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Photo by Art in Public Places

Citing disrepair, Council removes public artworks from display

Tuesday, December 15, 2020 by Jonathan Lee

Art left out in the elements doesn’t last forever. That’s why City Council just delisted five worn-out pieces of public art, including the Bicentennial Fountain at Vic Mathias Shores; LAB, the series of yellow sculptures along the Lance Armstrong Bikeway; and Moments, the enigmatic work along the Lamar underpass downtown.

Though the pieces will no longer be part of the Art in Public Places active collection, that “doesn’t mean that we are necessarily removing them from the physical world,” explained AIPP Program Manager Sue Lambe. The process, called deaccessioning, “is a best practice of museums and art collections to keep a maintainable collection,” she said. 

This is only the third time artwork has been deaccessioned in Austin, but as the city’s public art ages, deaccessions will only become more common. 

‘LAB’ (Art in Public Places)

The AIPP collection, established in 1985, contains nearly 400 pieces, many of them located in and around downtown. The city often buys or commissions public art through infrastructure projects such as street improvements or trail building. These projects must devote 2 percent of their budgets to art, a standard practice in many cities. 

The city will remove Moments at the request of the artist, while the others will stay put for the time being. Their fates will depend on the wishes of the artists and the goals of city staff.

To prevent run-down outdoor art, AIPP only commissions durable pieces, and collaborates with each artist to create a care plan. Routine maintenance, however, is left to city departments, which look after the art at their facilities. The Parks and Recreation Department pays for the maintenance of art in city parks. 

Sometimes upkeep proves too challenging and expensive. Moments and LAB originally had solar-powered light displays, but after the electronics failed, AIPP deemed them not worth replacing. Both of these works also suffered from “relentless” vandalism and theft, according to city documents.

‘Karst Circle’ (Art in Public Places)

The other works delisted Thursday include Karst Circle, an arrangement of limestone and native plants at a fire station in Southwest Austin, and a former fountain at Republic Square Park. The plantings in Karst Circle are in poor condition due to city water restrictions. The Republic Square fountain was mistakenly removed during the park’s 2017 renovation; AIPP staffers were not aware that the fountain was city-owned art, so they allowed PARD to remove it.

The Bicentennial Fountain at Vic Mathias Shores doesn’t pump water and is rusted beyond repair, making it unsightly as well as a safety hazard. The parks department will now determine whether to remove the fountain. At an Arts Commission meeting, PARD staff asserted that the bicentennial time capsule, which was buried during the fountain’s construction in 1976, will remain buried until 2076.

‘Moments’ (Art in Public Places)

At last Tuesday’s Council work session, Council Member Leslie Pool questioned how the deaccessioned art fell into such disrepair. In a memo, staff members responded that the program does not have a funding source to maintain its art. AIPP will seek dedicated maintenance funds in the future and will also consider outsourcing maintenance.

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