The front steps of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts will be missing a familiar figure this month. Alexander Calder’s eleven-feet-tall metal sculpture “The Red Feather” will be removed and packed for transit on July 13, where it will undergo a three-month restoration and repainting process in Virginia.
The sculpture was last repainted in 2002. Kentucky Center vice president Abby Shue says the piece has suffered some weathering – some corrosion on the metal, paint chipping and even a small amount of graffiti – but she describes the sculpture’s current maintenance needs as routine.
“Over time, public art needs to be maintained. So we are really taking a hard look at all of our pieces, both indoor and outdoor, and making sure we are great stewards to our collection,” says Shue. “We have an annual budget for art maintenance and we prioritize the different needs that our collection has.”
The Center’s well-lit and busy entrance tends to keep most vandalism at bay, but it’s still an occupational hazard for a piece of public art.
“You can only control so much who’s going to come by and what they’re going to do to your piece. We have a little bit of graffiti, some etchings – people write their names, things like that – and obviously the weather,” says Shue. “And over time, in general, paint fades and might chip.”
The process is being supervised by Emily Hamilton, a conservator from the St. Louis Art Museum who has overseen the restoration of several Calder pieces. Hamilton will travel with the sculpture to the American Stripping Company in Manassas, Virginia, which has extensive experience restoring Calder’s sculptures. The piece will return to Louisville, refreshed and repainted, in October. Hamilton has been working on the piece’s treatment plan with the Calder Foundation and the Pace Gallery in New York, where the piece was originally purchased.
“They have standards in terms of the kinds of paints that can be used, the way it can be applied, the way the piece needs to be taken apart and put back together,” says Shue. “As good stewards of the piece itself and the Calder Foundation, we need to make sure we’re adhering to those standards.”
“The Red Feather” was a gift to the Center from the Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. Fund and the Humana Foundation. Shue says that Kentucky Center also relies on expertise from community partners, namely the Speed Art Museum and nearby Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and 21C Museum Hotel, to help the center tend to and promote its visual art. The Center’s collection also includes “Personnage,” a sculpture by Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, “Faribolus and Perceval,” the iconic red and black figures by Jean Dubuffet that stood sentry on the center’s steps until they moved inside to escape the elements a few years ago, and Tony Smith’s “Gracehoper,” which is on loan to the Waterfront Development Corporation (who assumes responsibility for maintenance for the duration of the loan).
“We have about 500,000 people in our building every year. So while we’re by no means a visual art museum, we want to be sure that everyone in our building knows what’s around them and can learn more about the artists and their pieces,” she says.