Nearly a year after opening, Seattle's outdoor art park is holding up pretty well. Yet it has suffered some, both from Mother Nature and from the poor judgment of those who think engraving initials into artwork is a fine thing to do.
The vulnerability of the artwork at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park is a touchy subject, as is the conspicuous placement of less-than-subtle blue sandwich boards throughout the park that offer more-than-direct guidance to visitors.
“OUCH!,” the signs say. “Even the lightest touch harms the art. Scratches and residue cause major damage over time. Help the art survive. Please DO NOT TOUCH.”
Nearly a year after opening, Seattle’s outdoor art park appears to be holding up pretty well. Yet it has suffered some wear and tear, as much from the sloppy wet kiss of Mother Nature as from the poor judgment of those who think rubbing hands across the artwork or engraving initials into them is a fine thing to do.
“We were compelled to put the signage up, knowing full well that it irritates some people,” said Nicholas Dorman, SAM’s chief conservator. “We were in a tough spot. We needed to make the signs prominent because if they are too discreet, no one will see them. It’s a question of balance. If the signs can deter 25 percent of people from touching the art, then they’re probably worth having.”
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People began touching the sculptures even before the park opened to the public on Jan. 20, 2007. At a special members-only event, some museum patrons mindlessly drew pictures or wrote their names in the snow that dusted sculptures that evening. Even those who should know better apparently don’t know any better.
“I’m just amazed how people will see art, especially outdoor sculpture, as something they should physically interact with,” said Rae Edwards, who coordinates the volunteers who help conserve Big Rock Garden, an outdoor sculpture park in Bellingham. “I think there’s some education that’s really needed there.”
Also, no doubt, the breaking of habit.
People are conditioned to treat public sculpture as art within their reach. We’re accustomed to picnicking beside Isamu Noguchi’s “Black Sun” at Volunteer Park, leaning against Gerard Tsutakawa’s “The Mitt” outside Safeco Field and sunbathing on Michael Heizer’s “Adjacent, Against, Upon” at Myrtle Edwards Park.
And now we’re supposed to keep our grubby little hands off the public art at Olympic Sculpture Park? Hey, wait — it calls itself a park, not a museum!
Park officials can’t escape the fact that their “don’t touch” policies can come across as contradictory, especially since some of the sculpture — such as Louise Bourgeois’ “Eye Benches” and Roy McMakin’s “Love & Lost” — are designed to be sat and snacked upon. That makes it all the more difficult to protect those other sculptures where contemplation from a safe distance is more suitable.
Adding to the challenge, if not the confusion, is the park’s lack of an admission fee. Some visitors take free entry to mean that they have free run of the place, which isn’t so. Contrast that to the controlled environment of an indoor art museum that charges a fee and employs ropes and docents to separate visitors from the art.
Olympic Sculpture Park officials are sensitive about coming across as overly protective of outdoor art, but they also have to deal with the fact that some visitors have engraved their initials into the rust surface of Richard Serra’s “Wake.” Others have used Tony Smith’s “Stinger” as a Jungle Jim, seemingly oblivious to the damage that climbing can cause.
“Tony actually liked people to interact with his sculptures,” said Sarah Auld, director of Smith’s estate (the artist died in 1980). “The problem when people interact by climbing is not the footprints, it’s the belt buckle or rivet in the jeans that scratches the surfaces.”
No arrests were made in 2007 related to damaging the art, although police were called on a few occasions, said Dorman, adding that if a particular case of vandalism seemed malicious and egregious enough, SAM wouldn’t hesitate to press charges.
Beyond the big blue signs, park officials have employed several approaches to keep vandals at bay.
Security guards patrol the grounds on foot and bikes around the clock. A guard inside a control center constantly monitors security cameras strategically located throughout the park. Infrared lights at entrances trip when visitors enter the park after hours.
Park designers also have been strategic in getting visitors to respect the art, such as by planting flower beds as barriers around sculptures.
But people are hard to read. Edwards said she was certain no one would try to climb on a hollow aluminum sculpture installed last summer at Big Rock Garden in Bellingham. And no one did. Instead, visitors stuck their heads in the hole and banged on the aluminum to hear the echo noise.
Nature also has wielded its wrath at Olympic Sculpture Park. The saltwater environment is particularly hard on sculptures made of steel or wood. A few works already have undergone at least one additional layer of protective clear-coating.
Several park sculptures require routine power washings, which must be delicate so as to not damage the fragile surfaces. Cleanings and repairs are expensive, sometimes requiring the bringing in of a huge lift and boom or scaffolding.
“These look like hulking pieces of metal,” Dorman said. “But people can cause damage to them, even though they may look so invulnerable.”
Some sculptures are weathering the elements better than others. Here are status reports on the conditions of some that have suffered the most during the Olympic Sculpture Park’s inaugural year:
“Stinger,” by Tony Smith
” ‘Stinger’ is like a palette,” said Sarah Auld, director of the Smith estate. “Those planes are very inviting, seductive, hard to leave alone if one is so inclined to engage them.”
“Stinger’s” shiny, smooth black surface just begs to be touched. But it’s only a tease. “When people run their hand across a sculpture, they may not realize that the ring they are wearing is scratching the surface,” said SAM conservator Nicholas Dorman (pictured, pointing out a scratch on “Stinger”). Park officials try to keep the piece squeaky clean at all times because when its black surface it gets covered with dust, some visitors feel compelled to write their names in it, as if the sculpture were a chalkboard.
The fortress-like sculpture is a come-on unto itself. It has three closed sides and one open side — a virtual gate where visitors may enter to consider the interior of the piece. A few people, however, have taken the cosseted confines of “Stinger” as an invitation to shoot up or perform other questionable acts.
The worst damage to “Stinger” came when some joker tossed a combination padlock from a passing car on Broad Street, denting the artwork. Workers had to retouch and repolish the piece.
“Wake,” by Richard Serra
“Wake’s” curved steel surfaces are covered with a naturally forming patina of rust, which some visitors apparently cannot resist touching or defacing. Dorman said etches and scratches — not oils from hands — are Wake’s biggest nemeses.
“People remove the layer of rust by etching into the steel,” Dorman said. “The rust will return over time, but it takes time.”
Visitors sometimes use the pea-gravel bed upon which “Wake” is installed to engrave their names or initials into the sculpture. In the summer, a park security guard positioned around the clock at “Wake” had to ask several people each day to restrain themselves.
“Some actually were surprised that they were not allowed to do that,” Dorman said.
“Riviera,” by Anthony Caro
“Riviera’s” vertical and horizontal pieces of steel have had to undergo a new layer of protective coating to guard against the wet. But the greatest degradation to the art has occurred in the isolated instances when visitors thought it appropriate to chain their bicycles to the piece.
“Eagle,” by Alexander Calder
“Eagle’s” orange paint fades in the sun. The sculpture had been displayed at SAM’s Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park before moving to the waterfront and was repainted before the move. It likely will need another coat in the next 10 years, Dorman said.
“Eagle” often needs to be power-washed as crows enjoy using the sculpture as a perch — and a toilet.
Against the wishes of park conservators, “Eagle” was installed on grass so as to make it more inviting to visitors. But grass clippings gathered at the feet of the sculpture, which isn’t good for it. So now the park gardener clips and removes the blades closest to “Eagle” by hand.
“Bunyon’s Chess,” by Mark di Suvero
Rain is taking its toll on this sculpture’s steel beams, cables and wood logs. Its previous owner displayed the fragile artwork in a sheltered environment. Now out in the open, the logs get wet and then dry, and that cycle has an aggressive effect on the wood, Dorman said. As a result, park officials must constantly monitor the condition of the piece.
“Father and Son,” by Louise Bourgeois
Someone poured bubbles into the pool of the fountain, which may sound cute, but really isn’t. Soap from the bubbles can break down the coating on the sculpted figures.
“Seattle Cloud Cover,” by Teresita Fernández
One glass panel cracked and had to be replaced, but the cause of the damage was undetermined.
“Love & Loss,” by Roy McMakin
Some sculptures at the park are meant to be interactive, such as the benches and tables within “Love & Loss.” Paint is chipping on some of this sculpture’s surfaces. And someone once gouged the table’s enameled surface, which park officials then replaced.
“Eye Benches,” by Louise Bourgeois
Bike pedals, Dorman said, are the cause of visible scratches on the polished stone surfaces of the benches. Things could be worse. On two separate occasions, a car heading north on Alaskan Way didn’t make the sharp right turn onto Broad Street and plowed into the plaza where two pair of “Eye Benches” sit. In each case, though, the car spared the benches.
“Neukom Vivarium,” by Mark Dion
Is a nurse log art? That philosophical question begs an answer, which is one reason museum officials insist on having a volunteer “interpreter” inside the greenhouse where the log is exhibited. The other reason is security — to prevent visitors from disturbing the log and its ever-changing environment. Vivarium has regular hours — 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on weekends — but has not always been open during those hours because sometimes no volunteer is available to staff the exhibit.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293