Monumental task to make a sculpture garden glow

The BMA's 34 pieces get annual cleaning

August 03, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Lauren Ross perched atop a 16-foot ladder yesterday, gently sponging off a giant heap of orange-red twisted steel. It was time for The 100 Yard Dash, the centerpiece in the Baltimore Museum of Art's outdoor sculpture garden, to have its annual bath.

Twelve months of squirrels sharpening their little teeth on the base, of outdoor storms kicking up dirt and tree limbs, and of kids who tried to run up Alexander Calder's temptingly angled sculpture (though plenty of signs sternly order them not to) had taken their toll. The sculpture was gritty with dust and scuffed and marked with streaks of black shoe polish. The base had pockets of rust where water had collected.

But how do you shampoo a 20-foot-tall masterpiece?

"Very carefully," Ross said.

Power washing definitely was not an option. Instead, Ross and her assistant, Chelsea Kehne, gently sponged off dirt with a solution made of a teaspoon of soap mixed with 2 gallons of water. For stubborn marks, they used a solvent, after conferring with their boss, Ann Boulton, the BMA's objects conservator.

It was a clear, hot summer day. By happy coincidence, the ladders on which Ross and Kehne climbed were the exact shade of the 1969 tomato-red sculpture, a color known in art circles as "Calder Red." By happier coincidence, the two women wore gloves of purple plastic, creating a striking contrast with the sculpture's wet sheen.

It looked as though Calder had planned this cleaning project all along, as though the women themselves were part of the artist's vision. You might title it Conservators Cleaning a Sculpture.

The BMA's 2.7-acre sculpture garden has 34 pieces, which need to be thoroughly de-grimed at least once a year. In addition, one of the museum's five painted outdoor sculptures is repainted annually.

"It takes all summer to get 34 sculptures taken care of," said Boulton, adding that the problem of preserving outdoor sculptures has been widely studied for only the past two decades. Since 1993, the Smithsonian Institution has promoted an initiative, catchily acronymed SOS! -- Save Outdoor Sculpture! -- to deal with the problem nationwide.

"It's a recent idea to a lot of people that you can't put a sculpture out of doors and expect it to stay in good condition," Boulton said. "Outdoor sculptures need regular maintenance, no matter what material they're made of. It's silly to think you could build a house and not do anything to maintain it. Why do people think you can do it with sculpture?"

The collection's undisputed headache is Tony Smith's big, black Spitball. The sculpture has two pieces, but they aren't welded together. Rainwater gets trapped in the seams, eventually corroding the artwork. About five years ago, the sculpture was lifted out of the garden by crane, placed atop a flatbed truck, and driven to an expert in New York. He stripped off the old paint, repaired the metal, and repainted it -- all at a cost guaranteed to give a museum administrator a migraine.

"It was more than our entire budget for outdoor sculptures for that year," Boulton said. "We had to do special fundraising to pay for it."

Boulton is in charge of the worrying and the planning, and she has a knowledge to rival a metallurgist's of precisely what materials will react with what chemicals under what temperature and humidity levels. But the physical labor falls to Ross and Kehne.

When Ross was studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the late 1990s, no one told her that part of her future duties would involve giving a leg wax to a bronze bunny.

No one mentioned that artists, for reasons known only to them, routinely paint their outdoor sculptures in colors and finishes that don't last particularly long in the great outdoors.

"Black matte is the worst possible paint for outdoor sculpture," Boulton said. "But artists love it." She added, a bit wistfully: "If they would only use glossy black, it would last twice as long."

And Ross is very certain that no one ever told her that her chosen career would require her to dangle 25 feet in the air, painstakingly wiping down a metal sculpture with pieces honed as sharp as knives. What's worse, it's a moving metal sculpture, which twists with each shift of the wind. But that's what's involved in bathing George Rickey's Space Churn.

"Every year, I get up a built-up anxiety attack about cleaning that piece," she said. "About an hour after I get up there, it goes away."

After five years, all of Ross' limbs and digits remain intact, as does her sense of humor and her willingness to roll with the punches.

At nearly 6 feet tall, her height and strength are an asset. So is her childhood in North Carolina, where she acclimated to the Mid-Atlantic's brutal heat and humidity.

"I actually enjoy it," she said. "It's pretty neat. I wanted to work at a museum so I could take care of these beautiful objects."

She and Boulton claim to love all the artworks in the sculpture garden. But surely, they have a soft place in their hearts for the undemanding few, for the fuss-free sculptures that can be spiffed up in, say, 30 minutes? Consider Isamu Noguchi's The Noh Musicians. "It's made of polished stainless steel," Boulton said approvingly. "I highly recommend that material."

Just a squirt of water, a pass with the sponge, and whisk, whisk, it's done.

Now, that's the way to clean up in the art world.

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