It's been over 20 years since artist Tony DeLap built one of the first public artworks in Santa Monica. The Big Wave, an arching sculpture greeting visitors to the city's gateway on Wilshire Boulevard, had suffered greatly in its first two decades from rust and deterioration. Last year, restoration work was completed that not only repaired the corrosive effects of the sea air but also added a new LED lighting system.

While DeLap's iconic sculpture was saved, public art in Los Angeles and its surrounding cities confronts many potential causes of deterioration. In addition to the damage caused by wind, sun and rain (not to mention animals, birds and the occasional errant driver), there is also the problem of dwindling funds for a growing and maturing public art collection. The recent slowdown in real estate development also has meant less capital to create and conserve public art, which traditionally has been funded through “Percent for Art” programs.

According to Felicia Filer, public art director for Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs, the city has commissioned 252 works of art since 1993, about half of which are outdoors. Some of these works, found at local libraries, parks, animal shelters and police stations, are in need of repair and many soon will be as they age. It's a problem confronting every city with an aging public art collection.

Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Culver City and most other municipalities in Southern California have a Percent for Art program. While these ordinances require a percentage of real estate development costs put aside to fund and install art, not all of these programs allow cities to maintain funds earmarked for long-term conservation. “We can't necessarily use the same public art money that built the project to conserve [it],” says Jessica Cusick, Cultural Affairs Manager for Santa Monica.

In Los Angeles, as part of the Percent for Art Program, 5% of the administrative budget for the Department of Cultural Affairs has historically been allotted for the maintenance of public art. However, in 2002 there was a shift in the financing landscape. According to Filer, bond-funded projects do not allow the city to earmark funds for conservation and, after 2002, most large-scale real estate development was financed with bonds. “We're unprotected in terms of our ability to set aside money,” Filer says.

As artworks installed after 2002 approach the 15-year mark, Filer anticipates a greater need for both public and private support. “We will have to make a plea to the City Council for maintenance funding,” she says. And Angelenos themselves may have to pony up to save beloved works.

While Los Angeles has far fewer examples of heroic statuary than most East Coast cities, a 1926 memorial of Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer by sculptor Julia Bracken Wendt in Lincoln Park had fallen into disrepair by 2003. Filer says the community collected Lincoln pennies and managed to raise several thousand dollars to refurbish the statue.

Bench at Sunland-Tujunga Library in need of repair

Bench at Sunland-Tujunga Library in need of repair

Yet there are plenty of other works in need of help that don't have the attention of civic-minded benefactors. For instance, a ceramic-tiled bench by Karen Koblitz at the Sunland-Tujunga Library that's been damaged by skateboarders is in need of repair but lacks the funds. The Department of Cultural Affairs has reached out to the local neighborhood council for help but has not yet heard back.

B.J. Krivanek and Joel Breaux artwork at the Palms-Rancho Branch Library awaiting reinstallation

B.J. Krivanek and Joel Breaux artwork at the Palms-Rancho Branch Library awaiting reinstallation

A somewhat luckier example is a piece by B.J. Krivanek and Joel Breaux at the Palms-Rancho Branch Library that was damaged when a car hit the building. Filer says the driver's insurance company agreed to pay for the building and artwork repairs. The Dept of Cultural Affairs is in the process of reinstating the piece.

"Cradle" by Ball Nogues in Santa Monica; Credit: Photo by Monica Nouwens

“Cradle” by Ball Nogues in Santa Monica; Credit: Photo by Monica Nouwens

While it's difficult to predict careless drivers, cities are taking other precautions to prevent the normal wear and tear on outdoor installations, including more upfront research and planning prior to approving a work. One illustrative example is Ball-Nogues' “Cradle,” a work of 450 stainless-steel balls suspended from the parking structure at Santa Monica Place. “There was a year of work to make it bulletproof,” says Cusick. “We needed to make sure the wires were tight enough that birds couldn't nest there. We had to be able to power-wash the stainless steel without damaging the garage.”

Artist Ben Ball argues that investing in upfront planning pays dividends long-term. “You have to foresee as many potential problems and account for them,” he says. “Ultimately, [a city can] wind up spending more to replace or tear down a work than maintaining it.”

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