David Turnbull stands by a piece of public art in The Quarters area and brushes his hand along part of it. “Wildlife,” by Hamilton, Ont. artist Brandon Vickerd, is a collection of two bronze statues humorously designed to look like humans, but is really composed of animals and clothing. They stand on opposite sides of 96th Street in The Quarters; they are a conversation about our relationship with nature in an urban setting.
Turnbull, the director of conservation at the Edmonton Arts Council, brushes dust off the back of one of the pieces, picks at some dirt collected in one of the ears of the bronze animals, the way a parent might do to a child.
“Do I think of public art pieces in Edmonton as my children? They are definitely my children,” Turnbull says with a laugh. “Especially the ones that I saw from the very beginning, all the way through to installation, and on. I’ve known them their whole lives, so they are totally my kids. Pieces like this are nice because once the patina on the bronze wears away, as the natural colour of the bronze comes out, they start to take on this life and a history.”
Although these kids of Turnbull’s on 96th Street are still quite young – the pieces were installed in 2015 – there are streaks of green on the base, a clear sign of oxidation. Then he spies another, less obvious stain on the back about a foot off the ground. “And that would be dog pee. Or from a human.” He pauses and shrugs. “That’s one thing with people interacting with public art. You want people to see it, you want people to interact with it, you want people to enjoy it, you want them to remember it, that’s what it’s all about. You can move it back from the road to prevent it from getting splashed, but you can’t stop someone from letting their dog pee on it.”
Urine aside, the job, which he’s held since 2009, comes with its unique challenges. First off, public art conservation is a new concept. You can count on one hand the number of municipalities in North America with such programs; none, save for Edmonton, are in Canada.
And in Edmonton, there are over 250 pieces of public art (owned by the city’s public art collection) scattered throughout the city – big and highly visible ones like the “Talus Dome” and small ones like “Beaver and Fallen Tree” at Beaver Hills House Park in downtown.
“Conservation is usually such a solitary job, you’re alone with the artwork with your magnifying glass, your tiny brushes, your tiny tools with the artwork six inches from your face,” says Turnbull, who has a masters in art conservation from Kingston, Ont.’s Queen’s University and worked five years at the Denver Art Museum, one of the largest art museums in the western United States. “But we’ve got none of that. We’re dealing with things institutionalized conservators never have to deal with, because they’ve controlled settings, they’ve got rotation, they’ve got storage, humidity controls. We’ve got giant artwork that we can’t easily store, we can’t easily work on. You can’t stop weather, you can’t stop sun, you can’t stop rain, you can’t stop people from touching things, kicking them or letting their dogs do their business. But what you can do is clean it up.”
What also helps is to start the conversation about conservation at the start, when the proposals for the calls come in. Every single submission to an EAC art call is reviewed by the conservation team. Edmonton’s harsh climate can play havoc with some of the materials used. “Because of Edmonton’s location on the planet, we get extremes in cold and heat, sometimes in very short periods of time. And with those massive changes in temperature, the materials get shocked. We also get a good amount of sunlight so things can fade pretty quickly,” Turnbull notes. Murals are susceptible to this – such as the untitled piece by Eugene Demas on the outside of the Alex Taylor School. Originally painted in 1994 on a wall inside Kindred House, a drop-in centre for women and transgendered individuals in prostitution, the piece was salvaged and placed at its Alex Taylor location when Kindred House was demolished in 2004. Now outside, the Demas mural is flaking and cracking due to weather and Turnbull’s team is in the process of rehabilitating the piece.
“If the materials aren’t going to work (in a public art bid), maybe we can come up with something different together that will still work with the artistic vision because the artistic vision is still number one,” Turnbull says. “But it has to last because we want people to enjoy it because the art is awesome.”
No doubt there’s lots of challenges in the conservation of public art, but Turnbull says it’s worth it. And it makes sense. “It’s not responsible to put something there and not take care of it. If you’re going to spend public dollars on projects, you have to be able to treat it the same way you treat the buildings, and all the other infrastructure in the city and that’s by setting money aside to have these specialists so you can actually maintain the stuff.” Turnbull says. “For example, say someone hates a piece of public art for whatever reason. You think it’s too expensive, you think it’s in the wrong place, you just don’t like it. If we do nothing, not only do you hate it, you hate it and it’s going to rot, so it’s truly is a waste of money. But if we take care of it, you might come around and you might like it.