In the Public Eye

Annual Outdoor Sculpture Conservation and Maintenance Newsletter, Spring 2010

Fairmount Park Art Association Intern Ashley Lippolis interviewed Consulting Conservator Steve Tatti, S.A.T., inc. and Conservation Technician Kurt Solmssen about their unique perspectives on the Art Association’s long-term Conservation Maintenance Program. 

After almost three decades of work with the Art Association’s outdoor sculpture conservation maintenance program and S.A.T., Inc., conservation technician (and artist) Kurt Solmssen still hears, “What are you doing?” when treating a selection of sculptures around the city each spring.

By now, Solmssen is used to the annual public scrutiny of his work. Heating a bronze sculpture with a blowtorch can, of course, seemalarming if one is unaware that heat is used to apply a protective wax coating for bronze. Even the careful inspection Solmssen devotes to each piece before he begins pressure washing can se em suspicious to the average onlooker. While the Conservation Program has been in existence since 1982, many still wonder about what they see being done to the outdoor sculptures.

The Art Association Consulting Conservator Steve Tatti, and head of S.A.T., Inc., is the firstto admit that many facets of sculptural preservation can seem mysterious. HIs hope is that people understand how important conservation efforts are and the ongoing care it requires. Tatti compares the idea that outdoor sculptures are like cars: “When you buy a car,” he explains, “you expect that it will need maintenance, right? You couldn’t keep driving it around without treating it or taking it to the shop; it will fall apart. An outdoor sculpture will fall apart too without being maintained.” Outdoor sculptures, without care, fall victim to environmental elements and human interaction – just like a car.

Each year, technician Solmssen looks for traces of wear or damage. Treating Philadelphia’s outdoor sculpture is a month-long operation that requires careful inspection, cleaning, and then a thorough evaluation. “We use a bucket truck to reach the top of thee largest sculptures,” Solmsseen says. “We inspect the sculptures for damage, losses, and any graffiti.” Treatment depends on the material of the sculpture, although most are washed with water and a mild detergent to remove the inevitable surface dirt.

Philadelphia’s sculptures can bestone, wood, and metal, but most of them are bronze, which needs special attention.Solmssen explains: “Dirt that is ingrained in the protective wax coating is removed with a solvent and rinsed with water. Wax is used because it is flexible. The wax saturates the surface and unifies the colors so that it is easier to read the forms. After the bronze has been cleaned and is dry, we use propane torches to heat the metal and apply microcrystalline wax with heat. ALter, after the metal cools off, we buff the pieces with a horse hair brush.” Acid rain causues bronze to appear streaky, light green, and black. According to Solmssen: “People think the sculptures are supposed to be light green because that’s how they’re used to seeing them – but that’s corrosion! They should actually have an even color like bronze sculptures located indoors.”

Both Solmssen and Tatti are quick to point out that Philadelphia not only has the largest collection of outdoor sculpture in the nation, but also some of the best known and important works in the world. “People from around the country and world come to see the outdoor sculptures in Fairmount Park,” Solmssen says. He adds that without the Art Association’s conservation efforts, these treasures would end up like old abandoned cars begging for vandalism.