Preservation Magazine, Spring 2017

Restoring a Joan Miró Mosaic at Wichita State University

Personnages Oiseaux

photo by: Justin Grotrian

More than 150,000 marble and Venetian glass pieces, or tesserae, make up Personnages Oiseaux, the mosaic that spans the southern facade of Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art. Designed by renowned Spanish Surrealist artist Joan Miró, the mosaic measures a remarkable 28 feet high by 52 feet wide—so when it was removed for conservation in 2011, its absence was noticeable. This fall, the university community was finally able to celebrate its return.

The mosaic exists thanks to the museum’s founding director, Martin H. Bush, who convinced Miró to take on the project in 1974. It was fabricated on 80 separate panels at glass studio Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, shipped to the United States, installed at Wichita State, and unveiled on October 31, 1978.

After three decades of exposure to the elements, Personnages Oiseaux began showing signs of wear. Conservators with Russell-Marti Conservation Services, a Missouri-based firm that has worked with the university on its outdoor sculpture collection since 1995, had been re-adhering loose or fallen tesserae for years. In 2007, the museum’s then-director, Patricia McDonnell, asked the firm to devise a full conservation plan, which took three years of studying and testing different methods and materials. The first few panels of the mosaic were removed in the fall of 2011 and transported to the Russell-Marti studios five hours away.

The conservators worked with Ateliers Loire to produce replacements for missing or broken tesserae. They removed the mosaic’s original backing, which was made of marine-grade particleboard that had cracked and deteriorated in Kansas’ extreme temperatures, and replaced it with a perforated stainless steel panel. They cleaned each individual tessera using scalpels, brushes, and dental tools. Reinstallation began in September 2016. And on October 30, 2016, nearly 38 years to the date of its original unveiling, the university hosted a community block party to honor the completed restoration.

“It was bittersweet,” says Marianne Russell Marti, president of Russell-Marti. “After five years, we miss having all the parts of the mosaic lying around our studio.”

More than half of the $2.2 million undertaking was funded through private donations. Additional funding came from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“To realize that a work of art can generate broad support, all in the name of creativity and creating a dynamic campus environment, means so much,” says the Ulrich Museum’s current director, Bob Workman, who helped with the mosaic’s initial installation as a WSU graduate working at the museum in 1978. “This is a world-class object, and we will take care of it.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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