Dispute over needed repairs to state-owned sculpture in downtown Cleveland highlights need to keep art public

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – A public art sculpture by Cleveland artist Gene Kangas, designed to function as a waiting area for buses at the back entrance of the Frank J. Lausche State Office Building, is an integral part of the landscape urban area of ​​Cleveland since its inception in 1979.

But the future of the artwork, located at the southeast corner of the intersection of Superior Avenue and Huron Road downtown, is now in question due to rising repair costs. after years of deferred maintenance.

A dispute between the artist and the state over the fate of sculpture raises a larger issue: how public agencies that collect art through percentage-for-art programs or other types of funding should do they take care of art as it ages?

In the case of the Kangas, deferred maintenance resulted in rusting and pitted surfaces on parts of the painted steel artwork, known as the “Terminal,” which mixes abstraction and figurative imagery. The work combines a steel-framed bench and mesh screen with folk silhouettes of a man and woman waiting for a bus, as well as curved steel spaghetti tubes painted in light green.

In 2019, the nonprofit ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland offered the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, which manages state properties, an informal estimate of $ 50,000 for repairing the sculpture. This year, the CIA offered the state a series of options, the highest of which would cost $ 120,000.

McKay Lodge, a for-profit art conservation firm in Oberlin, estimated the repairs would cost $ 80,000, an amount equivalent in inflated dollars to the $ 20,000 the state paid Kangas for the artwork. art in 1979.

Kangas, for his part, said he spoke to contractors willing to do the work for less than $ 10,000, but was unable to meet with state officials.

The back office did not budget anything for the repair of the artwork, agency spokeswoman Melissa Vince said in emails and an interview. Instead, he envisions the “offshoring” of the sculpture to another unspecified site.

First, however, the state returned the artwork to the artist, a retired Cleveland State University professor emeritus of art. But Kangas doesn’t want it.

“It’s not in the contract,” Painesville resident Kangas said Thursday morning. “They have to protect it and preserve it by giving it somebody like the Cleveland Museum of Art or some other organization.”

Vince said in his email that the state had therefore “started contacting other arts-related foundations to assess their interest in securing the piece for preservation,” but did not elaborate.

Kangas, who has exchanged numerous emails with state officials regarding the state of his work, is puzzled.

“For years I tried to talk to them about some of the issues here,” he said. The state’s responses are “just rubbish,” he said.

The Hits Over Sculpture highlight how the costs involved in maintaining public art can increase over time, a problem that could develop across Cleveland and around the state.

In 1990, Ohio initiated a Percentage for Art program, whereby new or renovated building projects with budgets over $ 4 million require 1% of total credit to be allocated to art. public. More than 100 projects have qualified since then, according to the Ohio Arts Council website.

The City of Cleveland launched its own program in 2003, reserving 1.5% of budgets for projects eligible to fund public art installations. In 2019, according to city officials, the program funded works by 40 artists in 10 of the city’s 17 neighborhoods.

The Cleveland nonprofit Sculpture Center, which hosts exhibitions and runs artist support programs, maintains an online registry of some 1,500 outdoor works of art across Ohio on its website.

The list, called Ohio Outdoor Sculpture, grew out of a nationwide project started by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1990s to document public sculpture.

The data on the website, compiled by volunteers, does not include detailed state-of-the-art exterior reports.

Deferring maintenance of public art may increase the cost of repairs over years of exposure to the elements, in which case the owner – the state, in the case of the Kangas sculpture – may consider unloading a work. art rather than paying for conservation.

“It’s never sexy to try to find extra dollars for something that has already been created,” said Greg Peckham, executive director of the nonprofit LAND Studio in Cleveland, which manages projects for public art and urban design for public and private clients.

LAND Studio regularly considers the cost of maintenance when planning new projects.

“One of the essential things we have to ask ourselves as we produce more work is whether there is the capacity to take care of it,” Peckham said. “We don’t want to create something now that would become a fault for a neighborhood or a discredit for an artist in the future. “

In recent years, several prominent public art works owned by the city and state of Cleveland have received excellent care. In 2014, for example, ICA Art Conservation repaired the “Free Stamp” sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in Willard Park, a $ 96,000 project funded by BP America.

The ICA also recently restored the textile art installation “Cloud Series VI” by Lenore Tawney in the lobby of the Lausche Building and the ceiling of the King Sculpture Court at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

At Case Western Reserve University, Kathleen Barrie, a veteran arts administrator and museum consultant, directs the John and Mildred Putnam Sculpture Collection, which includes more than 50 installations on campus. Barrie said the university has turned to temporary rather than permanent facilities.

“Now, whenever we get new works or commission new works, we set them up from the start as temporary so that we have the flexibility to move or delete them,” said Barrie. “We wouldn’t do it without working with the artist. On a lively campus, we need to have the flexibility to move things. “

When necessary, however, the Putnam Collection invests heavily in repairs. He recently performed a full restoration on architect Philip Johnson’s “Turning Point” sculptures, relocated to East Bell Park, just off East Boulevard across from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

LAND Studio is also moving more towards temporary installations. Examples include the annual rotating outdoor art exhibitions at the Eastman Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library, such as a new exhibit of his children’s sculptures by Cleveland artist Darius Steward, installed in August.

At other times, however, LAND Studio has invested heavily in maintenance. He recently raised $ 50,000 to restore “Life Shares the Same Park Bench,” a 1969 mural by artist John Francis Morell on the north side of the Superior building at Rockwell Avenue and East 9th Street in the center. city ​​of Cleveland.

Looming issues for downtown public art include the fate of works at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, a building that may be replaced.

Major works at the Justice Center include Isamu Noguchi’s 36-foot-high “Portal”, a giant assembly of black steel tubing; an abstraction by sculptor Richard Hunt; and George Segal’s sculpture “Three people on four benches”. All three artists are considered major figures in modern American art.

Kangas, whose reputation centers primarily on Cleveland and Ohio, is represented by work outside the CWRU, including “Snow Fence,” 1984, and by his “Hart Crane Memorial” at Hart Crane Park along the Cuyahoga River at Columbus Road in the apartments, made in 1989-95.

Barrie praised the Kangas of the Lausche Building as a mixture of abstraction and folkloric figuration that makes sense in Ohio because “we are rural, industrial and urban at the same time.”

She called the sculpture “a good light moment when you walk into a public building, which should be welcoming and friendly,” and said it would send a negative message to let the work continue to rust.

“He’s an artist from Ohio,” Barrie said. “How difficult is it to get money to repair [the sculpture]? It reflects very badly on us as a city if we cannot maintain works of art like this.

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