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CAC Welcomes Rika Smith McNally
Public Art Conservator


Rika Smith McNally at DeCordova
When you come across Public Art, you won't encounter a "Do Not Touch" sign, picture frame or glass case, the watchful eye of a security guard or climate-controlled space. Permanent public artworks are completely open to the environment in which they "live."

Cambridge's Public Art collection began in the 1970s, and has grown into the largest contemporary public art collection in Massachusetts. The collection boasts over 180 works and counting! The City of Cambridge has been recognized as a national leader in the field of Conservation and Maintenance for its continual and preventative care of the art. As part of these efforts, the Arts Council is proud to announce that Rika Smith McNally, who has been a consultant to the agency for the last twelve years, has recently joined the CAC staff.

Having extensive experience in the field of Conservation and Maintenance, Rika Smith McNally, BFA, MS, FAIC, previously worked as a conservator at the Harvard University Art Museums, and opened her private practice in 1995. Her clients include major museums, outdoor sculpture gardens, government agencies, and artists. The conservation of Public Art is her passion, and she looks forward to her new role in Cambridge.

We spoke to Rika about the very hands-on work, challenges and excitement that are all part of preserving Cambridge's ever-growing and diverse collection of contemporary Public Art.


How did you get started in the field of Conservation and Maintenance of Public Art?

Rika: During graduate school and my early career working in art museums, I was always attracted to the materials and techniques of art-making, and often wished it possible to know more about how a work of art was made or to even meet the artist. An early mentor encouraged me to pursue an interest in outdoor sculpture, and when the arts council contacted me for advice more than a decade ago I quickly realized I had found the perfect career: science and art, the outdoors, and working with contemporary artists.


The City of Cambridge has a vast collection of public art stretching throughout the City, ranging from murals to sculpture and other three-dimensional forms in sizes large and small. How do you manage the care of so many different pieces with such divergent needs? What other City departments do you work with to implement the C & M plan?

Rika: Well, from a practical point of view we use a data-base and constantly updated electronic image files, but there is a lot more to it than that. Before a new work of art is installed, we carry out a Pre-Fabrication Review to go over all materials and create a maintenance plan with the artist and the City. We also have contacts all over the City to let us know if there is a problem. Our planning works well, although we are occasionally challenged with issues of vandalism and graffiti.

The Public Art Program at the Cambridge Arts Council is completely immersed with other departments in the City and members of the community, from the City Manager's Office, the Department of Public Works, Community Development Dept, schools, Commission for Persons with Disabilities, Human Services to local neighborhood groups and small business owners.

 

Such a large part of C & M is understanding the composition and decomposition of materials both old and new. Is C & M more science than art or a true mix? How do the two fields intersect?

Rika: It is indeed a mix. The science part is really a tool to use for assessment and planning (paint technology, corrosion rates, vibration mitigation, chemically unstable materials) but an understanding of the artist's intent and documenting that intent is critical.


What is the biggest threat to the life of a public art piece? What's your advice on defending against this threat?

Rika: The biggest threat is actually lack of planning and dialogue about maintenance needs and longevity. Public artists already know their work will be faced with weather, pollution, and the daily life of the city, so those obvious threats are an inherent part of their work. What we need is planning to make sure the art is made well, or as well to last as long as the artist wants it to, and that it is continually maintained, which requires attention and funding.


What's the most exciting part of your job?

Rika: Without doubt, it's working with the artists as they create and affect public space here in Cambridge.


What's the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a city or an artist concerning public art?

Rika: I would give them the same advice: be open to new ideas, listen well, work collaboratively.

 



Interviewed: March 2010

Photo: Rika Smith McNally/Peter Haines' bronze Hand at the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum. Photo: Zach Gabbard