Approaches to the Conservation of Contemporary Murals: An Introduction

Contributing writer Jon Pounds served as Chicago Public Art Group’s Executive Director for 25 years during which time hundreds of public art projects were created around Chicago. Pounds retired at the end of 2016, and currently enjoys the contradictions of planning and creating community-engaged, public art while not running an organization.


For 45 years, Chicago Public Art Group, its artists, and staff, have sought to create work that was powerfully artistic, meaningful to the community, and expected to be long lasting. And of course, conditions and judgments change. The best choice for one moment is not necessarily seen as a great choice at another. We have found that there are confounding and contradictory issues surrounding the conservation, restoration, and renewal of murals, and the discussion of this has deepened our understanding of our own cultural work. These issues include, but are not limited to:

  • Significance of the mural – how is significance determined?
  • Artist approval/participation – if the original artist has passed away, are there any options?
  • Technical/best practices – how does the intersection between the original materials or site prep relate to contemporary understanding of best practices?
  • Financial – how is restoration funded if there is little or no access to funding streams from local civic, cultural, or foundation sources and limited financial resources from the community where it is sited?
  • Value – is there a coherent way to understand “value” when it cannot be established based on the presumed resale value of an public art object that can never be “sold” to new owners?
  • Contextual – what determines if a mural is meaningful to the community and therefore a candidate for restoration?

These are just some of the issues to be discussed as part of the workshop on mural conservation organized in partnership with the American Institute for Conservation that will convene in Chicago from May 26 – June 2.

I will take a moment and review the context of deciding about a single mural: Time To Unite by Mitchell Caton, Justine DeVan, and Calvin Jones. Painted on a retaining wall in a historically segregated African-American community, this was a brilliant 1976 mural by African American artists collaborating almost improvisationally. The artists were and still are significant to the Chicago mural movement, and all three gave their verbal approval for restoration. (Sadly, Caton and Jones have since passed away.)

VoCA Chicago Public Mural

Time to Unite (Before restoration)

The mural is on one prominent surface of a nondescript urban site. The wall is concrete with soil behind it, approximately 110 years old. The ownership of the wall is virtually invisible; it supported a train line that was removed decades ago. Above the wall, the condition would be called urban derelict. Any “transformation” in the site will likely destroy the wall – and will be extremely expensive. Today, the community is increasingly less segregated as a blending of social justice and “economic renewal” occurs.

When I was discussing the potential restoration of the mural (in 2003), an African American woman, a long-time resident and community leader, said to me, “I don’t think it should be done. The mural reminds me of time when this community was in terrible shape. This kind of work does not help people build a stronger sense of our community today.” Alternately, a Euro-American woman, newly arrived in the community, expressed strong approval for the potential restoration because she hoped the renewed mural might help her young daughter understand the vital and complicated history of the neighborhood.

Neither of those positions were definitive for the decision to restore or not, but they contributed to our understanding of the import and value of public art in community settings. The artists and the mural were significant to Chicago’s cultural history. But… what voice, what discussion, what difficult debate should take place as we try to build a culturally responsive, socially responsible, democratic society? We did restore the mural, led by Bernard Williams, who carefully restored the original look by over-painting the cleaned surface. There had been substantial loss of pigment.

VoCA Chicago Mural

Time to Unite (After restoration)

The Chicago muralists did not expect their work would last for centuries, though they tried to make choices that would assure their work would last at least a few years. Today, we’re in between those two extremes. We are five decades into the mural movement in Chicago. We have lost a number of extraordinary murals forever (except for digital files); we have also saved, and changed, some murals for a wide variety of political and aesthetic and social purposes. And we have struggled to find the funding to extend the social and civic dialogue about how cultural work is to be valued if it cannot be sold to a new owner for greater value. There is no monetary value to a mural – only social, historic, and cultural value – so how do we determine if a mural should be conserved?


VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with “Approaches to the Conservation of Contemporary Murals”, a unique two-day workshop that will be held during the 2017 AIC Conference in Chicago. The program will focus on visits to outdoor community murals in Chicago from the past half-century, in various states of preservation. A key component will be presentations and discussions by artists, community members, and conservators regarding various approaches to conservation, treatment, repainting, or renewal of these public murals. For more information, click HERE.

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