Remembering Art That’s Not Meant to Last: Art Restoration, Inside and Out

Emma as a security guard in 2019

In college, I worked as a museum security guard. I was a fly on the wall, observing art and people all while learning the “behind the scenes” of  art museums. One of my daily tasks was to check on the status of the temperature and humidity in the galleries. The humidity and temperature had to be set to the perfect temperature to ensure that the art was not damaged. Certain works of art can shrink or expand in the wrong temporal settings. One day, I noticed the temperature was off by a degree or two. The registrar and a maintenance worker were on the scene in a matter of minutes.

A few months later, I began working with street artists and muralists—an entirely different ball game from my previous role at the museum. All the street art installations took place outside in the elements, never a dehumidifier in sight. I often thought back to my job protecting works of art and thought about how resilient street art is in comparison to art in a museum.

While there are a variety of differences and similarities between art inside and outside, one of the major differences between the two is that indoor art is restored, maintained, carefully protected, and handled while outdoor art is open to the chaos of the outdoors and of course, the elements. If both art forms are important, how can art that happens outside be remembered if there are no restorative efforts made? And really, should art that happens outside be restored? Shouldn’t art that happens outside remain true to its ephemeral nature, vulnerable to the outdoors? Isn’t that the beauty in it?

Emma working with Mana Public Arts

The answers to these questions are up for debate, so let’s get into it.

Art inside

There are systems in place that ensure art that sits inside the walls of museums remains safe. Security prevents people from touching, stealing, or harming the art. Registrars and art handlers ensure art is properly installed, stored, and accounted for. And conservators fix damaged art. Inside art is, quite frankly, coddled. These intense restoration efforts allow us to look at art that is thousands of years old. The same cannot be said for art that takes place outside.

Art outside

The world of art that happens outside is vast and ever-changing. Graffiti artists, street artists, muralists, street performers, and musicians create fleeting works of art that are sometimes only captured and heard by someone walking by, not paying much mind to the art form at all. This offers a sense of ephemeral beauty that is not always turned into something physical, unlike a painting on a canvas. When outside art is turned into something physical like a poster or a spray painted design on a wall, who knows how long it will last in its place of origin. Maybe a month or a year?

Art inside and/or outside

Sometimes, art that lives inside also exists outside too. We commonly see this phenomenon occur with sculptural works of art that can be installed inside, or out. A sculpture could be placed out in a grassy field, open to wild animals, the elements, and people but as soon as it takes one “step” into the walls of a museum, a “Do not touch” sign is installed around its perimeter. I guess context is everything. 

The late Swedish-American sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser exemplifies one work of art that has gone through many indoor and outdoor installations. The eraser has traveled the world, installed outside at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida but now lives inside, overlooking a beautiful waterfront view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The eraser has been rained upon, snowed on, under the strong rays of the sun, and even probably bumped into from time to time and yet, still remains unscathed. 

So, we’ve walked through the basics. Art can exist inside and be carefully managed, art can be outside, vulnerable to quite literally anything and everything, and art can even lead different indoor or outdoor “lives,” depending upon the place. The question remains, should art that exists in outdoor contexts be restored? If so, how would this look?

The truth is, there is not a straightforward answer. Every person you ask will have a different opinion. When this is the case, I like to turn to the people making the art themselves. 

Volunteers paint the border fence between the United States and Mexico to give the illusion of transparency during the "Borrando la Frontera" (Erasing the Border) Art Project in Mexicali, Mexico April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker

Last fall, I was fortunate enough to get multidisciplinary artist Ana Teresa Fernandez’ opinion on the “outdoors art” matter. As an artist who embodies ephemeral art in her own work and creates both inside and out, I knew she would have something to say about it. The conversation surrounded one of Fernandez’ 2011 installation Borrando la frontera which is a work of art installed at the Mexico/U.S. border at the Tijuana border. The installation advocates for immigration rights and encourages the public to imagine a world without such a violent border.

I asked Fernandez how she felt about the installation succumbing to natural wearing and tearing. Fernandez replied that it is just part of the process and proceeded to tell me that after a while, people would come with their own paint and fix fading spots. Part of this inspired the next rendition of the project that took place at a new point in the border. The second installation became a community-based painting process. In one way, the wear and tear of the first installation actually became part of the driving force for the next phase of the process. If the mural had been restored, who knows what would have happened?

So maybe it isn’t a question of how to restore art that takes place outside, and more a question of how to capture its essence for future generations. One answer to the dilemma might be right there in front of us: photographs. So much of history has been in just one photo. And really, people are snapping photos and videos more than ever. So now, maybe it is an issue of figuring out a systematic way to document important works of art. Who would be in charge of this and have access to it? Who would deem the artworks “documentation worthy”?

“Welcome to Hell,” George Floyd Anti-Racist Street Art , accessed January 29, 2023.

During the height of the pandemic and one of the most politically divisive moments in 2020, I worked with a team to document art that was a part of the thousands of  the Black Lives Matter protests demanding racial justice and equity as a response to the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. We were working to create a public database and interactive map of all of the artworks we could find online and through social media that became part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The goal was to capture this historic moment and highlight the voices of the participating Black artists involved. We were not the only team working on this initiative. One team at The University of St. Thomas actually completed a virtual map and database in August of 2020. The Urban Art Mapping database and interactive map can be found here.

As the world moves into a more digital era grounded in remote working, AI technology, and even digital art, the answer to the restoration of art that takes place outside will also become more digital so that its physical state can truly be born, live, and die in the ephemeral way it is meant to. The murals from the Black Lives Matter movement were powerfully existing in the moment they were made for, and should live on. The stores eventually reopened and by now, most of the artworks have been taken down. While many of them are now in galleries, museum collections, and in various places across the nation, the online database remains true to the moment in which they were created for which it is of the utmost importance for future generations to see. 

A Mockup of Artland's 3D tour technology. Image from Artland and Artnet News

While the current state of restorative practices in the arts is different depending upon the location of an artwork, it is important that the practices of art restoration continue expanding alongside our ever-changing technological pursuits to “capture” art. Who knows where technology will take art conservation in the future—perhaps as far as the metaverse.

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