NEA Arts Magazine

Keeping the Arts Alive

NEA-Sponsored Conservation and Preservation Activities


 Close-up of a mural, with two figures in the foreground with a cityscape in the background and the word Wrecked on a mid-height banner

The mural Under City Stone, 1972, by Caryl Yasko has been identified by Heritage Preservation as endangered due to exposure to pollution, dampness, and temperature fluctuations on the walls of a commuter rail underpass in Chicago. Photo by Will Shank.

Given the relative fragility of the medium, conservation practices are essential for protecting and preserving the visual art of the present and the past for future generations. Two NEA-funded organizations, Heritage Preservation and the Northeast Document Conservation Center, have developed programs that lead the way in the conservation of two very different art forms -- murals and paper objects, respectively.While each organization's methods differ greatly, they are similarly devoted to preserving our artistic heritage and educating the public on the importance of conserving our nation's masterpieces.

Heritage Preservation is a nonprofit dedicated to saving historically significant objects in a variety of art forms through conservation efforts, education programs, and the promotion of disaster preparedness strategies for protecting cultural artifacts. One of its most successful programs was Save Outdoor Sculpture!, begun in 1989 with NEA support. Through this catalytic program, 30,000 publicly accessible outdoor sculptures were cataloged and assessed for conservation needs.

In 2005, Heritage Preservation created a new initiative, Rescue Public Murals, to protect another of the nation's diverse art forms, the mural. Murals are often created as part of larger community renewal, as was the case with Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program. This anti-graffiti project resulted in more than 2,700 murals, which served as a great source of community pride around the city's mural tradition. Integral to the Rescue Public Murals initiative is the development of a database, with NEA support, that will serve as a tool for learning about the art form, providing information on the community mural movement, and building awareness by showing the diversity of murals and city mural traditions.

Heritage Preservation has identified ten murals as the most significant and most endangered, and is developing recommendations for conservation, maintenance, and fundraising for each. Among the identified murals at risk is Caryl Yasko's Under City Stone, which spans 200 feet of a commuter rail underpass on Chicago's South Side. One of the first community murals to be painted by a woman, the 1972 painting depicts 133 life-sized figures of all ages, races, and classes, many inspired by neighborhood residents who posed for the artist.

Since being added to the list, however, three of the ten chosen murals have been destroyed, a fact that Kristen Laise, vice president of Heritage Preservation's Collections Care Programs, says "is a sign that our work is both important and timely." Laise describes murals as essentially "ephemeral" due to challenges including weather, graffiti, and the sale or demolition of the property that acts as the mural's canvas. The comprehensive database will preserve the murals through photography, identifying each by artist, location, and title.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) displays a similar dedication to the conservation of paper objects, including books and parchment. NEDCC works on individual client projects as well as educating cultural institutions in collection preservation and disaster planning. Projects have included the development of a statewide disaster plan for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and conservation treatment of a handwritten Syriac New Testament, currently part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection at Yale University.

To further its mission, with NEA support NEDCC also offers highly competitive year-long, post-graduate internships in paper conservation. In addition to assisting in specific conservation projects, the interns work with NEDCC's field office, conducting surveys and providing outreach on preservation and conservation issues. Three weeks of the internship are devoted to the interns' specific interests, allowing them to travel and conduct their own research, or take a specialized workshop.

According toWalter Newman, NEDCC director of paper conservation, because of the program's intensity, one year at NEDCC is equal to three years elsewhere. At the end of their year, NEDCC interns have a variety of opportunities. Some choose to remain at NEDCC, many go on to positions with museums and libraries, and others start their own private practices.

As Benjamin Franklin noted in his memoirs, "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." Thanks to the work of Heritage Preservation and NEDCC, care is being taken to preserve the knowledge of our nation that resides in its artifacts, whether that repository is a map, a book, or a mural that outlines one community's journey.