Rethinking the monumental: A creative approach to the preservation of a landmark Tony Smith outdoor sculpture

John Steele and Abigail Mack

Abstract

This presentation describes the collaborative planning process for treatment of Tony Smith’s Gracehoper, a monumental painted steel outdoor sculpture at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Gracehoper created a particular challenge for conservators because of its large size, the strict aesthetic parameters for its surface appearance, and ongoing changes in the coatings industry. The physical and aesthetic criteria that shaped the treatment plan for this remarkably complicated object will be examined, as well as the shared decision-making process that involved a host of stakeholders, including conservators, a curator, the artist’s estate, a paint specialist, private funders, and the public.

Although initial efforts focused on a quest for the perfect paint, it was only when all the components of the project – including size, accessibility, paint technology, surface aesthetics, and cost – were weighed that a clear path for treatment revealed itself and an effective plan developed. Project delays allowed the conservators time to reexamine an initial proposal to repaint the sculpture by spray application, on site, with the necessary containment structure. Since the enormous tent needed for containment proved to be prohibitively expensive and an acceptable surface by spray application of the high-performance paint would be difficult to achieve outdoors, the conservators reconsidered their plan. In the 1970s, the artist/fabricator team had installed and coated the sculpture on site with roller-applied industrial paints to the artist’s satisfaction. Through consultation with the Tony Smith Estate, paint specialists, and a review of museum documentation, the conservators and curator explored replicating the artist’s original application methods while using today’s high-performance exterior coatings. The potential benefits were many, including easier application, easier local treatment of damaged surfaces in the future, and lower costs.

Careful and cooperative consideration of all the variables affecting the treatment led the project team to explore a variety of options. Together, they successfully developed a plan for treatment that is cost-effective, durable, and honors the artist’s original aesthetic requirements.

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