Public Art Conservation
Q&A with Tin Ly
By Julie Levin
Like most artists, Tin Ly takes great pride in his work and likes to preserve and protect it for decades to come. But for the last 14 years, the Saigon-born artist has also served as a bit of a mother-hen to another art collection. As the Conservation Manager for Broward County's Public Art Program, it is Tin Ly's job to keep the county's vast and internationally-recognized public art in pristine condition.
Ly is the first and only conservator to hold the post since the county created it in 1999. It is a bit of a rarity since Broward County is one of only handful of public art programs nationwide that dedicates funding strictly for conservation. Ly looks after close to 250 pieces of art at 96 locations, maintaining them and restoring when necessary. Every day, he juggles anywhere from 15-20 projects in different stages of the preservation process. He works with traditional works like sculptures and paintings, but as the county moved more in the direction of integrating art into building and infrastructure, Ly also learned to work with newer forms of arts such as videos, sound, light-based artwork, lasers, fiber optic, LED and neon.
In 1999, Ly came to the job well-versed in different areas in the art world. He spent several years working as a scene designer for the opera, which developed his design and construction skills. He also served as an assistant to famed artist Duane Hanson for ten years. Ly has conserved artworks for Charles Saatchi, Martin Margulies and Ludwig Museum of Koln, Germany, among others. He has also been presenter at conservation conferences around the world and is the recipient of many awards and fellowships from the Florida Arts Council and South Florida Cultural Consortium.
A sculptor and painter in his own right, Ly's work are part of a number of permanent collections. Three of his works are part of the county's public art collection, including Communal Dream, his 21-by-60-foot painted and sculptural mural at the Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center.
Broward County public art program began in 1976, but was revived in 1995 when the allocation for public art from county construction projects was increased to two percent. Of that two percent, 70 percent goes to art, fabrication, permitting, installation and artist fees; 15 percent goes to support or project management and 15 percent is for conservation.
Recently Tin Ly sat down with the Broward County Cultural Quarterly for a more in-depth talk about the county's innovative Public Art Conservation program.
Tell us about Broward County's Public Art Conservation Program?
It is a program that was very well-planned and with the foresight of someone who did a master plan back in 1995 that set aside 15% of the public art budget exclusively to maintain and conserve the artwork long term. But knowing that a lot of public artwork these days is being integrated into structures, often the material itself is not the classical art material. Despite trying to conserve it, the materials often have a very limited lifespan.
Why is a Conservation Program vital to public art?
To answer that, just take a look at yourself. You have to have regular exercise program and eat well. It's the same thing for the art. Especially the artwork outdoors in South Florida, with humidity, sunlight and weather elements that can be very destructive to the artwork. Many times our artwork uses experimental material and we don't know if that material will have a permanent lifespan. The artist has a right to explore that material, but often we run into the problem that it doesn't last.
How do you know which pieces need your attention?
The county has an appraisal of the entire collection every five years. In the appraisal process, I go with the appraiser and look at every piece of work. So every five years, I have a comprehensive understanding of the condition of every piece of work. Having done this for so long, I know certain works require more attention than others and some require a regular maintenance schedule.
The Broward County's Public Art Conservation Program includes both a pre-installation and post-installation conservation review. Can you tell us more about that?
In our program, we try to look forward. Instead of just maintaining the artwork, we try to make sure the artwork is well designed, well made and well installed. So we have a conservation review at the very beginning at the conceptual level to make sure the artist knows what they are doing and what kind of material they are using that would last much longer. So we have two ends of our conservation program.
How do you determine what to do with each piece?
Because of our conservation review, I already know from the very beginning what the materials are of every piece of artwork entering the collection and how they behave. Of the many pieces that pre-date me, almost 75 percent uses traditional material like painting and sculpting. By the mid-1990's, our art started becoming much more integrated.
Does the move towards more integrated art present bigger challenges for a Conservator?
We use established standards for conservation by the American Institute of Conservation. But with all the new material coming onto the scene, sometimes the standards for traditional material can not apply to the new material and integration. Often you thought you are treating the artwork, but now you also have to consider the area near the art. For example, some artwork uses LED lighting and it is behind some type of glass and it is programmed to do certain sequences. It was created at the beginning of LED technology, but nowadays LED is completely different and can program at a much wider range. So when you conserve a work of LED that is integrated into an entrance way, you have to think about how to preserve the artist's intent at the time of creation. You have to decide if you maintain the same color range, or change them. It is a balancing act to integrate art with new technology, and at the same time keep the integrity of the work.
How rare are public art conservation programs nationwide?
No more than five percent of the public art programs in the nation have any funding for conservation. As far as a dedicated person taking care of the collection, I would say no more than ten programs in the nation have that.
What has been one of your most gratifying successes?
There's a outdoor sculpture made of wood and bronze in Fern Forest (Fern-Lore Guardian) that I have to work on every year to stop the deterioration of the wood. Really that piece should of been retired many years ago and I recommended the piece be relocated indoors, but the park loved the setting of the piece outdoors because it is so well integrated into nature. By working on it every year, I managed to save it so it can stay for much longer. I love the piece because it is one of a very few successful outdoor sculpture.
Why do you enjoy Public Art Conservation?
I think art, just like anything else, requires constant attention to maintain. Someone has to do it and you have to maintain it depending on the special material of each artwork. You cannot use the wrong chemical that will deface the work. I think it is very wise for Broward County Public Art program to have a conservation program so we make sure the artwork is in a well-preserved state and hopefully that will allow this artwork to last a long time.
What's ahead for Public Art Conservation?
I think that a lot of programs in the nation are now starting to catch up with this idea and also they are working very hard to secure funding just for conservation and preservation, because usually art programs do not have that kind of foresight to ever set aside funding. That ends up with a lot of pieces being lost.