Approaches to the Conservation of Contemporary Murals: Will Shank

This week’s contributing writer, Will Shank, co-founder of Rescue Public Murals, was the recipient of the Booth Family Rome Prize for his research on contemporary murals.  Trained in art history and art conservation at the Villa Schifanoia, Florence, at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, and at the Harvard University Art Museums, he worked at SFMOMA for fifteen years before relocating to Europe. He lives and works in Barcelona. AIC awarded Will its Advocacy Award in 2010.


VoCA Will Shank Contemporary Murals

Caryl Yasko revisits her work from 1972, Under City Stone, recently revived

During a 2012 symposium organized by the faculty of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, called “Modern and Contemporary Mural Paintings: Technique, Conservation and Access,” there was an uncomfortable moment when Catalan artist Ignaci Blanch announced from the podium that he, and only he, was entitled to restore his work, as he had done on a portion of the Berlin Wall that he had painted, and then repainted, on his own.  Conservators shuffled in their seats.  Muralist Verónica Werckmeister (whose blog post for this series can be seen HERE) confided in me recently that at the same Valencia conference she felt that she had fallen from another planet when she found herself in the presence of a group of conservators of contemporary art.  She didn’t even know that such people existed, much less that they might possibly be interested in lending a hand to give a longer life to the murals like the ones that Verónica and her team create in the Basque city of Vitoria.

The attention of the conservation community has spread beyond community to murals to all sorts of painted walls up to and including graffiti. A few years ago, I observed some French artistes graf scratching their heads as Alain Colombini of the regional conservation center (CICRP) in Marseille presented his research to a gathered group of muralists, conservators, and conservation scientists at the city’s Musée d’Art Contemporain. Alain has been studying the spray paints most commonly used by street artists, focusing on the fluorescent colors and their longevity.

At a meeting at the American Institute of Architects headquarters in 2015, a group of preservation professionals considered the matter of the Miami Marine Stadium (1962), shuttered for twenty years and in need of structural repair.  The question was what to do about the graffiti that covered virtually every square inch of the concrete structure during the two decades when it was primarily a destination for street artists to practice their trade?  The mayor of Miami and Hilario Candela, the architect of the stadium were present, and so were representatives of the street art community.  Luis Berros, aka STYLEONE, who was one of the invited grafiteros expressed his astonishment out loud about the attention that was being given to the tags by the preservation community.  “I didn’t think it would last for a month!” I recall him saying.

VoCA Will Shank Contemporary Murals

John Pittman Weber discusses his mural with visiting muralists and conservators

The surprising couplings of contemporary muralist and conservator of contemporary art goes back at least as far as 2003, when the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute hosted an event called “The Mural in the Americas” in Los Angeles. There, a group of social historians, art historians, muralists, arts attorneys, mural paint manufacturers, conservators, and conservation scientists took a close look together at the state of the outdoor public murals of the 20th and the 21st centuries.  There were many positive outcomes of that meeting, but perhaps the most notable one was a sense on the part of important muralists from the 1970s era (the oldest community murals to survive in the U.S.) that they felt that their work had been validated at a high level by the attention of the academic and scientific community.

I feel that the recent two-day gathering in Chicago during the annual AIC meeting blazed some new trails.  With the thoughtful support of AIC staff, and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, several artists paint companies, and others, we were able to bring together a fairly cohesive look at an important community of American muralists with a focused group of conservation professionals, all of whom viewed Chicago’s finest community murals from the 1970s to the present.  But we all saw different things. There was at first an almost audible biting of tongues amongst conservators as they listened to stories of artists working with the Chicago Public Art Group to collaborate on mural “restoration” projects.  Eventually the artists came to understand the vocabulary and the philosophy of the conservators.

VoCA Will Shank Contemporary Art

Olivia Gude discusses her mural with the visiting AIC group

Concerns about practicality, finances, and legal issues were also discussed.  Local community leaders told their tales of fundraising to commission murals to beautify their neighborhoods.  By the end of the two days, when everyone had a chance to present her or his point of view about how murals are made and how long they should last, we found that we all shared the same goals.  Everyone respected the murals and wanted them to last in whatever way could be implemented in order to make sure that their messages could remain vivid and legible. As one participant wrote in the assessment of the event, “It very quickly became clear that conservators and artists were attempting to achieve the same results while speaking a totally different language.”

The three of us organizers—Jon Pounds of the CPAG, Leslie Rainer of the Getty Conservation Institute, and I—felt enormously satisfied with the outcome of the event and very grateful to the AIC for affording us the opportunity to have this dialog with an international group of colleagues whom we might never otherwise have encountered.  Doubts linger about the best approaches to give outdoor paintings a longer life:  Restoration?  Conservation?  Renovation? Maybe we just need to take another look at the vocabulary.  Maybe we should continue to join hands and share our knowledge in order to move forward together.


VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with “Approaches to the Conservation of Contemporary Murals”, a two-day workshop that was held during the 2017 AIC Conference in Chicago. The program focused on visits to outdoor community murals in Chicago from the past half-century, in various states of preservation. Presentations and discussions by artists, community members, and conservators regarding various approaches to conservation, treatment, repainting, or renewal of these public murals were a key component. For more information, click HERE.

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