Public art a victim of its success

Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched the Broad Contemporary Art Museum with great fanfare in February, some of the biggest, splashiest art was outside. The idea, LACMA director Michael Govan said, was to create an exciting atmosphere and introduce passersby to the kinds of art experiences they might find inside.

In fact, the outdoor artworks have added a popular panache to the Mid-Wilshire campus. Chris Burden's "Urban Light," a temple-like installation of vintage street lamps, has become the museum's grand entrance; Jeff Koons' glossy "Tulips" has become a landmark on the plaza; and Charles Ray's bright red "Firetruck" is a destination nearby.

But there are problems -- difficulties that underscore those facing institutions nationwide that display art outdoors in an increasingly populist age. And now "Tulips" and "Firetruck," both lent by billionaire Eli Broad's art foundation, are going away, the victims of too many loving hands and too much California sunshine.

Koons' lusciously colored stainless steel bouquet, which stands about 7 feet tall and flares into a 15-by-17-foot oval, has been damaged by visitors who can't resist touching its highly polished blooms. At an opening event, apparently a bracelet worn by a reveler scratched the piece.

Subsequent close encounters have left scuff marks. In one case, a toddler was so entranced by the art that he slid under a protective rope and threw his arms around one of the flowers.

"That piece is made of very durable materials that can withstand heat and weather," Govan said. "But it has a very refined finish, and for some reason it's like candy. It's a bit sad.

"We have displayed it responsibly. We have put up barriers and we have guards. I'm not sure if people have become more aggressive or if we have become more protective, but it deserves more care than the public so far has given it."

The sculpture was intended to remain in place for about a year, but it will be removed next week and shipped to Germany for repair in the factory that fabricated it. The undisclosed -- but certainly steep -- cost will be paid by the museum's insurance.

Meanwhile, "Firetruck," a full-size facsimile in painted aluminum, fiberglass and Plexiglas, has a different problem. It was made to be displayed outdoors and, as Joanne Heyler, the Broad Art Foundation's director, said, it has had "quite a full dance card" since its 1993 debut on Madison Avenue in New York, in front of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But the artwork has required conservation repeatedly over the years as the paint has puckered or cracked. Exposure to the elements is taking a toll once again at LACMA, albeit to a degree that's barely noticeable. "Firetruck" will fulfill its three-month commitment at the museum, returning to the foundation about the first of May.

"We are talking about a pretty fine level of detail," Heyler said, "but that's what conservators do and what we do when we are taking care of an artwork. We are still in the process of determining what exactly is happening with 'Firetruck,' but to make sure these problems don't get worse, it is going to come off view before it gets roasting hot every day."

Artists such as Ray, who lives in Los Angeles, and Koons, of New York, have "pushed the envelope" of materials used in outdoor sculpture, Heyler said. But maintenance challenges loom large even in sculpture gardens at many museums and universities where works in old-fashioned bronze and stone abound.

Although vandalism is relatively rare, sculptures often suffer from hands-on affection and thoughtless abuse.

At the Getty Center in Brentwood, where 28 modern and contemporary sculptures from the estate of film producer Ray Stark and his wife, Fran, are sprinkled around the buildings and grounds, visitors look at the artworks and see photo ops.

Brian Considine, the museum's sculpture conservator, said photo-motivated folks huddled around the sculptures, stepped on the bases and, when possible, climbed aboard.

"On Maillol's 'Air,' " he said of a lead nude that appears to float in the breeze, "we have seen adults not only put their children up on the sculpture but -- sometimes two at a time -- sit on the upper arm while somebody takes a picture. We have a generous contingent of security officers, but when somebody hops up on something and the guard is 15 yards away, they are on there before the guard can shoo them away."

At UCLA's Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, where neighbors walk their dogs, schoolchildren arrive by the busload and students lean against artworks while doing their homework, touching is OK, said Cynthia Burlingham, director of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and deputy director of collections at the Hammer Museum.

"Franklin Murphy's whole thing was to have this be an accessible garden," she said. "He made the case that if students feel that it belongs to them, they will respect it." His instincts were correct, she said, adding that having the garden in a relatively contained, highly populated place probably helps.

"But kids want to climb Deborah Butterfield's horse, and that is not a good idea," she said of an airy, life-size sculpture of a horse that appears to be made of slender tree branches but is cast of bronze.

Some UCLA gymnasts have taken a shine to Richard Serra's "Torqued Ellipse," running up the sides of the curved steel and leaving footprints of decomposed granite. But the artist has taken it in stride.

"That will pass," Serra said. "It's the age. You have to let go."

Still, conservators agree that the best way to preserve outdoor sculptures is to watch them closely, perform routine cleaning and maintenance regularly and repair problems immediately. All of which costs money and takes time away from other tasks.

At the Seattle Art Museum, for example, chief conservator Nicholas Dorman cares for a collection of 25,000 objects, 22 of which are installed at a waterside park with a railroad line and urban streets running through it.

"The time we spend at the park is out of proportion, that's for sure," Dorman said. "But the better maintained the sculpture is, the less inclined people are to write their names in the dust."

At LACMA, Govan is undaunted by the planned removal of the Broad pieces.

"None of this will dissuade us from putting works in public," he said. "We have a lot of ideas. But the next things that go out there will be things we own, so they are not so precious."

Burden's "Urban Light," part of the museum's collection, attracts a steady stream of night visitors who want to have their pictures taken with the illuminated lamps, Govan said.

"It's an incredibly beautiful sculpture that has engaged the public life of Los Angeles. It speaks loudly to the importance of public sculpture and helps get the word out, to take care of what we have."

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suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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