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Maintaining Buffalo’s many monuments can be monumentally challenging

Jimmy Griffin is in bronze. So are Christopher Columbus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. . ¶ Presidents are prominent, as are military leaders and classical musicians. ¶ A bison gets its due – it is Buffalo, after all – and so does Michelangelo’s David. ¶ And on this Memorial Day, especially soldiers. ¶ All are among the more than 1,000 monuments – ranging from statues, sculptures and plaques to memorials, murals, portraits and maps – that make up the city’s public art collection. Most of the monuments and other art, which also includes fountains, reliefs and decorative objects, commemorate people and events from the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries. ¶ But exposed to harsh winters and vandalism, and sometimes due to no nothing more than Father Time, the monuments require repair and maintenance.

“The problem is, public art is public and can be damaged. It’s not like the Albright-Knox, where everything is protected all the time,” said Catherine Gillespie, who chairs the Buffalo Arts Commission.

The vast majority of the monuments are downtown, in the Delaware and Niagara districts, from the Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Lafayette Square and the Lincoln, the Emancipator statue behind the Buffalo History Museum to plaques in the Naval and Military Park.

The Buffalo Arts Commission works cooperatively with the city’s Department of Public Works to help pay for maintenance and restoration.

Sometimes, that can be expensive.

Repairing the McKinley Monument, constructed to honor President William McKinley after he was killed by an assassin during the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, has a price tag of $250,000 for the first phase of a multiyear project that’s expected to cost more than $400,000.

The work includes making structural repairs, replacing cracked bollards and corroded brass pieces and fittings, and cleaning the sprawling marble surface.

The monument – which sits in front of City Hall, with lions and a 96-foot-tall obelisk – is one of the city’s most recognizable works of public art.

“I love its grandness. You’re not going to see those kinds of monuments placed anymore,” said Donald Siuta, who chairs the commission’s Art and Monuments Conservation Committee. “They’re too expensive, and cities don’t want to designate important real estate to use for those kinds of things.”

Another costly project – $139,000 – was completed this year for the reconstruction of the base under the bronze statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry that stands guard over Front Park. The commission paid $56,000, with the remainder paid by Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. The statue’s crumbling granite base was restored after frost heave caused the circular base inside the foundation to buckle. The top was polished and lacquered five years earlier.

Professional conservators were brought in for those and many other repair jobs.

“We don’t mess around with doing something that could be permanently damaging,” Siuta said. “Our primary focus is to make sure these things are here for future generations.”

Graffiti is an occasional culprit. A gang symbol was spray-painted onto a Duayne Hatchett sculpture in Tony Sisti Park, at North and Franklin streets, causing $10,000 in damages. A conservator removed it while preserving the patina on the corten steel.

Stone and bronze statues intentionally scratched with metal objects also can leave major damage behind. That happened to the bronze base of the 1902 Lincoln, the Emancipator.

Fading tradition

Monuments, statues, busts and plaques are erected less frequently today than in previous generations.

“Public art in the past was more monument-oriented,” Siuta said. “I know the city is trying to get away from tombstone-like plaques and things like that. We want things to be more art.”

Emerson Barr, the executive director and lone staffer of the Buffalo Arts Commission, agreed. “The idea of the stately man sitting on a horse – those days are kind of over. We also view our leaders differently. I think it represents a general philosophical shift in society.”

At the same time, Barr said, “one of the strengths of the collection is the tradition. You can tell the mindset of people after ‘the war to end all wars,’ for instance, when they put up World War I memorials everywhere.”

Mozart bust was first

The oldest pieces in the city’s art collection are two bronze candelabras at the Buffalo History Museum, which were recently restored.

They once were in the Medici Palace during the European Renaissance in the 15th century, and were purchased by prominent Buffalonian Andrew Langdon at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

The first piece of public art given to the City of Buffalo was a bust of Mozart in 1896 by the German Singing Society. It was restored about 15 years ago.

The most controversial may be the replica of Michelangelo’s Statue of David in Delaware Park. One of five copies in the world cast from the original, the statue’s placement, genitalia and even the spelling of the artist’s name have sparked dispute and redress over the years.

“There was a proposal to place David on the steps facing the lake, but it was too much for Buffalo Victorian sentiments,” said David Granville, a member of the commission who served as executive director from 1994 to 2003.

The statue’s penis was covered with a fig leaf for decades because of public discomfort, before being removed in the late 1990s, when the statue was restored. The artist’s name as it originally appeared, “Michael Angelo,” was changed in 2011.

“The spelling was offensive to the Italian-American community, which people kept saying was a mistake,” Barr said. “But in that time period, that’s how the English-speaking people spelled Michelangelo.”

That wasn’t the only spelling to be called into question. The Jesse Clipper plaque, at Michigan Avenue and William Street, incorrectly spelled the name on the “Negro soldiers” war memorial as “Jessie.” There are plans to re-engrave the name, Barr said.

Missing monuments

More public art is expected in coming years, due to the city’s recent enforcement of a municipal statute. The law requires developers to set aside 1 percent of capital improvement projects of over $1 million for public art.

A recent meeting at Albright-Knox encouraged more than 30 developers to incorporate sculptures, murals and other public art to enhance their projects. Developers Jake Schneider and Sam Savarino are among those who have commissioned artwork.

Their contributions are seen as vital in updating the collection, since the Buffalo Arts Commission’s budget is not large enough for acquisitions.

Many newer pieces, including the statue of Tim Horton, at Canalside – a gift from the Buffalo Sabres Foundation – have been from private donors, or one of Buffalo’s sister cities. The city requires 10 percent of a gift’s value be given for future maintenance.

“We buy very little, and don’t have a budget for that,” Gillespie said. “But if someone wants to gift something to the city, we are very happy to receive it, especially at the paper and pencil stage.”

The commission says it has largely caught up with the backlog of the most critical repairs, which stemmed in part to its virtual shutdown from 2004 to 2009 following 9/11. But Siuta said much still needs to be done. At the same time, he said, he recognizes funds that could go to the commission are also needed for infrastructure and other public works projects.

There has been an explosion of public art not owned by the city, from murals on Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street and the Sabres greats known as the “French Connection” outside First Niagara Center, to the public art curiosities “Shark Girl” and “Silent Poets” at Canalside presented by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with help from the county and city.

Public art projects by developers in the pipeline include Niagara Street, Roosevelt Plaza, Allen Street, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Masten Park, and at the corners of Bidwell and Elmwood Avenues and Michigan Avenue and Broadway. On Niagara Street, bookending archways of powder-coated steel, with decorative, paisley forms at Porter Street and City Hall will herald Avenida San Juan. Almost none of this art, however, includes monuments that memorialize the past.

Little diversity

There are glaring absences in the city’s collection.

Few women and racial and ethnic minorities are represented in Buffalo’s monuments, typical with older public art. Murals by William de Leftwich Dodge in City Hall include Native Americans and African-Americans, but that was an exception. So is the “Spirit of Womanhood” statue, by sculptor Larry Griffis.

“I think it’s only since the 1960s and ‘70s that you are seeing more women and minorities represented in art,” Barr said.

Some prominent local figures are also nowhere to be found among the city’s monuments.

They include Warren Spahn of South Buffalo, whose 363 wins stand as the most ever for a left-handed pitcher; pioneering hotelier Ellsworth Statler; poet Lucille Clifton; composer Harold Arlen; and Congressman and Buffalo Bills star Jack F. Kemp.

“I think to be recognized you usually have to be dead,” Barr said. “People usually have a sentimental drive to do things.”

That’s how the Jimmy Griffin statue in front of Coca-Cola Field came to be, he said.

“After the passing of Mayor Griffin, the family wanted to have him connected with Buffalo in some kind of public way.”

Barr thinks his boss, the current mayor, could be a candidate down the road. “The 58th mayor is the first African-American mayor,” Barr said.

Buffalo Arts Commission members say they’ll be standing watch over the city’s evolving collection, doing its best to preserve the works for future generations.

email: msommer@buffnews.com