Heather Jackson is applying wax to an outdoor bronze sculpture in the courtyard
Heather Jackson, collections manager at the Flint Institute of Arts, applies a coat of butcher’s wax to
Eric Fischl’s Untitled: Woman Bending sculpture in the Hurand Sculpture Courtyard.

With a collection that includes more than 9,000 works of widely varying ages and materials, conservation and preservation efforts at the Flint Institute of Arts are both essential and complex. Different objects require different processes to ensure they are maintained well and the integrity of the work doesn’t change over time.

Members of the FIA’s collections and exhibitions team are tasked with regularly checking and implementing preventative measures to works that are on display and to those in storage. These processes can be expensive and time-consuming, but they’re vital to keeping the collection in good condition.

Heather Jackson, collections manager at the Flint Institute of Arts, recently completed waxing one of the FIA’s bronze sculptures that is currently displayed in the Hurand Sculpture Courtyard. Butcher’s wax, recommended by conservators, is used on the sculptures to preserve the condition of the work. 

Bronze can last indefinitely, but exposure to chemicals, temperatures, and human contact can cause deterioration. Oxidation refers to the chemical reaction of copper with the elements, which causes the color to change over time. Preventative measures are particularly important to slow down that process.

“We wax our bronze sculptures approximately yearly,” Jackson said. “Exposure to the elements can cause our outdoor sculptures to oxidize. The waxing process helps prevent condition issues, such as bronze disease and keeps the appearance of the work as the artist intended.”

Slowing down that process is vital, because if oxidation gets out of the realm of a preventative measure, a conservator would have to come in and recommend a course of action for restoration, which typically has an expensive cost associated with it.

The FIA has two outdoor bronze sculptures on display currently in the Hurand Sculpture Courtyard. Eric Fischl’s Untitled: Woman Bending sculpture, created in 1990, is part of the FIA’s permanent collection. Hubert Phipps’s Paradise, created in 2020, is on loan from the artist and was installed in 2021.

Jackson also notes that other factors can alter the look of a bronze sculpture.

“Indoors, we can control the temperature and humidity, but humans can also alter bronze,” she says. “Oils from our skin, breathing, over time, can cause damage.”

For #GivingTuesday on November 30, the FIA is raising funds to support conservation efforts. Donations to these efforts can be made online.