Saving and Preserving Toolbox
The preservation of art environments, an introduction
by Lisa Stone
Some art environments are in the process of creation while others languish in ruin. Several have achieved official historical significance and status according to conventional preservation standards, and a number of sites have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And although many sites have been lost, fortunately a growing number of such environments have been restored and preserved as historic, cultural, and community resources—treasures of our built environment.
Although art environments exhibit exceptional diversity, physically and visually, one of the significant elements they share is the fact that, as a genre, they have inspired people around the country to care deeply about their continued existence. The growing number of individuals and organizations that have emerged to preserve and maintain such environments is paralleled by the expanding recognition of art environments as significant, recurrent, and enduring facets of our nation’s built environment. Yet the stewardship of such environments is generally being managed and conducted by those who, while sharing common preservation challenges and goals, function primarily on a grassroots level, largely in isolation from one another, and often outside of mainstream preservation communities. Like the mainstream historic preservation field, the history of the preservation of art environments is replete with heated political struggles, debates over methodologies, funding obstacles, ruinous “acts of God,” marvels of individual commitment and great collaboration, and the challenges of ongoing preservation.
Steps you can take to save and preserve an art environment
This toolbox is intended to assist people, communities, and not-for-profit organizations who own or are responsible for an art environment, or are concerned about an art environment that is threatened. While addressing the preservation of an art environment is daunting, there are a number of successful preservation projects, and there are many supporters across the country and around the world. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel or go it alone. SPACES strives to be a clearing house for information about site preservation.
If you are new to the field of historic preservation, the book Basic Preservation is a good introduction. SPACES also recommends that you read through the National Park Service’s website to learn about the fundamentals of listing a property in the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, SPACES highly recommends that you review and become familiar with:
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
What elements should be considered in preparing to launch preservation activities? A range of circumstances impact the preservation of art environments, including:
- Property ownership
Often property ownership is known, but other times it may be unknown, disputed, or unclear. Before any action can be taken, it is necessary to determine who owns the site. This can generally be done by conducting title research at the local courthouse.
Are the owners trying to save the site, or are concerned individuals or a community trying to save it? If preservation efforts are being conducted by non-owners, it is necessary to gain the approval and support of the owners before moving forward. Issues to negotiate include:
- Who will be responsible for a preserved site? Will the owners operate it, or will it be operated by a community organization or non-profit organization? (And does such a formal entity exist, or will one have to be established?) If the proposed operators will not be the owners, it is wise to outline the relationship between the owners and the operators in a formal document prior to beginning preservation and maintenance activities. Issues to address include:
- Who is responsible for maintenance? Outline ongoing maintenance needs, such as lawn/garden care, building maintenance, maintenance and repair of works of art.
- Who is responsible for expenses (utility bills, taxes, other expenses)? This can be outlined in the document mentioned above.
- Are there any back taxes owed or any other outstanding bills which would need to be addressed before preservation activities can be addressed?
- Property Condition
- Does the site comply with local codes and zoning regulations? If a site is in violation of codes or zoning regulations it may be necessary to apply for a Special Use Permit (SUP), in order to provide access to the public. It will help to have language demonstrating the site’s cultural and community significance, complemented by a significant level of community support, in order to bolster the need for a SUP as the request is submitted to local officials.
- Are there any elements of the site that present a demonstrated public danger or that could be construed as a public “nuisance?” These elements will have to be addressed before a SUP can be submitted.
- Condition of the site: Is the site in good or reasonable condition, or is conservation necessary? Are there urgent needs that need to be addressed to stabilize components of the site? Additional information about steps to take to preserve a site appears below.
- Public Access
- Local acceptance of the site as an artistic and cultural resource: Is the local community supportive? Steps to build support are outlined in the sample preservation plan.
- Will the site be open to the public?
- There may be zoning issues that impact the formal availability of the site to the public. These will need to be researched, identified, and addressed.
- Identify days and hours for public access.
- Identify how the site will be staffed during those times, if the owners are not on-site.
- Consider if there will be an admission fee or a donation box. Who will manage the income? It is wise for a separate bank account to be established to accommodate the new revenue.
- Resources for operation and ongoing maintenance:
- Human Resources:
- Identify community members who will operate and maintain the site. Typically it is best to have a member of the team on-site whenever the public is given access. Who will organize these schedules?
- Identify preservation professionals who can assist in site preservation.
- If you need feel that establishing a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization would best address the ongoing needs of the site and you need assistance, consult with people at art environments operated by non-profit organizations, listed on SPACES website, and/or check with other cultural non-profit organizations in your community, state or region. Much information about forming non-profit organizations can also be found online.
- Human Resources:
- Identify and prioritize allocation of revenue income: will it pay a caretaker? Provide for ongoing maintenance? Support emergency preservation? Although initial income may not appear significant at first, it is wise to prioritize the targeted use of this income, to avoid problems later, particularly if the owners are not the ones initiating the preservation activities.
- Develop a budget for operating the site annually. See the sample Site Preservation Business Plan.
Protecting a threatened site
If the site is threatened by neglect, vandalism, negative community opinion, changes in property ownership, violation of code ordinances, or other factors, it is essential to protect the site. We recommend doing so with a positive approach, with welcoming language that inspires public interest and support.
Before describing the proactive activities you can undertake, there are things you might do, meaning well, that should not be done. We recommend that all interventions be guided by a Preservation Plan, and that no one undertake any activities regarding the preservation of the site until everyone involved has been briefed on priorities and processes.
- Do not move or remove any elements until they have been documented thoroughly, permission to move and store them has been secured, and a plan, including written permission from the owner(s,) is in place.
- Do not attempt to repair any elements until they have been documented thoroughly, and a preservation plan, guided by vintage documentation and a full understanding of the site’s history, is in place.
- Take care in removing organic overgrowth. Only remove weeds, shrubs, seedlings, trees, or any organic growth if you’re certain that they are not part of the original composition.
- Only clean elements using methods condoned and recommended by site preservationists and/or conservators. Cleaning, while well-meant, can sometimes cause irreparable damage.
If a site is open to the public and unprotected, and you have written permission to intervene, the following methods are recommended:
- Erect a fence around the site to prevent intrusion until the site can be stabilized. Many sites deteriorate beyond reclamation because vandals and others are allowed access during (sometimes) long periods when a site is in limbo and is unprotected.
- If architectural or sculptural elements are deteriorating and weather is causing further deterioration, after thoroughly documenting the existing condition, cover with tarps and/or elevate from the ground and cover. When covering elements other than roofs, it is essential to provide for air circulation, so you don’t create an “aquarium” effect that will actually promote accelerated deterioration.
- Erect prominent signage, using positive language, about the status of the site.
is currently closed while we explore a plan to
preserve it for the public.
[This site] is an irreplaceable cultural and community resource.
We urge you to respect this request and kindly refrain from entering.
Please support our efforts to preserve [This site].
For information and/or to contribute to the preservation project
If you're concerned about an art environment that's immediately threatened and you want to raise public awareness, some strategies include:
- Advocate for preservation of the environment through the media. Letters to public officials, editors of newspapers, television stations, etc. are at times successful in raising awareness and staying the execution, but letter-writing campaigns can at times be easily buried. Click here to see sample advocacy letters.
- Engage social media (facebook, electronic petitions) to broadcast your message.
Site documentation, basic steps
Thorough documentation of an art environment as an art, historical, and cultural resource cannot be underestimated. Site documentation is a significant component of your “toolbox” and is essential in supporting all aspects of preservation and ongoing maintenance. The outline below assumes that an individual or organization is addressing an art environment that has not been previously documented, and that the site may be threatened. We begin with basic information about what to do and what not to do, followed by specific suggestions for site documentation.
SPACES considers art environments to be irreplaceable artistic, cultural, and historical resources which are essential to the fabric of their local communities. Art environments, to varying degrees per site, are comprised of elements of art, architecture, and landscape features. All features are equally important, and although all components fit together to support the whole, each should be documented separately and thoroughly, in addition to overall site views.
Finding, making, and organizing photo-documentation, and keying that documentation to a site plan, is essential and serves several purposes over time. All efforts should be made to 1) gather vintage documentation, 2) create and organize contemporary photo-documentation, and 3) create a site plan.
All images of the site as it appeared during the artist’s lifetime should be gathered and archived, because they will be used to guide all preservation activities: the goal of site preservation should be to preserve the site, as closely as possible, in its condition, as created by the artist. In most cases, the site changed significantly over the course of the artist’s lifetime, as well as subsequently, so for sites that evolved or changed dramatically over time it is often wise to identify a specific time period to target for preservation activities. Even if a particular time frame is identified as the target for preservation, however, it is still important to gather any and all documentation of the site in all of its states over the years.
Research and organize all vintage photo-documentation and make sure all people who work on the site are aware of and guided by these essential images.
- Contact the artist’s family members, neighbors, local historical societies, senior citizens in the community, and any other relevant sources, to locate every bit of vintage documentation of and about the site and the artist.
- Have a plan to digitize all collected documentation. You don’t need to own the original, you just need a high quality image, or preferably, a high resolution digital file, of every image. Scan at the highest resolution possible.
- It will help you in your queries, to assure all lenders of images, that:
- Images will be used for preservation and/or educational purposes only. If publication of the image is desired, you will specifically contact them for permission with details of the project.
- At this point you should also ask the lender if they will sign a release form allowing use of the image, in any way, to support site preservation, with the understanding that images will be credited appropriately. Ask the lender to provide credit information and date the image to the best of their ability.
- Ask if images can be shared with SPACES, to be added to our database and/or posted on our website. (If there is concern about public visitation before the site is really “ready” to receive visitors, the website posting does not have to include an address or other identification that specifically discloses precise location.)
- Organize vintage images and make sure they are available to everyone working on site preservation
2. Documentation of the site’s current condition
It is essential to thoroughly photo-document the current composition and physical condition of all elements of a site. You can never have too many photographs. Some hints:
- Photographs are most useful when they are labeled and stored for ease of retrieval, and keyed to a site plan. (Site plan information appears below.)
- Strategize your photo-documentation of the site. Begin with overall views from each direction or elevation. If necessary, try to get aerial or overhead views. Then take closer-in area views, also from each direction. Then take detail views of each component. Don’t forget the back side of frontally-oriented works.
- Label your photos. A digital file title should include
- Title or site plan name or designation
- Identification of specific components by name the artist used for it, if possible
- Date the photo was taken
- If you have a site plan with each element identified (by a letter or number), label all your photos according to the site plan. Store in folders labeled accordingly. Back up your data and store duplicate copies, preferably off-site.
3. Site Plan
Create a drawing of the site that identifies all elements: architecture, structures/objects, landscape features, fixed and moveable elements, pathways, fences, and property boundaries. This can be done in phases. If you don’t have the knowledge or experience to create a site plan to scale, make a sketch with your best knowledge of the site, and use photographs to work out the details. It is often helpful to work with a satellite image from Google Maps to pinpoint the site, locate significant elements, and orient the plan. Start with the cardinal points (North, South, East, and West), and locate elements in a diagram. Please refer to the SAMPLE SITE PLANS to see a range of site plans.
You may be able to find a student, landscape architect, or other professional to create a site plan for you. Contact local colleges’ and universities’ Architecture, Historic Preservation, Archaeology, or Geography departments, and/or local vocational/technical schools to seek assistance. Also contact local/regional Historic Preservation staff for recommendations for assistance with a site plan.
Site plan designations
Once each element is located on a site plan, it needs to be labeled with a specifically designated letter or number. It is essential to give all elements a specific designation, as any fragments that are collected on-site should be tagged according to the element or area where it was found, and all conservation treatments should be described in a report, linked to the appropriate elements.
Art environments vary dramatically, so determining the most logical way to organize a site plan will depend on the types of elements on-site. If there are areas with a number of elements that comprise a single tableau of related elements, you might refer to such areas as:
- Neptune’s Fountain
i. East column
ii. North column
iii. West column
iv. South column
This way, all treatments can be described accurately, according to the element or sub-element, and all fragments can be labeled and stored for future reattachment or study.
Please find pdfs for sample site plans HERE.
Note: It is important to collect and organize all fragments that have become detached from a sculpture or structure. Photograph the object in the context of where it was found, BEFORE moving it; label your photo with the date and location, and its site plan designation. Indicate whether it is easy to identify the original location of the fragment or whether this is unclear. Fragments should be labeled and stored in a safe place; be particularly careful of broken edges, and try to avoid damaging them in any way, because the edges are typically extremely important in not only identifying the original location of the fragment, but also in its ultimate reattachment.
Learn about historic preservation
When beginning a preservation project, contact your local and regional preservation agencies and partners, as well as local and state historical societies. Click here for a list of Historic Preservation Resources by State.
If you live near a college or university that has undergraduate and/or graduate programs in Historic Preservation, Landscape Architecture, and/or Architecture, you may find faculty and students who are willing to help with your project. Below is a list of Historic Preservation degree program resources:
The National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE)
Graduate Historic Preservation Programs Information
Program listings alphabetically by institution
- 33 Graduate degree programs around the United States
- 8 Graduate degree programs with an emphasis in historic preservation
- 23 historic preservation certificate programs
Preservation Trades Network
Preservation Trades Education
Links for more trades- and crafts-based educations
American College of the Building Arts
College of the Redwoods
Colorado Mountain College
Historic Preservation Training Center
Ivy Tech Community College
North Bennet Street School
Pine Mountain Settlement School
Preservation Education Institute
Snow College Traditional Building Skills Institute
Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology
West Kentucky Community and Technical College
National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior
Colleges and Universities; Historic Preservation and Related Programs
Listing of degree programs in historic preservation and closely related fields
Historic Preservation Graduate Programs
The National Trust for Historic Preservation website has the following links that may be helpful:
An introduction to Landmarking art environments
by Lisa Stone
Since the National Register of Historic Places was authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, a number of art environments have been listed in this register. Maintained by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior, the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of districts, buildings, sites, structures, and objects (hereafter described as property) significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture in the United States, which, by their designation, are deemed worthy of preservation.
The first art environment to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places was the Watts Towers of Sabato Rodia in Los Angeles, listed on April 13, 1977. The Watts Towers have the great distinction of also being honored as a National Historic Landmark. NHL status confers a higher range of significance “to all Americans,” on a national level, and is the highest landmark designation in the country. Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village (Simi Valley, CA), is, to our knowledge, the only art environment in the country to have achieved landmark status on four levels: it has been designated a City of Simi Valley, County of Ventura, and State of California landmark, and is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
NRHP properties can be significant on the local, state, or national levels. However, it is important to realize that listing in the NRHP confers little actual protection from demolition, although if a property in the Register is threatened by demolition, or any kind of “undertaking,” the Section 106 process requires that the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) review such an undertaking. Nevertheless, the SHPO has authority only over undertakings that engage Federal funds. Listing in the NRHP does, however, confer the status of historical significance upon a site, placing it within the context of diverse properties throughout the country which have been recognized, by rigorous review and stringent standards, as contributing significantly to the locality’s, state’s, or nation’s trajectories of history. The listing of art environments in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as on state and local landmark listings, has been an objective for SPACES since it was founded. Such designation places art environments within the country’s primary historic preservation programs and processes, creating an important link between properties often thought to be tangential and the more commonly-accepted cultural and historical resources, thus validating their importance for their local communities as well as the nation as a whole.
Listing in the NRHP requires that a property be evaluated and documented according to rigorous and uniform standards. One of the primary requirements for listing on the NRHP (although exceptions are made to this rule) is that the property must be fifty years old or more — the generally-accepted time frame for the evaluation of a property’s historical significance. The main component of the nomination form is the criterion for evaluation, which places a property in its historical context. Criterion for evaluation include:
Criterion A: Event. Properties can be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to broad patterns of American History.
Criterion B: Person. Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.
Criterion C: Design/Construction: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
Criterion D: Information Potential. Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.
In the sub-categories, called Considerations, Criterion g discusses properties of less than fifty years of age or those which achieved significance within the past fifty years. This consideration allows properties less than fifty years old to be considered, and has been used for several of the NRHP nominations for art environments. The rationale for designating sites less than fifty years old was eloquently argued in a NRHP thematic or multiple listing nomination form drafted by Seymour Rosen (note: although we no longer use the term “folk art” when referring to art environment sites, the general rationale remains compellingly argued):
Twentieth Century Folk Art Environments in California (submitted in 1978; however, the designation was not awarded until 1981):
Defining what is meant by a work of art is a highly subjective process. We believe that these works possess an integrity of design, a uniqueness of form, and a profound quality of expression which established them as works of art. Most of these works are less than fifty years old; however, we have included them in the nomination because we believe they are exceptional pieces of our cultural heritage and are worthy of recognition and preservation. They are the most recent examples of a tradition of folk art in America. They have been selected from a much larger group as being the most outstanding examples of this art form.
In 1978, seventeen years before the National Trust organized the conferencePreserving the Recent Past, this nomination form addressed the issue of preserving our recent past:
The ultimate value of cultural resources often transcends established perspectives. When a 1930 Shell Oil Service Station in North Carolina was added to the National Register in May of 1977, the Winston-Salem Sentinel offered this comment appropriate for all culturally valuable resources regardless of age: “When we consider the pace of modern events and the dizzying speed with which old customs and institutions give way to the new, it becomes clear that without preservation of some relatively modern and even mundane objects, whole chapters of American social history might quickly be lost…” These twentieth century folk art environments provide evidence for future generations to better understand the culture which spawned them.
From the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website:
Preservationists typically define the recent past as a moving window encompassing resources constructed or designed within the past fifty years. Federal, state, and local preservation programs typically exclude properties fewer than 50 years old from historic designation programs and review processes. This leaves many historically and culturally significant properties unprotected from demolition or other adverse treatments.
Most successful nominations for art environments cite Criterion C, which includes properties that possess “the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.” This criterion is broad enough to include properties that are created by artists/architects/builders working inside and/or outside of recognized and accepted traditions. Thus, the National Register of Historic Places is by nature inclusive of the range of cultural resources, and is not limited to the codified standards and design guidelines that characterize many state and local landmark ordinances and preservation policies.
It is important to understand the mechanisms of the mainstream preservation field that embrace the preservation of art environments, as well as the territories where the two might conflict. One point of divergence lies in local landmark ordinances, which have the power to govern the visual appearances of their landmarks - both historic properties and properties within historic districts - according to very strict parameters. Such ordinances generally govern exterior alterations to properties with landmark status or properties within historic districts. These preservation ordinances, which are designed to preserve a community’s historic character in the face of rapid and often thoughtless change, might also prohibit the kinds of aesthetic expressions evident in many art environments, thus eliminating the potential for additional creation or expansion of those types of expressions that have been found to possess local, regional and/or national historical significance. As the mainstream preservation movement evolves within its own mandate towards “preserving the recent past,” hopefully it will formulate guidelines that recognize and accept such deviations from the canons of tradition, thus recognizing that sites that diverge from accepted traditions might become the landmarks of the present and future, as strongly as those which clearly refer and relate to past traditions.
Few individuals and organizations responsible for the care of an art environment have the resources to devote time to projects that do not directly relate to immediate preservation and/or fundraising activities. While NRHP status might be a goal, many individuals and organizations lack the time, personnel, expertise, and funds to pursue the nomination process. However, we encourage caretakers of art environments to pursue listing your site in the NRHP. Click here to find nomination forms for ten environments listed in the National Register. Seek assistance from your state preservation agency, and ask if there are individuals in your state or community who do nominations for hire, or on a volunteer basis.