How to care for artwork that is displayed outdoors

Do you have a sculpture in your garden that isn’t looking as great as the day you installed it? Perhaps you oversee the care of sculpture on the grounds at your organization. Maybe some damage occurred from a falling branch or that ice storm a few weeks back.

Garden statuary and outdoor sculpture often get forgotten and lost in the landscaping. They look so sturdy and permanent, it is easy to forget that they need upkeep and maintenance just like a house or car. We have a few easy steps that you can take to ensure the artwork that adds beauty to your grounds will continue to do so for generations.

Step One: Inventory

The first step is to make a list of the works that you have. Add photos and a description. This will be helpful for any insurance claims you might need to make in the future. In the description add as much information as you can. Here is the basic information we like to collect:

  • title,
  • artist,
  • date the work was made,
  • dimensions,
  • materials, and
  • inventory number (if you have one).

The most common materials for outdoor sculpture are traditional materials: bronze, steel, painted metal, wood, and stone. But many new materials are being used and have become more common, such as fiberglass, epoxy resins, and a wide variety of plastic.

Assessing a bronze statue that is surrounded by vegetation.

To complete your inventory, take overall photos of the artwork in its current location from four sides. Detail photos of fasteners that secure it to the ground or wall are also helpful.

Step Two: Document the Condition

Set aside some time to visually assess the condition. Walk around the artwork and note anything that looks different. My favorite tools for this job are a flashlight, a bamboo skewer (for poking at things), and a camera. Taking detailed snapshots of potential problem areas is helpful for future reference. Many phones and tablets make it easy to draw on the images and circle areas of interest or jot down a few notes about what you see.

If you have images from when the work was first installed still take up-to-date images. The historic photos are great reference points for comparison to the current condition. Things that you should look for are:

  • corrosion
  • peeling paint
  • loose screws or joints
  • cracks
  • accumulated bird droppings, moss, lichens, and pollution grime

If you don’t see any of these condition issues, you are good to go!

If you do see something of concern, you may want to arrange a time for a conservator to take a look and determine what steps should be taken next. Your sculpture might need a good cleaning or more invasive work to make sure it is stable.

Step Three: Set up a Maintenance Schedule

Just like your car, artwork and statuary that sit outside need a good cleaning! For sculpture about once a year is usually enough. Protective coatings can also be applied to most metal sculptures, such as bronze and steel, to help prevent uneven corrosion appear and improve the overall appearance. Cleaning involves the use of non-ionic detergents, filtered water, and a good scrub brush. With all of the time and money that gets put into lawn and yard maintenance, make sure your sculpture is looking its best too.

Training can be scheduled if you are interested in maintaining your sculpture yourself. We can also come and take care of everything for you. Set up an annual subscription and you won’t have to think about it ever again.

Cleaning Rodin’s “The Thinker” with a pressure washer. Outdoor sculpture maintenance can sometimes require specialized equipment. Photo by Joan Neubecker.

Step Four: Assess Location and Seasonal Storage

With the information you’ve collected, you can determine if your sculpture is in the best location for its long-term preservation. Another option is to make improvements to its current location. Perhaps the limbs from a nearby tree need to be trimmed or the ground regraded to prevent water from pooling below. The conditions that you have documented can lead you to the source of the issue. Now you can make a plan to address them. If you feel out of your depth, get in touch to schedule an assessment and have us take care of the issues.

There are times when sculpture may need to be covered or stored out of the elements, such as during construction. If you have off-season months when nobody is around to check on sculpture, protective covers can be used to protect them from ice, vandalism, and falling branches. We can help you determine safe ways to cover your outdoor artwork and connect you with manufacturers.