan.

Chicago's fledgling sculpture-cleaning venture grew out of a plan launched a few years ago here to light up the city and its public statuary. Some 43 pieces - mostly bronze - were singled out for spotlighting. But Ms. Cowan says that when officials realized how dirty many of the sculptures were, it made no sense to light them up without a scrubdown. One has only to thumb through the pictures in Chicago Development Director Ira Bach's new ''A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculptures'' to realize how many are in need of cleaning.

Though there are no prospects of help from city coffers to tackle the Chicago job, this city is fortunate to have the B.F. Ferguson Fund. It is administered by the Art Institute here, and since 1913 has paid for the construction and upkeep of 19 sculptures around the city.

During the summer, two of these - Ivan Mestrovic's American Indian warriors astride massive horses at an entrance to Grant Park - have been treated to a $ 250,000 restoration job. Engineers and scientists from Missouri's Washington University Technical Associates, a profitmaking spinoff from the university, worked to restore the fragile statues from the inside out.

The need was so great, according to Art Institute conservator Timothy Lennon, that from inside the hollow horses, one could see the daylight through the thin layer of bronze. The legs were removed, sent to a foundry for repairs, and filled with a foam that will keep water out. New stainless-steel supports were put in, and the outside, the only part the public sees, was blasted with tiny glass beads through a hose before being cleaned and weatherproofed.

''The horses are back to their original color, and you can now read the details of the powerful forms and anatomy once again,'' notes Mr. Lennon.

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