Public Art in Detroit

Venus Bronze Works, Inc.

Putting the Shine on Detroit Statuary

Public sculpture plays a vital role towards establishing the character of a place. The pieces can attract visitors and at the same time become important aspects of the local landscape. However, left unprotected from the forces of nature and acts of vandalism, these beacons of culture can end up in a state of neglect that directly reflects upon the city or institution that erected them. As the commercial says, "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

Giorgio Gikas is the founder and president of Venus Bronze Works, Inc., Center for Conservation of Detroit, one of the handful of companies in the country that specialize in outdoor sculptural conservation. Some museums and private institutions have their own in-house conservation staff, but for everyone else, companies like Venus ensure that the heads, arms, and other parts of sculptures stay intact. Given the unique skills required for this job, and the fact that the weather is always, well, weathering, there is a constant need for Gikas' services.

Gikas opened his Detroit-based business in 1984. Although only 26 at the time, he was already experienced in the sculpture business. Gikas' family hails from sculpturally-rich Greece, where they have been casting bronze for four generations. Through the family business and under the tutelage of his uncle Constadinos Klouvatos, one of the most well-known sculptors in Greece, Gikas came to know the ins and outs of sculpture..

Sculture conservators do far more than just clean, wax, polish, and paint. Their job requires sculptural skills, scientific expertise, construction know-how, and an understanding of art history. Much of their work is done on site, and in those instances they must often wear the hat of a construction worker. Gikas recounted a job repairing the figure of "Miss Wisconsin" perched atop the cupola of the state capitol in Madison. High above the ground, he and his crew worked with delicate gold leaf while clinging to their scaffolding in the face of 50 mile an hour gusting winds.

Gikas' crew recently dealt with a badly damaged statue of Abraham Lincoln that had stood on the grounds of the Detroit Public Library's downtown branch. They restored the original sculpture, which will find a more protected home indoors when the library reopens. Simultaneously they created a more durable duplicate which has already been installed on the site where the original once stood. To accomplish this job they had to work as sculptor and historian in order to best recreate what the artist had originally intended.
Gikas doesn't sees his work as simply restoration because, as he says, "we can never really know what a piece looked like originally." The task then becomes to preserve the sculpture from further deterioration and maintain an aesthetic quality. Thus the conservator is not only concerned with the state of the sculpture itself, but also with its setting. As an example, Gikas discusses Marshall Fredricks' quite precise ideas about the grounds his "Spirit of Detroit" inhabits. Fredricks' plans never included a fence or a flower garden (nor one assumes a giant sports jersey) all things which have been added to the statue in recent years. The conservator's role, Gikas asserts, is not only to look out for an artist's work, but also to protect the artist's vision.

The staff of Venus Bronze keeps busy in Detroit, across the country and at times has travelled abroad to render their hard-to-come-by services. From his experience with cities and sculptures, Gikas observes : "there is not one great city in the world that doesn't have a mass transit system, and a program for sculptural conservation and maintenance, as well as (a program for) the acquisition of new pieces."

As he lists cities across the country and abroad that have tended to their cultural vitality, Detroit is noticeably absent. Gikas cites Cranbrook as an institution which has kept its art collection spotless, for "they know that that is their beauty to preserve for generations." As Detroit tries to recast its own tarnished image, it would do well to heed Gikas' words. - Nick Sousanis

Venus Bronze Works is located in Detroit, and can be reached for further information @ (313)891-5151

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