Design-Phase Conservation Assessment

This week’s contributing writer, Nicole Grabow, is Senior Objects Conservator and Preservation Conservator with the Midwest Art Conservation Center, a regional conservation center based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Nicole works with institutions, individuals, and artists throughout the Midwest providing treatment, consultation, and preventive conservation training.



“Upper Afton Arbor” by Lisa Elias and Brad Kaspari, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Ferrous metal, polycarbonate, PVC, solar cells. Installed in 2014, photographed in 2015.

For the past several years, the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) has been consulting with local artists to discuss materials longevity and maintenance requirements for public art projects from the design phase through to installation. Instigated by the City of Saint Paul’s visionary Public Art Ordinance implemented in 2009, the goal of the conservator’s input is to provide the owner-custodian with a fairly sophisticated understanding of the artwork for which they are assuming stewardship, what potential condition issues may arise, and guidelines for preventive care. In developing this program, Public Art Saint Paul and MACC seek to correct the all too common error of artwork being incorporated into a public space without plans for, or an understanding of, the maintenance necessary to preserve the best condition of the artwork and prevent significant damage.

Beyond traditional condition reporting, MACC’s design-phase conservation assessment guidelines include several key elements:

Initial Discussion

This occurs between the artist and the conservator and covers not the concept for the artwork, details about the site, and also materials choices. An example of a conservator recommendation at this point might be to use security screws to discourage theft, or to seal a join to prevent corrosion. Also during this discussion, if it is appropriate, the artist is interviewed about his/her views on conservation intervention, repair vs. replacement, etc. and the interview recorded. Transcripts of this interview then become part of the assessment documentation, and can be referred to in future assessments for the same artist.


Drawings and a prototype for the solar lamps used in “Upper Afton Arbor”. Photo taken in Brad Kaspari’s studio during the initial discussion in early 2014.

Review of Plans

After the discussion, the artist shares plans with the conservator, indicating final materials choices, dimensions, and including any available materials samples. Depending on the nature of the project, the conservator sometimes conducts additional research on the materials – such as calling a manufacturer with questions about a surface coating or looking into similar applications in other artworks. It is also made clear that the conservator’s input is not a substitute for assessment by a structural engineer and it is frequently at this point in the project that either the artist or the owner-custodian may choose to consult one.

Design Assessment Report

This report is prepared by the conservator and submitted to both the artist and the owner. It includes an overall summary of the project as well as a specific description of the planned artwork, including material choices. Expectations for general maintenance are discussed here – though finalized later – as well as any transcripts from artist interviews.

Studio Visit

In some cases, the conservator will visit the artist’s studio prior to installation to examine the artwork in-progress. Any changes made to the design are discussed and documented and the installation plan is reviewed.


As part of the assessment, the conservator visited the contracted paint shop for one of Lisa Elias’s artworks, “Maiden Lane”, to discuss the paint system and application process while the artwork was there. This image shows the gauge used for determining coating thickness of the paint employed.


Brad Kaspari demonstrates the mounting system planned for an upcoming project.













Final Examination

After the artwork is installed the conservator makes a site visit to examine the completed artwork.  In the case of “Upper Afton Arbor”, pictured above, another visit was made ten months after installation to check on the development of passivating corrosion on the core-ten and to ensure the artwork was draining properly.

Final Report

The final report, prepared by the conservator and submitted to both the artist and owner, takes the form of a general conservation condition assessment but also includes an overview of the project and a discussion of any changes made since the earlier design assessment report. Final maintenance recommendations, including regular visual inspection and when to consult a conservator, are included here.

Throughout this process it is the objective of the conservator to work together with the artist and the owner to provide useful information regarding materials and potential condition problems. While she may present alternatives or provide suggestions, it is a priority for the conservator to avoid interference with the artist’s creative process and the imposition of restrictions on the artist’s work.


Aaron Dysart (Public Art Saint Paul), Brad Kaspari (artist), Lisa Elias (artist), and Nicole Grabow (conservator) meet at the MACC labs to discuss potential outdoor paint systems suitable in the Minnesota climate.

Since 2014, MACC has participated in design phase assessments for fourteen public art projects – both indoor and outside – and consulted with seven different artists. In particular, MACC has worked with artists Lisa Elias and Brad Kaspari on several projects for the City of Saint Paul and it is largely through work with them, and Public Art Saint Paul, that these guidelines have evolved. It is our hope that this program will not only help the City of Saint Paul to plan for and improve the care of its public art, but that it can serve as a model for conservation assessment at the design phase that can be be adopted by public art programs throughout the country.


Detail of “Upper Afton Arbor”

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