Public art: Who pays for upkeep?

Public art: Who pays for upkeep?

SINGAPORE - Hands, feet, heads and birds sprout from a 2.5m-tall sculpture outside Yew Tee MRT Station.

These appendages are part of a work titled Tree Of Life by Singapore artist Ben Puah, which has stood in the public square since 2010. But a fat fungus mushrooming from the fibreglass sculpture and other signs of blight including deposits of rubbish and fading paintwork are threatening its fate.

The sculpture, commissioned by the South West Community Development Council (CDC), had earlier faced the possibility of being removed due to a lack of funds for repairs. The CDC now hopes to organise an event, supported by corporate sponsors, to restore the work.

In a time when more works of public art are being commissioned and installed around the island, spurred by the public art tax incentive scheme that offers double tax deduction on the value of donated public artworks as well as the cost of adopting or displaying public art, the disrepair of the sculpture in Yew Tee raises questions about the maintenance of public sculptures after they are unveiled.

A South West CDC spokesman tells Life! that Tree Of Life was commissioned "to bring arts closer to the community" and it was conceived as part of the South West District Arts Festival in 2010.

The artist Puah, 37, a fine arts graduate from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology who has participated in community art projects, says the sculpture was inspired by the theme of racial harmony.

Last December, he was approached by the CDC to touch up the paintwork on the sculpture as it was showing signs of wear. Talks on the cost of restoration followed and Puah says his original quote of $6,600 for manpower and material costs, including paints and brushes, was revised to $4,000 after the CDC suggested making the restoration a community project and roping in resident volunteers.

Last month, however, he says he was asked by the CDC if he could "do it for free" because it did not have the funds to restore the work. He adds that he was told the work would have to be removed if it was not conserved.

"I am very disappointed and sad. This shows no understanding of the arts," he says. Tree Of Life is the first public sculpture for the artist, who works in various mediums such as paint and performance art.

He is also upset because the work does not seem to have received regular maintenance, which could have prevented severe decay. The fibreglass sculpture stands alone in the open space next to the Yew Tee MRT station where ad hoc bazaars that include food stalls are sometimes set up.

He says: "You can see the huge fungus growing out from it so I am sure that it was not maintained or cleaned for a very long time. This sculpture needs only weekly cleaning, just washing with water and wiping it with a cloth, the same as using water to clean other public spaces."

The CDC did not respond to queries from Life! about funds for the upkeep of the sculpture, how it has been maintained since being installed, and its earlier consideration to remove the work.

But its spokesman says it has other community art projects, including mural paintings in HDB void decks and community clubs.

"Over time, mural paintings and artworks also suffer wear and tear, and will have to be rejuvenated or repainted. Such rejuvenation or restoration work are sponsored in part by corporate partners who want to bring the arts closer to the community," he says.

And it now plans to adopt the same approach to restoring Tree Of Life.

The spokesman says: "In collaboration with the local grassroots organisations, we are planning to organise an event for the residents to help restore the community sculpture together with the artist Mr Puah, other volunteers as well as corporate sponsors."

Puah says he has not been informed of such a development, but "it would be best if this works out".

Ms Teo Huey Ling, 39, artist and president of the Sculpture Society, says: "In an affluent society as ours, it is really sad if a sculpture has to be removed due to insufficient funds to upkeep the work."

She says the onus should be on the commissioner of the artwork to ensure proper maintenance. "When a party buys a sculpture, it should devise a long-term budget plan and foresee expenditure for management of the artwork."

She advises regular cleaning, and polishing and minor repairs when necessary, to maintain the condition of a work. "If the sculpture is neglected for a period of time, it will become much more costly to repair," she says.

A spokesman for property developer City Developments Limited (CDL), which has installed six public sculptures through its CDL Singapore Sculpture Award, including the work An Enclosure For A Swing by artist Kelvin Lim at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, says basic maintenance such as general day-to-day cleaning of its sculptures is undertaken by the site owner or site manager based on the maintenance manual provided by the artist.

He says: "In the event that the sculptures require restorative or rectification works beyond general day-to-day cleaning, CDL may engage the artist or a third party with the relevant expertise to undertake the works at our own cost."

Mr Alan Oei, 38, artistic director of the Sculpture Square arts centre, echoes a similar sentiment.

He says: "In general, the artist usually provides advice or assistance if the work is damaged and the owner is usually expected to pay for the cost of repair, and depending on the relationship, a small professional fee to the artist might be given."

CDL's spokesman adds that when it commissions a sculpture for public outdoor spaces, the durability and safety of the work, as well as its ease of maintenance are key considerations. The pieces it has installed are mostly made of hardy materials such as stainless steel or bronze, which require minimal maintenance.

Yew Tee resident Dinesh Sugumar, 28, an editor at a publishing firm, hopes Tree Of Life will not be removed. He says: "It adds a touch of uniqueness to the generic-looking town centre. It would also be good to add some details about the sculpture and the artist so that people in the area who notice it will understand what it is about."

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