Empire State Plaza Art Collection

I previously mentioned that I am auditing a class at the art conservation lab. Last week we took a field trip to the Empire State Plaza Art collection. I had never been down there before. Another blogger discussed the collection here.

The conservator told us about all the awful things that have happened to these paintings, including vandalism in the 1980s. You can read an article about that event here. A man took a serrated steak knife to eight different paintings, sawed at them, pulled the canvas forward, and wrote on them in magic marker. It was at three a.m., the plaza police were off somewhere, and the only reason the man got caught was that he turned himself in the next morning. There were other incidences over the years with these paintings - kids lodging spitballs on them with straws from the nearby McDonald's, coffee spills, soy sauce packets sprayed on the Jackson Pollock, a Jazzercise instructor using a painting as the jumping off point for her exercise, kids climbing on paintings that stick out from the wall, and many more problems. In the 1980s, a tapestry hung on the wall near a staircase under The Egg was stolen.

The bases for the Noguchi sculptures totally overwhelm the pieces. One trip to the Noguchi Museum, and you'll see that they are supposed to be displayed on the floor, and not in bases made of marble that totally envelope and take away from the works of art. One painting is at the bottom of an escalator where hot air  is blown in the winter and cold air is blown in the summer - and you can clearly see where the crazy man's slash that was repaired is sticking out and becoming more noticeable with the change in air blown by the escalator. There were also and lots of huge dust balls attached to the tops of many of the paintings. Apparently, there is a curator, an education staff person, and a secretary and they were all able to keep their jobs when the economy tanked, but they have had no budget for cleaning and maintaining the works in recent years.

The collection has just been through a lot. This also includes the Jackson Pollock. Nelson Rockfeller had it hanging in the Executive Mansion when he was governor, and it was damaged in a fire. It looked horrible and the Museum of Modern Art's lab in New York stabilized it, but the executor of the estate came to a conservator at the Williamstown Conservation Center  in MA and asked them to work on it. It was in such horrible condition and required so much repainting, that the work is now 2/3 mostly the conservator's work, while the bottom third is mostly Pollock. This is especially weird since the whole point of Pollock's painting was the spontaneous action of the process. The conservator wants a didactic label explaining that most of the painting is restoration work, but apparently the curator says anyone can ask for the file if they want. It was after it was reinstalled in the Office of General Services Office that the soy sauce incident happened mentioned above.

It seems that a lot of the food related damage (the lab still cleans off coffee stains from some of them from time to time) is related to the fact that apparently state workers are not fond of this collection. Also, that amount of risk just goes along with being in a public space. When I came in and told my boss about the slashing of the eight paintings by the crazy man, she said "At least he didn't slash people", and that is true. Most of them they were able to repair. Some artists saw their own paintings as dead to them and didn't want them repaired, and one of the artists, Raymond Parker, got his studio assistants to make a copy of the original  (the slashed one is in storage).

I went home just shaking my head. Can't private funds be raised for the cleaning and maintenance of these paintings that are owned by the state (and the taxpayers) of New York? At least they did install a security system after the vandalism happened, but the general lack of respect for the art has continued in small ways after that. From my point of view, there is so much to love about Albany. But being there with a group of Williams College students in this space where people have thrown food and drink on the paintings, climbed on them, and used them in their Jazzercising, I couldn't help but see Albany from their point of view for a second - as this provincial place where people aren't very culturally sophisticated. Of course, I know for a fact that Williams students are sometimes no better in respecting their own public art, so maybe that is just a risk of putting art in public spaces in general.


  1. I often wonder about the art work down there, and how "protected" it is. Apparently, not very well at all! It really is amazing that these works by very famous artists are just in this large gallery where anyone could walk by and touch it/damage it. There is no way the state police can monitor it as well as it would be in a real muesum. It's a shame, and I do agree that the stories back up the view of Albanians as not being very cultured.

    Did the tour go into how they choose new art to buy, and if there is any budget alloted towards this?

  2. They do have cameras now but did not for a long time. The conservator kept saying "this is not a museum!".

    It does not seem that they have bought any new ones in a few decades, and since they don't seem to have any more budget to clean/conserve these works I doubt there is any money for more art.

    It all seemed so sad to me. It seems like since they are owned by the state of NY and we are tax payers that the public should take an interest in the fate of these paintings. Also, the fact that some of the artists were suing the state of NY for not taking care of their paintings says a lot...


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