Thursday, June 13, 2024

“Rust Happens” at Cambridge Art’s Gallery 344. (Photo: Claire Ogden)

“Rust Happens,” organized at Gallery 344 by Cambridge Arts, is an exhibition on the city’s public art conservation program and the work that makes it run. Packed with retired artworks, tools, ladders and even traffic cones, the show pulls back the curtain on the extraordinary, everyday creativity that staff employ to limit the inevitable damage to public art.

The city began commissioning public art in 1979, when it passed a Percent-for-Art ordinance, making it “one the rare communities in Massachusetts with this statutory commitment to public art and city staff devoted to its care,” the exhibition text says. That’s exciting, but Cambridge Arts reminds us that this comes with a caveat: The city now has “the largest municipal collection of contemporary public art in the region – and the maintenance responsibilities that come with it.”

Rust happens, a label reminds us, along with a cascading list of other damages. So does theft. And decay. And – gasp – graffiti.

The biggest strength of “Rust Happens” is its storytelling. The exhibition is organized around narratives of destruction. Sometimes the forces that act upon a piece are accidental. In a section dedicated to Mags Harries’ “Drawn Water” valve plate sculptures, we learn how Harries’ pieces occasionally get mistaken for the real thing and are removed by outside utility contractors. The original foundry for “Drawn Water” is no longer open, but city staff can recast missing plates at a new one  –  blessed with the foresight that predecessors had to make a rubber mold of the piece.

Other stories cross over into the tragic. Artist John Powell was long involved in the restoration process of his own “Dana Park Quotes,” but his piece with the words of poet Washington Allston went missing after his death. In trying to restore it, staff realized no blueprint files had been made. They had to re-create the piece using photographs as reference material, doing their best to approximate the font. A crucial part of conservation work, we learn, is documentation, as it helps prepare for potential damages. In recent years, staff have increased their photography efforts dramatically.

The exhibition opened March 18, but as of Monday things got more interesting with the start of the city’s eight-week Summer Conservation and Maintenance Program: The objects on view are part of the city’s own tool collection, which staff need to repair works. Department resources are limited, and there are far more public artworks than can be addressed in a given summer program. So staff need to budget their tools, time and budget to address as many pieces as possible.

“We will only remove that equipment that we need for any particular day,” director Craig Uram said. For example, there are approximately 10 public works for which the team will need to use the exhibition’s ladder. “On days when we aren’t using the ladder, it will be in the gallery. And we will use the [exhibition’s] white board to let visitors know where we will be and what we will be working on each day.”

There’s a lot going on in “Rust Happens” – to the point it’s hard to know where to look. That mirrors the work of the conservation program: In the way dozens of objects fill the walls of this small gallery, the program’s efforts make the most of this small but mighty team.

“Rust Happens” is on view through July 19 at Gallery 344. on the second floor of City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge. Free.

Share your own 150-word appreciation for a piece of visual art or art happening with photo to [email protected] with the subject line “Behold.”