Apr 14, 2017

A conversation with Philadelphia's Public Art Director, Margot Berg

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Margot Berg serves as Public Art Director in the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative economy. We recently sat down with her to talk about her work, and the conservation of the City’s vast collection of public art. 

Mural Arts: Tell me a little about public art in Philadelphia.

Margot: Philadelphia has one of the largest and most renowned collections in the country, with over 1,000 pieces–some are privately owned, but most are owned by the City. We were the nation’s capital for a period of time, and there was a significant number of pieces created because of that part of our history. We also have the oldest nonprofit dedicated to public art, the Association for Public Art, which started as the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1872. In 1959, we established one of the first two, Percent for Art programs in the country, and then of course, Mural Arts, which has been working in the city for over 30 years. When you put all that history together, it becomes clear as to why Philadelphia has such a large and renown collection, and why public art has come to play a significant role our city’s identity.

Mural Arts: Why does public art need preservation?

Margot: Parts of Philadelphia’s collection of public art date from the early 1800’s. The art was made with materials considered indestructible at the time, but the effects of time, weather, and human interaction have taken their toll.

Also, the Philadelphia region used to be one of the worst areas for acid rain, which causes a significant amount of deterioration of metal and stone. Industrial regulation has helped minimize acid rain in our area, but weathering and environmental impacts are still a factor. Our job is to arrest continuing deterioration of public art, to have them last for as long as possible so that they can continue to be a feature of our public realm for many years to come.

Mural Arts: What’s the difference between restoration and preservation?

Margot: We often use the words interchangeably, but there is a difference. Conservation is caring for a piece of artwork, or arresting its deterioration and ensuring the preservation of as much of the original material as possible. Restoration means bringing an object back to its original condition or appearance or as close to it as is possible. And preservation, which is sort of an overall term, means ensuring that an object is not destroyed or significantly altered.

Mural Arts: Is there a difference in conservation techniques within a public art setting and a museum setting?

Margot: In a museum, you have your collection primarily indoors, in a climate controlled setting which is meant to house artwork in the best possible conditions. These “ideal” conditions are very different from public art, which is mostly outdoors, in the elements, subject to birds, traffic emissions, etc.

Within many museums, there’s often a lab committed to ongoing research. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an excellent conservation lab, and they’ve consulted with us on our conservation program since the 1980’s. Also, in our Percent for Art program, conservators participate on the selection panel, and provide important insight into the effects of the environment, weathering, installation, and even the materials used. Conservators can advise on the types of materials that work well the outdoor environment, and the application of materials, attachment methods, etc. A conservator wouldn’t tell an artist to change their vision, but is a wonderful resource for helping an artist understand how their artwork might best endure in the public setting.

Mural Arts: It’s so neat to hear about this aspect of your work. Thanks so much, Margot!

Last updated: Apr 10, 2017

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