Protecting public art from natural disasters

“Join Together,” a glass art installation by Sonja Blomdahl, is located at a Tacoma public school. It’s one of Washington’s public artworks that is considered vulnerable to damage in an earthquake. (Artwork copyright Sonja Blomdahl. Photo courtesy of Washington State Arts Commission)

The natural world can inspire artists. But it’s also capable of damaging or destroying works of art, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where threats range from flooding to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions.

With this in mind, the Washington State Arts Commission has embarked to better gauge and prepare for the risks that different types of disasters and emergencies could pose to public artwork. This project, now in a pilot phase, began last year supported by federal funding. It’s a partnership with the Midwest Art Conservation Center.

“Something like this puts us well ahead of the game,” Karen Hanan, executive director of the commission also known as ArtsWA, said during a meeting this week. “Given we have 5,000 pieces of public art, many of which could fall on someone’s head, for example, this is critical.”

Thus far, the program has looked at more than 1,300 public artworks, across six counties,  located at schools, government buildings, and other sites. It involves mapping these works over hazard data collected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.

Each one is assigned a risk score based not only on where it is located but also according to factors like what the artwork is made out of, and the condition it’s in.

So, for example, Sonja Blomdahl’s “Join Together,” a 2007 installation that features discs of glass hanging in a Tacoma public school, is considered a vulnerable piece given the work’s fragility and the earthquake risk.

Likewise, John Geises’ “Neon Landscape,” a 1974 light sculpture located in a Clark County school, has signs of damage and includes glass parts and electricity. It might deserve extra attention even though quake risks are lower in the county than in other parts of the state.

The analysis also allows for a quick look at where there are large numbers of artworks in high-risk locations, like in areas along the coast or Puget Sound that could flood.

Maddie Cooper, a Philadelphia-based arts conservator who is working on the project, said the goal is to give arts collection managers better tools to both prepare for and respond to disasters.

A survey conducted between late 2022 and early 2023 that Cooper was involved in found that half of 56 respondents – groups focused on public art and art conservation in the U.S. and Australia – did not have emergency plans for collections they oversee.

The Midwest Art Conservation Center received a $73,842 National Endowment for the Humanities grant for the pilot project. ArtsWA and others involved in it hope to secure further grant funding to expand the project to cover public art across Washington and other states. They anticipate knowing whether they’re successful by the end of the year.

— By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard


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