On October 29, 2013, the “Cultures of Conservation” class visited the Hope Steven Garden and wall mural in Harlem to discuss the plight of the contemporary exterior mural. Guest speaker Will Shank, conservator, consultant, and former Head of Conservation SFMoMA, joined the class, along with community members and arts activists. The following site visit report was written by Lisa Adang, a member of the class.

Recently, on a sunny October day, the BGC’s Cultures of Conservation class gathered at the gates of Hope Steven Garden at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 142nd Street in Harlem. The group looked in on a garden space that was abundant and green even in mid Autumn. The class was joined by conservators Will Shank and Harriet Irgang Alden, artist Janet Braun-Reinitz, outdoor arts advocate and former director of Project GreenThumb Jane Weissman, and several longtime members of the community garden.

As the group filed in along the brick path and paused under the branches of a peach tree, all eyes wandered upward to admire a stunning mural on the garden’s North wall. This is “Homage to Seurat: La Grande Jatte in Harlem” by Eva Cockcroft, created for the Hope Steven Garden in 1986. In fact, however, the mural the group admired on this day was a different version than the original, which the class soon found out was painted entirely anew in its restoration in 2009.

By 2007, the mural was in an advanced state of deterioration with significant fading of the pigment colors, loss of paint due to flaking and structural damage to the wall. This prompted community members to submit the mural for consideration by the Rescue Public Murals (RPM) organization to gain funding and guidance in order to save the work from complete decay. Co-chair of RPM Will Shank explained that the project was selected for support because of both the perilous physical state of the mural, and its importance to the surrounding community. Harriet Irgang Alden was present in the garden to share insight on her role as paintings conservator assigned to guide the restoration project, and another major contributor to the restoration, Janet Braun-Reinitz, joined to recount the details of the effort and her experience with the project as someone personally familiar with Cockcroft and her techniques.

A fascinating conversation ensued in front of the restored mural with much of the discussion focusing on the intangible value the mural holds for the community around it. The class found that the vibrance of the mural is crucial to the garden to define it as an active and protected space in the neighborhood. By contrast, the decay of the mural symbolized neglect, so it was more important in this context for the mural to “look like new,” rather than adhere strictly to traditional conservation procedures.

Earlier in the day at the Bard Graduate Center, Will Shank held a talk entitled “The Plight of the Exterior Contemporary Mural: A Bold, But Vulnerable, Child of Contemporary Culture” in which he explained the variety of strict conservation practices he uses for outdoor paintings. These include very careful cleaning to remove dirt and the powdery surfactant finish that contributes to the faded look of many murals. Another common procedure to arrest decay is consolidation of loose paint flakes, as well as in-painting, which the International Council of Museums’ Committee for Conservation dictates should not overlap with any original material. In this sense, the restoration of the Cockcroft mural did not adhere to traditional conservation dictum, but, in this case, the physical material of the original painting was sacrificed in order to preserve the function and meaning of the painting.

Despite all of the natural causes that contribute to the decay of outdoor artworks, Shank said in his talk that lack of public interest is the most threatening factor to the survival of murals. So, inside the gates of the Hope Steven Garden the class learned that Homage to Seurat was saved in large part due to the actions of community members. Ultimately, the group gained valuable insight into a fundamental question in conservation that asks, what should be preserved: material or meaning?