Funding for this project was provided by the Travis B. Poole and Robert B. Smith Conservation and Preservation Fund.
Sculptural work displayed outdoors can transform and interact with a space. This is certainly true of the four Tom Otterness sculptures residing in the Gelvin Garden on the south side of the museum.
In 1994, KAM commissioned the sculpture in this location. All four works are made of bronze and are nestled into different areas of the garden. The largest work, Feet, resides under the tree, while Cat with Woman sits on a bench nearby. Additionally, Cops Cleaning Up push their brooms across the adjacent plaza and Radical Rich can be found sawing at the base of a light post on the path.
While it is a great joy to have these works available outdoors, their display places them in constant exposure to the elements and potential damage from living creatures. Their care is different from bronze works that are kept indoors. It is important for the museum to regularly inspect and maintain these sculptures to ensure their long-term preservation. Included in this is yearly waxing, typically performed by collections staff, that gives the works a protective coating against various agents of deterioration.
It was during inspection in late spring that collections care staff noticed Cops Cleaning Up appeared to have a significant area of active corrosion on one of its large coins resembling bright green fuzz. The protective wax layer had rubbed away in that particular area (and some others) leaving it vulnerable. It is likely salt and water in the winter months got onto the surface and started the corrosion.
At that time this was noticed, a more thorough review of the other outdoor sculptures was undertaken. It was noted that Cat with Woman had incurred mechanical damage on the proper right hand of the cat. It was as if a shovel or cart of some kind scraped across the knuckles of its hand, removing the protective patina and exposing the raw bronze to the elements.
These two injuries prompted us to call upon a conservator. While the museum can conduct basic cleaning and preventative waxing, we do not undertake more complicated repairs on our own.
Chicago-based firm Restoration Division lent their expertise to this project, sending one of their conservators to treat the issues of chemical and mechanical damage on the two works, and to clean and wax all four of KAM's outdoor Otterness sculptures.
The conservator began by cleaning the surface of each sculpture with soft mechanical methods (brushes and cloths) and then treated Cops Cleaning Up with an oxidation dissolver solution to reduce the corrosion. Solvents were completely removed with water.
Select areas of each sculpture were heated and rubbed to reinform and blend the existing, remaining wax coat. A new layer of conservator’s wax (called micro-crystalline wax) was applied to the whole surface and then buffed to an appropriate sheen.
Lastly, areas of concrete below the sculptures were power-washed to reduce discoloration.
For Cat with Woman, the same steps were undertaken, but before re-waxing, the conservator took the additional step of locally re-patinating the exposed bronze on the damaged paw.
KAM will continue our regular care of these sculptures. Prior to waxing, and as necessary, the statues can and should be washed with water (and a mild detergent) to remove accumulated dirt, salts from ice control, and other materials. Because rain alone is not enough to keep bronze clean and can cause uneven streaking, each bronze will receive a yearly protective treatment with paste wax.
If you visit the gardens during the winter months, you may notice a small yellow house with a Plexiglas roof surrounting Cops Cleaning Up. The covering was constructed by KAM staff to to protect the bronze figures from winter dangers such as snowplows and snow shovels, during times when they might be obscured by deep snow on the plaza. No matter the season, there is always an opportunity to practice preventative conservation and keep this public art safe for everyone to enjoy.
Author: Kim Sissons, Collection Manager, 2018
See works by Tom Otterness in the online collection.