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Buffalo’s impressive trove of public art is a benefit that comes with a price tag

One of the many pleasures of living in Buffalo is the large and expanding stock of public art. The city’s supply ranges from the whimsical to the grand and truly historic. As Buffalo’s revival continues, it will attract more visitors and, with effort, more residents, too. It is important to have a plan not just to place more public art, but to protect and maintain it.

As a story in Sunday’s editions of The News showed, Buffalo is a treasure chest of valuable public art. The trove includes the centrally located monument to President William McKinley, slain only several blocks north, and in Delaware Park, a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David. In that, Buffalo owns one of just five copies around the world that were made from the original.

Alone, these artworks give Buffalo a level of prominence that other cities around the country must envy, especially those of its medium size. In total, the city’s reservoir of public art ranks high among the attributes that make Buffalo special.

But, as Mark Sommer’s story made clear, maintaining and preserving those works of art is challenging and sometimes expensive. If Buffalo is to reach its growing potential as a vibrant, attractive urban environment for the 21st century, it will be important to commit to a reliable, adequately funded system of upkeep so that maintenance continues regardless of the economic climate or condition of the monuments, statues and sculptures that dot the city. These are our inheritance. We need to protect them for those who follow.

In a northern city, those installations can be exposed to extremely harsh conditions. That is especially true in a city subject to the whims of lake-effect snowstorms. After only one season on display, Buffalo’s most quirky art installation – the madly popular Shark Girl – had to be removed from her spot near the waterfront, given a freshening and installed in a new location.

Other repairs are more challenging. The McKinley Monument, including statues of lions and a 96-foot-tall obelisk, needs more than $400,000 worth of work, including structural repairs, replacement of cracked bollards and corroded brass pieces and fittings. Its entire marble surface needs to be cleaned.

Meanwhile, at Front Park, the statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry required $139,000 worth of repairs to its base. That work, whose cost was shared by the city and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, was completed this year with the help of professional conservators, who also worked on the McKinley Monument. The damage had been caused by the kind of frost heave that is common where the winter weather is severe.

The good news is that Buffalo’s supply of public art is growing. Just this year, the Silent Poets were installed at Canalside. And the city does have a smart policy on accepting donations of public art, requiring that 10 percent of a gift’s value be given for future maintenance.

These artworks are important to the city. They recognize its history and tell something about who we are today. They are attractions to visitors and pleasing to residents for whom the urban experience is enlivening. They deserve a solid plan for their maintenance. It’s important now and will only become more important as the number of installations grows.