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Statues Under Siege

Art: Vandals and nature have taken a toll on public sculpture in Los Angeles, an evaluation program finds. Repairs at just two parks could cost $250,000.

July 16, 1996|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prometheus is missing his toes. Florence Nightingale is missing both hands. A general is missing his flag bearer.

And the Los Angeles area could soon start missing out on some of its most visible artworks if steps aren't taken to repair crumbling statues, according to experts who have begun evaluating all 500 public monuments in the county.

Nearly half the park sculptures checked so far by professional art conservators are in "urgent" need of repair. The others need cleaning and minor maintenance if they are to survive.

The statue assessment conducted by a nonprofit arts group suggests that it could cost more than $250,000 to repair statues at just two city recreation sites--Lincoln Park on the Eastside and MacArthur Park west of downtown.

But it's money that would be well-spent, according to the organizer of the first-of-its-kind inspection of L.A.-area statues.

"There's a lot of Los Angeles history in these pieces," said Michael Several, head of Urban Art Inc., which has spearheaded the sculpture assessment. "Each of these says a lot about the times in which they were put here."

The initial survey, conducted by Los Angeles-based art conservators Rosa Lowinger and Glenn Wharton, includes some surprises.

The pair found that the older a statue is, the better shape it may be in. And they found evidence that trying to scrub the dirt off a statue's face can do more harm than good.

Urban Art is urging that public agencies accept new statues only if those donating them are willing to give money to pay for upkeep. And the group is planning to teach parks groundskeepers how to remove grime and pigeon droppings from sculpture without accidentally scrubbing off the artwork's built-in protective patina.

Lowinger and Wharton will conduct the statue maintenance classes starting next month under a $15,000 contract the group has with the city's Cultural Affairs Department, according to Several.

Urban Art has also received a $10,500 grant from a national conservation organization called Save Outdoor Sculpture to conduct an assessment survey of the most significant works of outdoor art throughout the county, Several said. Save Outdoor Sculpture is a joint project of the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

Of the 27 city statues inspected so far at the two parks, damage most commonly seems to be courtesy of park visitors--both the two-winged and two-armed kind.

At Wilshire Boulevard's MacArthur Park, a 41-year-old bronze sculpture of World War II's Gen. Douglas MacArthur standing over a mock-up of the Philippine Islands has been badly defaced by spray-paint vandals and bird droppings. Cleanup and repairs to its concrete base could cost as much as $8,000, Wharton and Lowinger said.

Across the lake, at the statue of Prometheus sculpted in 1935 by federal Works Progress Administration artist Nina Saemundsson, vandals have broken off parts of the left hand, toes and a sphere that the figure from Greek mythology originally held.

There are cracks across the statue's stomach, on its right knee and on both legs and ankles. "The surface is generally soiled with bird guano and carbon deposit," according to experts, who estimate that repairs will cost $15,000.

Near the entrance to MacArthur Park, a three-figure sculpture called the Otis Group could cost as much as $40,000 to restore. That's because one of the figures--a flag-carrying bronze soldier that originally stood next to the 8-foot-tall rendering of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis--is missing.

Otis, first publisher of The Times, was sculpted by artist Paul Troubetzkoy in 1920. A smaller figure of a paperboy holding a newspaper stands at Otis' side.

"The story is that a car hit the third figure and knocked it over," said Julie Silliman, an art projects manager for the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority who is an Urban Art director.

"Supposedly the third figure was carried across the street to the Otis Art Institute and put in the basement for storage," she said. "But they say it eventually was melted down by a student working on a [class] project."

Institute President Neil Hoffman said Monday that he does not think the missing statue was ever taken to his school. Urban Art leaders, in the meantime, say they will look for close-up photos of the missing statue that can be used to reconstruct it.

Like many older busts and monument figures, the Otis Group has survived the years in better shape than many newer artworks. The older pieces are sturdier and less complicated than many more recent works.

A pair of pyramids built of ceramic tile and concrete and reportedly installed at MacArthur Park in 1985 by an Otis student have suffered numerous cracks, loose grout and missing tiles. An unusual feature--a "speaking tube" that at one time allowed park visitors to talk to one another between the two 6-foot-high pyramids--is apparently clogged. Repairs are estimated to cost up to $12,000.

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