Colorado cities are crazy for public art. From Loveland’s love of sculpture to Durango’s long-simmering debate over art at a busy intersection, most every place has a collection that is outdoors for all to enjoy.
It’s the outdoors part that’s a problem.
Public art collections are often exposed to harsh weather, vandalism and the public at large — which makes it tough to take care of. As collections across Colorado grow and age, caretakers say it’s impossible to keep up.
Steamboat Springs used to take public art donations, but a year ago they started to say no. The mountain resort town’s focus is no longer all about growing their collection. Winnie Delliquadri, the assistant to the city manager, now says the “focus is on really facilitating and supporting the community's interest in public art, and also making sure that we can preserve it forever."
Even a simple bronze statue needs work, especially if you make the mistake of installing it near a sulfur hot spring. The city learned that “that’s not a good idea,” Delliquadri says. “But at the time there was a lot of representation that art did not need maintenance."
Steamboat now won’t take a piece of art without a plan or budget to maintain it. Prospective donors have to donate to an endowment fund that handles art maintenance.
Denver shares the same public art desires, and the problems, that Steamboat saw. Their approach to taking care of their art includes recruiting artist John McEnroe to help manage the collection. Things are constantly happening to public art: a piece gets tagged with graffiti or hit by a car. A lightbulb burns out. These emergencies make McEnroe feel a bit like the public art ambulance.
The bigger jobs, like restoring the two 100-year-old Sullivan Gate sculptures on the Esplanade outside of East High School, resemble managing a small construction project, he says.
The two stone sculptures each stand atop tall pillars and were built in 1917. One is titled “Agriculture,” and shows two women with one holding a basket of grain. The other is of men and is titled “Mining.” McEnroe considers the work “one of the bright spots of Colfax” and restoration of the sculptures by Italian immigrant Leo Lentelli has been a high priority for years.
"It seems like, when you look at a small issue on an artwork, that we can just call somebody up and say, ‘hey, can you come fix that?’” McEnroe says. “But oftentimes those repairs require three or four different tradespeople to do the work.”
It cost Denver nearly $30,000 to restore “Agriculture.” The other statue is expected to cost double that. These are just two of the 27 works of art on Denver’s 2017 list that need nearly $450,000 in repairs.
That's a big price tag, and not everybody managing public art has that kind of money to spend. As an artist, John McEnroe knows this firsthand. He has artwork that’s languishing at the Dry Creek and I-25 light rail station.
"It is hard to have my name next to this. It is a mess,” McEnroe laments. “But I also know with a little effort, it can be brought right back to life."
The large, rotatable hourglasses — known as “Fools Gold” — were installed in 2006. Each represents one Colorado’s eight watersheds. The acrylic is cracked, and the paint is sun bleached. The glue seal has come loose, allowing the hourglasses to move freely in their sleeves. And the gold beads have leaked, making it hard to see inside.
John McEnroe readjusts his piece ‘Fools Gold’ at @RideRTD Dry Creek. The public artwork is 12 yrs old, and he says “It’s hard to have my name next to this. It’s a mess.” RTD says its maintenance budget is “fairly thin.” Story soon on the challenges of taking care of public art. pic.twitter.com/fMxqFLVIv6
— Michael E Sakas (@_msakas) February 7, 2018
“I see something that's broken before I see anything that communicates to me about water or gold,” McEnroe says. “The current condition of the work is superseding anyone's understanding of what this thing might be about."
The Regional Transportation District isn’t making any promises about a fix for McEnroe’s art. The district’s Art-N-Transit program has been around since 1994 and they consider it part of fostering community. Christina Zazueta, RTD’s community engagement manager, says art is added to their projects when there’s money leftover from construction. For the last few years, $30,000 has been budgeted to take care of RTD’s collection, but she says that amount isn’t always guaranteed.
“If something needed significant work, that’s something that we would have to look at our resources and see, well, how much we could invest and when we could invest it,” Zazueta says.
She adds that, as a last resort, RTD has only ever taken down a few pieces of art.
Removing art is often a nuclear option, but that’s exactly where Denver International Airport finds itself with a work installed more than 20 years ago in Concourse C. “Interior Garden” by Michael Singer is made to look like ruins, with plants growing around an ancient-looking infrastructure. Spokeswoman Stacey Stegman says birds and mice use it, and the airport struggles to keep the plants alive. DIA has spent more than $800,000 in maintenance.
“What point does maintenance become too burdensome, that is doesn’t make sense to hold onto a piece anymore?” Stegman asks.
The Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs initially said the art couldn’t be removed — that the airport has a responsibility to make it work — but eventually the head of Denver’s Arts and Venues gave DIA permission to remove it. Among the caveats for that decision was that the airport had to commission another piece by the same artist.
Art managers don’t want their collections to fall apart, so they have to consider what it’ll take to avoid broken pieces and hefty maintenance costs. Stegman says they have to weigh the artists’ goals to make impressive pieces, and the airport’s responsibility to keep it working in an environment where millions of people pass through each year.
“It makes sense from an artist’s perspective, it makes sense to be able to do that to really maximize the beauty of the art,” Stegman says. “But it does create challenges in our environment that no one would have predicted.”
Denver’s public art program manager, Michael Chavez, says the city considers maintenance costs and how they’ll “maintain pieces long-term, making sure we’re not getting ourselves in a bad position there.”
On top of taking care of the old stuff, the city has to keep creating new pieces too: One percent of any capital improvement project by the city of over a million dollars must go to creating public art. More than two-dozen pieces are currently in the works, artwork the city will need to take care of forever.
Artist John McEnroe acknowledges it’s a tough balance.
“The work shouldn’t be dumbed down because it’s in the public realm,” he says. “It should be just as challenging as anything, but it just needs to be a little tougher.”