Preserving Our Art Spaces

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Some of America’s most interesting art isn’t hanging in a museum.

For most people, the phrase “art preservation” usually conjures the image of someone cleaning varnish off a worn painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or contemporary artists touching up a Renaissance fresco.

The common denominator to those images is the role that traditional showcases of fine art—like museums, galleries, and cathedrals—play in dictating what’s worth preserving. The truth is, though, that the vast majority of creative expressions never make it into one of those showcases, which means that there is a lot of potentially great art at constant risk of disappearing forever.

This is especially true in the United States, where some of the most interesting creative expressions you’ll ever encounter aren’t confined by the walls of a museum or gallery. From trucks in trees in Wisconsin to a gold pyramid house in Illinois to bizarre yard sculptures in Kansas, there’s likely something creatively interesting to appreciate within a short drive of wherever you live. Most of the time, this art is produced by people who don’t consider themselves artists, but are nonetheless driven by a deep desire to create. Regardless of how they identify with the art world, their work can often be just as moving as anything hanging in a museum. But because it’s being used or displayed outside in their yard, it’s often diminished to the point of novelty and rarely considered worthy of preservation. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Writing in Landscape Architecture Magazine (December 2013), Kevan Williams looks at how different communities have taken on the often times arduous task of preserving the local work of self-taught artists that fall outside of the mainstream. One example Williams cites is the new permanent home for the whimsical and mesmerizing whirligigs of popular North Carolina artist Vollis Simpson, which organizers hope will become a template for other communities to follow for preserving their local art:

Aside from the physical challenges to preservation that Williams points out in his article, one of the biggest obstacles I see to motivating a community to preserve its local art the Wilson County/Vollis Simpson way is appreciation of the art itself. We live in a society where people are more interested in being told what to value and appreciate rather than rely on their own opinions and preferences to make those judgments. In the mainstream art world, this dictatorial control manifests itself in the process of labeling and categorizing. It may seem innocuous to label the work of the untrained artist as “folk art,” “naïve art,” or, if they’re mentally unstable, “outsider art.” But what we’re effectively doing by allowing these categorizations to continue is make it easier for the public to view the work of formally trained artists as more valuable and worthy of preservation, reducing the rest to novelty or misunderstood nonsense.

One non-profit organization that’s been trying to change that is SPACES. An acronym for Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, SPACES’ mission is to catalog and document as many unconventional art spaces as possible such as Simpson’s whirligig park, Isaiah Zagar’s elaborate urban mosaics, and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, just to name a few. Through its website, SPACES hopes to educate people about the artists behind these unique places, and demonstrate that formal training isn’t a prerequisite for producing lasting and preservation-worthy works of art. 

Image by Government and Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina, licensed under Creative Commons

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at

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