COVID-19 Update: All SAM Locations Currently Closed »

Sculpture Park Summers Are For Conservation

Perched on a hillside overlooking the watery expanse of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Sculpture Park is a welcoming, art-filled green space. Free and open to the public year-round, the park plays host to visitors in every season. Because of its exposed, marine location, the sculptures that live at the park are subject to deterioration from both environmental and human causes. We take good care of the sculptures, cleaning and tending them year-round, but with Seattle’s rainy winters, summer is the window in which conservation maintenance and treatments can be carried out. Despite the pandemic, this summer was no exception as without maintenance, deterioration both structural and aesthetic quickly compromises the sculptures and installations. 

If you visited the sculpture park this summer, you probably noticed the massive white tent covering Alexander Calder’s The Eagle. The distinctive red paint coating Calder’s soaring, swooping sculpture had deteriorated and needed repainting. Thanks to a generous grant from Bank of America, The Eagle received new primers and a new coat of red paint. It looks amazing! Due to a multi-year collaboration between art conservators, the artist’s estates, coatings scientists, industrial paint manufacturers and industrial painters and advances in polymer technology, the new coating will be more durable than the previous one while still maintaining the color, saturation and low gloss finish of the original paint.

Echo by Jaume Plensa sits near the shoreline and can be seen from some of the ferries that cross Elliott Bay. Made from marble dust and polyester resin over a steel framework, Echo’s off-white exterior becomes discolored throughout the year. Not only distracting from the beauty of the sculpture, this soiling, for which we can partially thank the feathered friend pictured above, speeds the deterioration of the artwork. To protect Echo, SAM conservators cleaned her and applied a sacrificial coating. As the sculpture is over 45 feet tall, this was no small feat!

Offering visitors an opportunity to pause and shelter from the sun or rain, Seattle Cloud Cover by Teresita Fernández is a series of laminated glass panels encasing abstract, color-saturated photographs. Attached to the bridge over the railroad tracks that cross under the park, its glass panels needed cleaning. Using long-handled brushes, dirt, dust and other debris were carefully cleaned from the top and pedestrian-facing panels. Additionally, caulk used in the brackets holding the glass panels was scraped out and replaced. Caulk shrinks and swells with changes in humidity and deteriorates due to age and weather exposure.

Mark Di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata, a ribbon of twisting steel that rotates on a single, carefully balanced point, is sited near the Olympic Sculpture Park shoreline. With its proximity to Puget Sound, chlorides (naturally occurring salts present in the air near bodies of water) are a concern. These chlorides cause aggressive, rapid corrosion of uncoated steel and other metals such as bronze. To address this issue, while maintaining the raw steel aesthetic of the artist, a corrosion inhibiting protectant was applied. Invisible to the eye, this coating will extend the sculpture’s lifespan.

These projects are just a sampling of the conservation treatments completed over the last few months. Other conservation treatments included cleaning and coating bronze sculptures and addressing loses in painted surfaces to prevent corrosion. In addition to these projects, members of the SAM conservation team are regularly onsite at the park to make sure that each sculpture is looking its best. Before the rainy, short days of our northwest winter drive us all indoors, get yourself to the Olympic Sculpture Park to enjoy the stunning artwork and expansive views.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: The Eagle, 1971, Alexander Calder, painted steel, 465 x 390 x 390 in., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2000.69 © Calder Foundation/Artist’s Rights Society, NY. Many thanks to Diamond Painting LLC for their work on the Eagle repainting project. Echo, 2011, Jaume Plensa, Spanish, Born 1955, Polyester resin, marble dust, steel framework, Height: 45 ft. 11 in., footprint at base: 10 ft. 8 in. x 7 ft. 1 in., gross weight: 13,118 lb, Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2013.22 © Jaume Plensa. Seattle Cloud Cover, Design Approved 2004; Fabrication Completed 2006, Teresita Fernández, American, Born 1968, Laminated glass with photographic design interlayer, approx. 9 ft. 6 in. x 200 ft. x 6 ft. 3 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006.140 © Teresita Fernández. Schubert Sonata, 1992, Mark Di Suvero, American, Born 1933, Painted and unpainted steel, Height: 22 ft., Gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, The Virginia Wright Fund, and Bagley Wright, 95.81. © Mark di Suvero.

Keeping the Art Safe at the Asian Art Museum

While SAM’s Asian Art Museum is closed, exhibits are still on display, waiting for the day that visitors can safely return to the building. A handful of staff are onsite, ensuring the safety and well-being of the art entrusted to SAM’s care. Sincere and tremendous thanks to Security, Environmental Services, and Facilities, who are in the building daily keeping a close eye on the art.

Throughout much of the closure, the Conservation team worked primarily from home and visited the Asian Art Museum only as needed. Environmental monitoring continued with the help of onsite Security and Facilities staff, who updated conservators to any changes in temperature or humidity. This information is recorded to create a record of the gallery environment over time. Because dust and debris can damage the surface of paintings and other artworks, the Conservation team also monitored, measured and recorded dust levels. Insects were a concern as they sometimes have a taste for paint, wood, fiber and other materials. Fortunately, both dust and insects have been at a minimum throughout the closure.

Some artworks required special interventions to protect their stability and longevity. Textiles were covered with light-weight tissue paper to protect from dust. In some galleries, movable walls were used to shield objects from light. The image above shows textiles at the Asian Art Museum as Chief Conservator Nick Dorman prepared tissue paper and moveable walls to protect the display. Light sensitive works, such as works on paper and paintings, were completely covered with black cloths to minimize light exposure. This type of preventive care can help minimize the need for more costly and invasive conservation procedures.

With careful planning to ensure the minimum number of necessary staff onsite and new work habits, the Conservation team has resumed paused projects. One major project that has been underway for several years and is now almost complete is the redesign of art storage at the Asian Art Museum. The new configuration provides more room, an improved layout, and better climate control. The racks seen on the left side of the image will be used to hang paintings and the cabinets to the right will be used to store scrolls.

Looking ahead, Conservation has resumed planning for upcoming exhibitions and art rotations. Fragile, light sensitive artworks, such as hanging scrolls, are usually displayed for only three months before being replaced with another, similar artwork. The Conservation team has been checking the condition of scrolls scheduled for upcoming rotations at the Asian Art Museum to ensure that they can be safely displayed. Every inch of the scroll is carefully examined, and any condition issues (flaking paint, discolorations, fading) are recorded. After it is taken down, the scroll is reexamined to make sure its condition is the same as before exhibition.

The Asian Art Museum continues to be closed until further notice and monitoring of the works is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Seattle Art Museum has reopened and the Conservation team is hard at work preparing for City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped A New Seattle. Evaluating modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs for safe display, performing minor conservation treatments and reframing art as needed are all important steps in readying the Wright Collection for exhibition. We can’t wait to share this new exhibition with you.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: Writings in Seal Script, 2011, Yao Guojin, Chinese, ink on paper, 23 1/2″ x 10,’ Gift of Frank S. Bayley III and Cheney Cowles, 2012.10.3. Photos: Nicholas Dorman. Photo: Marta Pinto-Llorca.

Muse/News: Eagle’s makeover, open gazes, and dancing wire

SAM News

Brangien Davis of Crosscut notices that Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, the monumental sculpture that perches in the Olympic Sculpture Park, has its own protective covering these days. She spoke with SAM Chief Conservator Nick Dorman about the conservation and repainting of the steel sculpture, thanks to a grant from Bank of America. Look for “the big reveal” sometime around Labor Day. 

The sculpture park is where it’s at these days: John Prentice of KOMO’s Seattle Refined interviewed SAM curator Carrie Dedon about how important accessible public art is—now more than ever.

“‘Anything that can broaden your horizons or challenge your worldview, or spark your emotions, these are the things that make us human and connect us to our humanity,’ Dedon said.”

Local News

Longtime cultural critic Misha Berson writes an opinion piece for Crosscut, outlining her thoughts on how “the arts need a New Deal to survive the pandemic.”

Tom Keogh for the Seattle Times has recommendations for some streamable films (a TV series) about presidential campaigns that “give us a peek into the peculiar business of running for the White House.”

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig takes her “Currently Hanging” series outside of Seattle; here, she visits Jordan Casteel’s Within Reach, viewable via the New Museum

“Her subject, Devan, stares openly at the viewer, seemingly aware of our gaze on his body, our intrusion on his space, our sussing out of his mental state…Devan projects an openness, a sort of straightforward vulnerability that makes this painting compelling.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone on several upcoming art projects in Tusla, Oklahoma to memorialize the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, during which white mobs destroyed homes and “Black Wall Street,” killing at least 300 Black residents. 

The American Alliance of Museums is out with another survey on the impacts of COVID-19; Valentina Di Liscia of Hyperallergic outlines the major findings, including that 12,000 institutions may close permanently.

Thessaly La Force for the New York Times’ T Magazine on artist Ruth Asawa, who spent her teenage years in two concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II and whose important sculptural work has long been overlooked.

“I have stood in a gallery hung with Asawa’s wire sculptures, where the movement of my own body has caused them to sway, the shadows of the woven wire dancing against the floor. For a moment, I was quietly transported elsewhere — to the deep sea, to a forest or maybe to someplace altogether unearthly.”

And Finally

The making of washi paper

Photo: Sarah Michael

Virtual Art Talks: Discovering the Dragon Tamer Luohan with Foong Ping & Geneva Griswold

When the Asian Art Museum closed for renovation and expansion our curators and conservators had the opportunity to conduct new research on an ancient sculpture in our Asian art collection. Hear from Foong Ping, SAM’s Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art, and Geneva Griswold, SAM Associate Conservator, in this detailed discussion about the new findings that led to renaming one of our sculptures. Previously known as “Monk at The Moment of Enlightenment,” learn why this enigmatic sculpture is now titled, “Dragon Tamer Louhan.”

This talk was originally presented in 2019 as part of SAM’s popular member-only Conversations with Curators lecture series and was adapted into a virtual art talk for everyone during Seattle’s “stay home, stay safe” directive so that you can stay connected to art while you stay home with SAM. The current season of Conversations with Curators is taking place virtually and is free for SAM members. It’s a great time to join or renew your membership.

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!