Caring for an existing mural

A mural that deteriorates prematurely or is damaged or vandalized will risk further damage, will lose community acceptance, and will not promote the positive values it was meant to inspire.

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Expected lifetime

Many public art programs consider murals to be temporary, with a lifetime of approximately 10 years. But some murals have lasted more than 20 years, and their communities want them to last even longer.

The harsh outdoor environment and the changing use of public space necessitate an approach to the preservation of murals that is different from that for a traditional artwork. Inspection, ongoing maintenance, and periodic treatment are essential to keep a mural in good condition. In extreme cases, relocation, repainting, or deaccession may have to be considered. While the longevity of a mural is largely determined by the decisions made during its planning and creation, maintaining community awareness and support is also extremely important. Cities with major mural programs have learned that once a mural loses its significance to a community, it will tend to become a target for vandalism and graffiti. Unrepaired graffiti, vandalism, and damage will attract more of the same — leading to a cycle of increasing loss.

Inspections and maintenance

It is important to inspect murals annually or semi-annually to ensure that instability, damage, or potentially damaging conditions are detected before major damage or deterioration occurs. All inspections as well as any work that is subsequently carried out should be documented (see the sample condition report form).

Scheduling inspections and maintenance

Spring is an excellent time for an annual inspection. Required maintenance and treatment activities can then be undertaken during the summer months. Another inspection should be done in autumn to address any problems prior to the harsh winter season.

Who does the work?

Municipal groups can't usually afford to hire a conservator to undertake all inspection, maintenance, and treatment activities. However, they should at least have a conservator initiate the maintenance program and be available for consultation and treatment as required. Some cities have successfully cared for their murals by hiring a local artist to undertake an annual routine recommended by a conservator: gentle washing with sponges, applying fills in damaged areas, and in painting areas of loss. Consistency in the person doing the work is often the key to success. A conservator should also be contacted whenever new products or procedures are considered, graffiti needs to be removed, or extensive treatment is required. New products and procedures will always require assessment and appropriate tests. It is important to note before cleaning a mural:

  • be wary of well-meaning offers by community members to undertake cleaning or maintenance activities;
  • industrial maintenance procedures such as power washing are often inappropriate for murals and can cause extensive damage;
  • repairs undertaken by individuals who are not knowledgeable about the materials, techniques, and overall approach to conservation treatment can result in unsightly damage; and
  • always seek a second opinion on major repairs to the mural or wall, particularly if the recommendation is received from someone selling a product or service.


Neglected pieces become an invitation for vandalism

Preventive strategies for vandalism include an attractive, well-maintained site, an artwork in good condition, a respected building, and an informed, involved community.

One common form of vandalism is graffiti. Graffiti is often an expression of territory, i.e. the location is "tagged" with graffiti to assert control of "turf". As one tag will invite additional competing tags, prompt removal of graffiti can help to prevent its reoccurrence. However, involving community youth in the mural is often a more effective way to stop graffiti.

Graffiti must be removed in a safe and effective manner that does not affect the image layer below. For this reason, removal should be undertaken by a conservator or an artist/technician familiar with the piece after consultation with or under the supervision of a conservator. Removal without adequate testing, or by an individual without adequate experience or supervision, can irreparably harm the mural.

Treatment approaches and documentation

The approach to making treatment decisions should have been outlined in the initial planning stage for the mural or as a conservation policy within the mural program. If such a document exists, it will provide a "roadmap" for making treatment decisions. For example, it will indicate who should be contacted (a conservator and/or artist), whether or not a committee (i.e. program administrator, artist, conservator, community members, and/or funding body) will discuss the proposed treatment options, and who will approve the proposed treatment.

Treatment decisions will be unique for each mural. A professional conservator should ideally be involved. He/she can provide treatment options and an outline of the materials and procedures to be used. The final decision should include input from all the various stakeholders — the owner/municipality, the community, and the original artist.

Many cities include conservators in major programs to conserve important murals. Other communities have had success by working with artists and supervised community volunteers. Judith Baca provides many examples where the community has played a vital role in treatment decisions and activities (Baca, J. "Public Participation in Conservation. 1: The Great Wall of Los Angeles." pp. 21–29 in Conservation and Maintenance of Contemporary Public Art.The Cambridge Arts Council and Archetype Publications, ).

Prior to undertaking the agreed-upon treatment, the cause of deterioration should be determined and corrected. The original artist should also be consulted prior to major treatment or alteration of the work or its context, both as a moral right and because he/she can provide detailed information on the materials, techniques, and visual characteristics of the original surface.

The actual treatments can range from a traditional conservation approach (in which a conservator inpaints Footnote 1 areas of loss) to treatments in which a conservator supervises or advises an artist and/or a group of community volunteers in restoration or reconstruction activities, to treatments undertaken by an artist, who has proved they are respectful of a conservation approach and undertakes relatively basic procedures that have been approved by the artist and owner. A mural with major loss or deterioration may require more extreme intervention, such as reconstruction (repainting) of damaged parts based on respect for the remaining original material and evidence of an earlier state (photographs), or even repainting by the original artist.

All treatments should be carefully documented. The treatment decisions should be recorded, and a detailed record kept of the work undertaken, the materials used, the person(s) doing the work, and the date. Before, during, and after treatment photographs should also be taken.

There are many resources available to help locate a conservator. In Canada, the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) maintains a list of conservators across the country who have successfully completed a voluntary accreditation process, and can provide information that will assist in making an informed choice. However, the CAPC list does not include all of the qualified conservators working in Canada. Other references can be obtained from major galleries or museums in the area.

All conservators in Canada are guided by the standards and ethical obligations outlined in The Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice of the Canadian Association for Conservation and the CAPC.

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