Natural disasters pose many risks to works of art, but one of the saddest is the damage done to works of art at cultural organizations that may go unnoticed. In Houston’s Third Ward, the Blue Triangle YWCA has served black women and girls for decades. The building includes a gym, kitchen, meeting rooms, and an indoor pool. Unfortunately the building itself has needed repairs for many years. In 2016 the Houston Chronicle reported that the organization was raising funds to repair the roof. But the torrential rainfall of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017 finally caused serious damage to an important mural.
That mural created by John Biggers, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”. The mural, completed in 1953, was commissioned by a local Pastor and was one of Biggers most important early murals. Biggers was an important figure in Houston’s arts community. He was recruited to what was then known as the Texas State University (now Texas Southern) for Negroes in 1949 as the first director of its Art department. Ileana Najarro reported for the Houston Chronicle that:
The mural, which served as Biggers’ doctoral dissertation and features images of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, was an opportunity to recognize these women’s work.
“He told me that he wanted to give [it] as a tribute to the Negro women,” Bryant said.
To Robert Proctor, co-director and chief painting conservator for Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, the mural exemplifies Biggers’ “compositional ability to work across large space.”
Proctor, who has restored other Biggers’ paintings, noted that the artist’s unique brushstrokes and his attention to work surfaces make them some of the most difficult pieces of art to restore.
Unfortunately the leak in the roof has imperiled the mural, damaging the mural itself and causing black mold to set in.
The work has been treated to prevent further mold, but further work cannot be undertaken until the roof of the building is repaired. The Houston Endowment has offered an initial $258,000 to repair the roof, but more funds are needed.
Raynolds said that in its first four years in New York, large sheaths of granite came loose from the surface of Cleopatra’s Needle. An additional 780 pounds of stone were lost when a waterproofing company tried to stop the decay with a creosote and paraffin treatment in 1884. But the last major study of the monument, conducted by the Metropolitan Museum in 1983, found that the rate of decay had stabilized. The Parks Department says now there is no significant ongoing erosion on the obelisk.
“And yet, you know there are still signs that there’s some gradual erosion occurring on the surface,” Raynolds said, adding that you can see patches of decay where the obelisk’s native pink color appears on the surface of the stone.
So the monument is eroding, but the very eroded sections were done initially when the monument was first in New York. Mark Durney did some searching of the New York Times archives and found something similar:
[I]in May 1914, the Central Park commissioner with the help of Columbia University’s James Kemp and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s William Kuckro began extensive restorative work on the obelisk during which they removed a paraffin layer, which was added soon after the obelisk’s erection, and they added a new waterproof coating. At this time the obelisk’s condition was described as “scaling on all sides,” and, “in some sections the shaft was blank for several feet.” The NYTimes’ description from 1914 appears to appropriately describe the damage, or deterioration, similar to that which is depicted in photographs on Hawass’s blog.
So it certainly would not hurt to continue to study the conditions in New York, and the steps which can be taken to minimize damage, but my initial guess was correct. Zahi Hawass was making unfounded allegations to continue to press for the repatriation of objects. He may have a good claim for a number of objects, but that argument loses its steam when you make the same urgent calls for every object which originated in Egypt, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding its removal. Many of these individual objects carry unique circumstances, and all sides in these contentious arguments would be well-served to avoid premature or overly critical concerns.