Maintenance of Public Art - Comparative Report



The maintenance of contemporary public artworks, in addition to the ongoing care of historic statues and war memorials, represents a considerable challenge for councils. In past decades, there’s been a burgeoning of public art projects from every quarter, and if projects don’t start out as the responsibility of councils, they can often end up as that. Public art now uses a vast range of materials and technologies, often with a degree of experimentation, meaning that maintenance is increasingly object-specific and diverse.

The people I’ve interviewed have been exceptionally generous. Who wouldn’t prefer to be interviewed about a new piece of public art they’ve just commissioned? And who isn’t under huge pressures of time, trying to get new commissions underway or, indeed, battling to preserve public artworks in their care?

How public art is maintained in Exeter

Paul Osborne, a Landscape Architect in the Design Team at Exeter City Council, explains that it’s difficult to generalise: ‘the maintenance of artworks varies according to the scheme and piece. A lot depends on how the art is commissioned.’

  • Cleaning artworks and reporting problems

‘A contractor cleans certain artworks in the core area of the city. A buoy feature further out at the quay has been designed to minimise maintenance and cleaning; it has been painted with self-cleaning polyurethane paint and is lit using low-energy, long-lifespan LEDs.’

The motivation of people working out and about is key: ‘council employees, notably the street cleansing teams, will mention problems, but it’s not directly part of their jobs. We will discuss proposals with the cleansing teams during the design stage, but there’s not a formal process.’

There have been knock-on effects from recent cuts, though: ‘The litter enforcement team has been made redundant, so the level of reporting of problems has possibly dropped’.

  • How repairs are funded

‘There is no specifically allocated maintenance/repair budget for the majority of council owned artworks. The Riddle Sculpture and Voices of Heavitree (both by Michael Fairfax) are recently commissioned artworks for which a revenue budget has been set to pay for cleaning and general maintenance. Funding for maintenance or repairs to other artworks must be found out of the general public realm maintenance budget, or from appropriate capital budgets (e.g. environmental enhancement schemes). The likely drop-off in local authority income over the next couple of years may make it more difficult to secure funding for maintenance.’

  • To insure or not to insure

Only in exceptional circumstances will insurance be taken out, the cost of this coming from the council’s revenue budget for public spaces.

  • Preventing vandalism

‘The potential for the council to commission public art is linked to the economy. When we are cutting services and potentially making redundancies, public (and press) perception can be that public art is a luxury, although in a recent public consultation, there was as much strong support for public art as strong views against it. The council would need to justify a major scheme in the current economic climate, it may be easier to commission an artwork that is part of the street furniture.’

  • Example one: Voices of Heavitree – maintained by Exeter City Council

Michael Fairfax was commissioned as lead artist for a joint county council and city council project for a scheme in Heavitree, Exeter. He brought in poet and word artist Ralph Hoyte to collaborate with him on the project, and blacksmith Peter Osborne was also closely involved with aspects of the design. The artwork, which was unveiled in late 2008, features a poem that links together the different elements. It’s inscribed in red sandstone lettering on the pennant stone paving, within a tree grille and guard (made by blacksmith Peter Osborne), and in a dramatic stainless steel and glass archway backlit with LEDs. A mural of an archway was originally proposed, but it proved impossible to secure the use of a privately owned gable end next to the site. So the artist and design team decided to create a free-standing archway, to create a strong landmark.

In order to improve the overall quality of the area, a ‘Facelift Grant’ was offered to local businesses, and the owners of the gable end were given a grant to refurbish it instead.

In terms of maintenance: ‘LEDs are very efficient and have a long lifespan, and shouldn’t need replacing for eight to ten years. We’ve set up a regular cleaning and inspection regime, to ensure that the structures are safe and sound.’

The council took great care in the choice of materials for the artwork. Glass was proposed for the arch as it ‘had something to offer in terms of how it was viewed at night, so as part of our early design discussions we decided not to use stone or metal. We felt that the toughened glass, which had been successfully used elsewhere in the city, was robust enough and relatively low risk, and that the positives outweighed the risks. We also used local company Wood and Wood to manufacture and install the arch. Their experience and presence less than a mile from the site were reassuring.’

As a precaution, the council decided to take out insurance. This has turned out to be a very good call.

First of all, some surprisingly choice graffiti defaced the site, in protest against the design of the artwork. A white elephant was painted on the wall, and then, after an interval (and criticism in the letters page of the local press), the protesters politely painted it out again, their point having been made.

But more devastatingly, a large reinforced glass panel with laser-etched lettering was cracked by vandals. The white elephant may have been a factor: ‘the graffiti made the space look uncared for. But it’s settled down and there’s less negative press now. The glass panel is being replaced, at a cost of £6,000, which is covered by insurance. Hopefully, once the situation has calmed down, we might be able to consider not insuring it in future.’

  • Example two: Princesshay Shopping Complex– maintained by developers

Princesshay is a shopping complex developed by Land Securities in 2007 on council owned land. Public art agency Insite Arts was contracted to realise a public art scheme for it. ‘The council was closely involved in the development process, and we oversaw the appointment of the artists and their designs. So we had a good involvement, and could raise issues about maintenance. A number of existing artworks were restored by specialist contractors and retained as part of the scheme. All of the artworks are maintained privately by Land Securities, under the terms of their long lease. The quality of maintenance is very high.’

How public art is maintained in Gateshead

Anna Pepperall has worked for more than twenty years as Public Art Curator at Gateshead Council, where she has commissioned a considerable number of public art projects, including The Angel of the North. She was more than happy to talk maintenance: ‘It’s the number one thing that I think about now, rather than number five, which it used to be.’

  • A sense of onerous individual responsibility

Only that morning, driving to work, she’d noticed some deterioration to an artwork under a railway arch. She’s the first port of call when someone else spots a problem, too, even where there is a collective responsibility within the council for artworks. ‘It’s a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, you sort something out and another piece comes to the fore. I am concerned about who will worry long-term, as it is by caring in this way that public art gets maintained and checked.’

  • Flies in the ointment and new ideas

Stakeholders and members of the local communities are increasingly active in commissioning public artworks. However, once a commission is finished, the tendency is for them to walk away. Anna Pepperall is trying to establish a different way of thinking within a new housing development scheme: ‘I hope the communities there will take on the responsibility. There’s a special budget I’m trying to set up so that the commissioning group will look after the art, even though ultimately the council will own it.’

Gateshead Council, like Manchester City Council, tends to find itself responsible for the maintenance of public art by default. ‘There may be a five-year contract for maintenance of public art in a park, for example, but these agreements often don’t hold. A developer may neglect their duties or go bust, and the council may find that it technically owns an artwork because it owns the land on which it’s sited. However, as a rule, privately commissioned work is well maintained as part of the overall development. I can nudge the owner and they are usually very responsive as they want the piece to look good.’

She is sceptical about commuted funds, where in a portion of the commissioning budget is transferred overto local environmental services for future maintenance; ‘these sums run out after a few years and someone has to pick it up’.

Does the headache of long-term maintenance provide a good argument for temporary public art? Anna Pepperall: ‘Yes, although whenever we commission something temporary, people like it and it stays!’ As a case in point, she’s currently organising the repainting of an artwork for a railway arch that was commissioned in 2007 and meant to last just three months.

  • Cleaning artworks and reporting problems

‘There’s a difference between regular care, overall maintenance and structural inspections. Weekly maintenance is carried out by neighbourhood teams, inspections by the city engineers. Specialist teams will always do basic cleaning at the drop of an e-mail, particularly if visits are expected.’ But also, Anna Pepperall is ever vigilant and also has ‘spies’ within the council, particularly colleagues in the architects’ department: ‘It helps to know a lot of people’.

‘The council is using a new system to register public art assets, with a view to setting up a cross-referencing system for the longer term. This will include the estimated commissioned, or insured, price of work, images and current inspection reports.

  • How repairs and maintenance are funded

There is £6,700 from the core council budget per annum for the repair of all the public artworks in Gateshead, except for The Angel, which has its own central pot. ‘But if major problems arose we would locate further monies. We would sort it and worry about the money afterwards. We would not leave something not working.’

‘Monies for maintenance will always come from council sources, since it can’t be funded by Arts Council England or trusts and foundations.’

There is talk of combining the council’s base budget for public art maintenance with the monies for repairs to war memorials, which would be a much bigger pot, but that could result in loss of autonomy. Also, ‘there is not enough to cover maintenance of the memorials as it is’.

  • Insurance

‘The council insures some of the more “risky” artworks – anything with technical workings and high risk materials or value.’

  • Preventative measures

Anna Pepperall shares Paul Osbourne’s view that the way you commission public art will determine how much vandalism it attracts: ‘we’re very lucky, there’s not been much deliberate vandalism’.

  • Example one: Threshold by Lulu Quinn, 2003

A five-metre-high interactive sound sculpture at the top of Gateshead High Street: it ‘takes the form of a large-scale stainless steel doorway… When passing through, you “open the door” to experience the sounds, songs and stories from 300 local people, including local school children and animals…’ (

‘We were fantastically worried. I was conscious of other pieces with a sound element in the region that have stopped working. But because the sound engineers Lulu Quinn worked with (GDS) were very skilled and very thorough, it’s been absolutely no problem. The set-up costs at the time seemed very high. But fifty percent of the £30,000 budget was spent on the technology. We’ve had it serviced and the computers checked once a year.’

‘A few of the “section parts” that make up the LEDs have gone. LEDs are still a problem, whatever technical people say, and we would have to replace them at quite high cost, but it’s not bad enough yet. It will cost £3,000-£4,000 to totally change the LED fittings at some point.’

Could the sound recordings one day need updating? ‘We could freshen up the soundtrack, but it still has relevance. The sound is of people telling local stories, singing songs and conducting conversations, so it hasn’t dated. And it’s not in a prominent area with regular visitors. Also, it’s on a random track, so you don’t always hear the same thing. The council would need to find the money to re-commission the sound, maybe to coincide with a big event like 2012. That was always part of the commissioning idea: to review the sound element with the artist.’

  • Example two: Rise and Fall by Lulu Quinn, 2007

A six-metre-high glass and stainless steel arch by the riverside in which ‘10,000 small LED lights randomly rise and fall within the arch. It can also remain quiet at times and not illuminate at all. The arch itself appears to wobble, fall down and rebuild itself regularly; creating a visual effect that can be seen from both sides of the river.’ (

The technology for this artwork was also by GDS. ‘It has been working night and day since 2007, which is brilliant. There is a strip of LEDs requiring replacement, which interferes slightly with the look of the piece. It had regular checks by the artist’s team during first year as it was under warranty, and it continues to be checked by the same technical team, but this is now paid for by the council.’

There isn’t an obvious community around the work and it’s in a vulnerable position near two nightclubs. But it fits in with that environment, and this helps in terms of its survival.

‘In five or ten years, the LEDs might need total replacement. The council would need to spend the entire year’s council maintenance budget on it. But we’d need to do that!’

How public art is maintained in Manchester

Amanda Wallace, Head of Asset Management and Development, Manchester City Galleries, Manchester City Council, explains that her department is in a strong position after a rethink at the council.

  • Funding

Public art comes under the auspices of Manchester City Galleries and this has proved extremely beneficial. ‘The approach here incorporates collections, historic buildings, public art and war memorials. The city council has started to think seriously about how heritage assets are managed, and we now work in a much more joined up way. Five years ago, Galleries had an annual budget of £2,000, which barely covered the cost of cleaning the Cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday. In 2005 we were awarded a capital sum of £225k for a three-year programme of work and, on the back of the success of this, were able to get main-streamed funding from 2008. This provides a permanent conservation post dedicated to public art and memorials, together with a £90k revenue budget. The programme is incredibly well received and has the cross-party support of councillors.’

The change has been due, in part, to shifts in image: It’s related to how Manchester sees itself as a European cultural city. It started during the Commonwealth Games in 2002, and there’s been a gradual snowballing. We had a small sum in 2003 (c. £20k) to condition report the most important artworks. In 2004, £250k was made available for the restoration of the Cenotaph in the city centre and a series of community war memorials, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of VE/VJ day. A similar sum paid for the commissioning of a new civilian war memorial. There was a real drive to keep moving forward, and we made a good case for delivering work in-house rather than outsourcing. It wasn’t easy. In all it took two years to get permission to use capital money for posts, having argued cost-effectiveness.’

More could be done with better cross-departmental co-operation, but ‘the move towards a city-wide Heritage Asset Strategy and closer links with Planning should enable more improvements to be made.’

During the last year, the £90k has been used to restore eleven statues and memorials, draw up a detailed inventory (including condition reporting) of public art and war memorials, and set up and equip a sculpture conservation studio. ‘We were also able to recharge £6k for rectifying damage to a statue of Victoria caused by iron salts in the ground water (drawn from the public fountain). Plus we got £5K from the Flash cleaning campaign that contributed to Edward VII's costs.’

  • Routine maintenance

Amanda Wallace’s department is responsible for implementing a ‘thoroughgoing, citywide triennial programme of maintenance. Our focus is on a core group of 61 works that have been classified as “heritage assets”. This is not a closed list, as we will continue to review our approach and respond to public concern.’

  • Picking up the pieces

‘In reviewing our priorities and looking at the scope of potential work, our approach has been to include public art where ownership and responsibility haven’t been determined. The public don’t care who owns works, and something in poor condition will have a negative effect on how people feel about their environment, and how they view the city.’

‘Some work has been commissioned with the best of intentions, but not enough consideration is given to lifespan, the robustness of materials and fabrication, and how works will be maintained in the long-term. We end up picking up pieces and dealing with problems that could have been prevented if we’d been involved earlier in the process.’

  • Preventative measures

‘We’d like to look at developing service level agreements with Public Realm, which describe what level of care and expertise we can provide, rather than people presuming that we will deal with issues by default.’

  • Example one: Adrift, 1905, by John Cassidy, St Peter’s Square, Manchester – conserved by external conservators

Adrift was originally installed as a centerpiece in Piccadilly Gardens. In 2001, when the gardens were developed, it was removed and cleaned by Eura Conservation Ltd, a process that involved hot pressure washing, the removal of old lacquer, coating with a specialist solution, and hot waxing. It proved impossible to re-site Adrift in Piccadilly Gardens. There were too many plane trees (which shed sticky deposits), and there were access and loading problems due to underground services. And so, in 2009, Adrift was sited in St Peter’s Square to replace a badly deteriorated fibreglass statue.

The cost of conservation was £5k; a new plinth cost £9k; installation cost £3k.

  • Example two: Edward VII, 1905, by John Cassidy, Whitworth Park, Manchester – conserved in-house

Edward VII is a two-times life size bronze sculpture mounted on a granite plinth. It was suffering stress and damage, having breaks in the bronze and a missing sceptre and cross, and was badly corroded and dirty. It was steam and pressure washed, cleaned with specialist solutions, a new sceptre was made in precisely matching materials, breaks in the metal were restored, lettering in the plinth was repaired, and the colouration of the metal was made even.

Excluding the salary of the in-house public art conservator, conservation cost £12k in total, as follows: scaffolding, £3.5k; recasting missing bronze elements, £3k; freelance conservator, £3.7k; materials, £0.6k; equipment purchase and hire, £1.5k.

Key issues

Huge variations exist in the maintenance of public art in the three councils. In the case of Manchester, there is high-level support for a well-financed, specialist unit that relieves the burden of maintenance from the individuals who commission public art. In Gateshead and Exeter, the officers involved are immensely resourceful when problems occur, drawing on their understanding of the workings of the councils and the goodwill they have developed in the different departments, and trusting that funding will be available when it’s needed.