Art preservation is tricky even under ideal circumstances, which generally involve close controls for light, temperature, humidity and other hazards. Eliminate those and you have some idea of the challenge that street-mural preservation faces. The only surviving exterior work in the U.S. by the renowned Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, Los Angeles’s “América Tropical” (1932), is only now receiving a roof. Ironically, its longevity is due to a paint-over that preserved it from the ravages of nature. Most murals, in a world of unfriendly ordinances and inevitable shifts in the urban landscape, are not so fortunate. Happily, a number of national and local organizations have recently mobilized to ensure that the preservation of murals need not be any more difficult than rain, snow and sun already render it.
The organization Heritage Preservation launched a “Rescue Public Murals” initiative in December 2006, using funding from the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. It first conducted a national assessment, paying particular attention, according to project director Kristen Laise, to “cities which had a long history of mural creation or of issues with preservation.” Then it selected for examination 16 murals in locations ranging from a commuter rail underpass to an abandoned church, and depicting topics from the end of the Marcos dictatorship to the laborers of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
One quality that united these murals was deterioration. Compounding weather damage and risks, one artist didn’t use any primer, and graffiti marred many. Four of the 16 have since been lost, casualties of demolitions or paint-overs. Several, though, have been saved.
“Common Threads” by Meg Saligman, located at Spring Garden and Broad streets in North Philadelphia, has received extensive restoration work courtesy of one of the most active local preservation organizations, Philadelphia Mural Arts. Conservators realized that the application of a varnish would restore color to the faded mural. After this was done, an ultraviolet-ray prohibiter was applied to prevent similarly rapid sun damage.
Such revivals are common in Philadelphia, where the Mural Arts Program has between 30 and 50 projects a year, and where applying an archival top coat is not the end of a preservationist’s labor. In a field where nearly all works are the property of a business owner, changes of title can often entail a mural being painted over or torn down.
“If we see a building that’s for sale with a mural on it, we try to be pro-active about it and contact the new owner,” says Seth Turner, director of Mural Operations and Restoration for the Mural Arts Program. Mr. Turner noted that these are ultimately questions of property rights, and that he makes clear to owners that the program will try to avoid a mural becoming an additional expense or eyesore, whether due to decay or graffiti. A powerful asset in Philadelphia is an active mural-arts workforce; with a crew of seven to 10 working daily on restoring or priming murals as well as removing graffiti in the city, the pledge that when grafitti appears “it’ll be gone tomorrow” would seem to carry real weight with building owners. Most, Mr. Turner notes, are receptive.
There are threats that even persistence and the friendliest building owner can’t overcome. Given that murals frequently overlook vacant lots, construction in those lots can hide all or part of a work. This recently happened with “Autumn,” a 2001 mural by David Guinn in North Philadelphia, despite the efforts of local preservationists. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial opined that “murals cannot be the deciding factor as to whether adjacent properties are developed with appropriate projects.” Happily, nobody I spoke to seemed to think that view corridors should trump property rights.
Short of some sort of landmarking, the fate of most murals is bound to be uncertain. Most, however interesting, simply aren’t as notable as “América Tropical,” but it’s remarkable that preservation on that work did not begun until 2010.
Startlingly, the Siqueiros mural enjoyed lesser standing under federal law than more recent murals. The 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act—established to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification” of works that would be prejudicial to an artist’s “honor or reputation”—for the first time offered mural artists some discretion over works they did not directly own. This does not override the property owner’s prerogatives, but provides mechanisms for notification if the work is going to be removed or its appearance altered. These federal rights “extend only to living artists,” according to Ann Garfinkle, counsel at Whiteford, Taylor, Preston, and so would not have applied to Siqueiros, who died in 1974. Fortunately, says Ms. Garfinkle, California previously established a more extensive state version of the legislation, granting rights that extend to an artist’s descendants.
Not all is simple in Los Angeles, however. Since 2002, most murals are simply illegal. In response to waves of advertisements, the city began treating murals on nearly all property as unlawful signage, and began painting over them regardless of property owners’ wishes. Draft legislation was introduced in the City Council in December 2011 to create a clearer legal exception for works that do not present a commercial message.
Clearly, not every mural is a Siqueiros, and even full-time preservationists recognize that development will at times claim street art. But it’s welcome to see a rise in the effort to save large-scale art that, however ephemeral, has livened countless otherwise blank walls, from an homage to Georges Seurat creeping up a Harlem apartment building to camel-mounted U.S. cavalry plodding down a Barstow, Calif., wall.
Ultimately, perhaps the most important awareness in creating street murals is a recognition that they are all ephemeral. Many will clearly fall, due to inevitable shifts in the urban landscape, and even those most assiduously tended will alter with weather and time. As Leslie Rainer, the Getty’s “América Tropical” conservator, commented: “It will never be the bright and vivid work that it was originally. It has been affected by history, and that’s a quality that we hope the viewer will appreciate.”
Mr. Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.