Central Park is often referred to as a “living work of art.” But lesser known is its extensive collection of historic features, including architecture, statues, and other monuments—each individual artifacts of the City’s history, art, and culture.
Through these statues and monuments, visitors can pay homage to artistic legends like Shakespeare, John Lennon, or Duke Ellington, explore the magical tales of Mother Goose or Alice in Wonderland, and discover historic moments with the U.S.S. Maine National Monument, King Jagiello, or Balto. With the scope and scale of this expansive collection—the Obelisk alone is 69 feet tall and roughly 3,500 years old—how does the Central Park Conservancy preserve these important works of art? Ask our dedicated team of monument conservators.
The Unique Challenges of Preserving Central Park
The Conservancy’s expert preservation and conservation staff, alongside their annual team of summer interns, works to minimize deterioration and keep these works of art and architecture pristine year-round. With the Park’s varied landscapes and harsh urban climate, this is no small feat. While collections in more traditional museum environments (like the Met or the Guggenheim) are often carefully kept behind velvet ropes in temperature-controlled rooms, the Park’s pieces live in a free public space, constantly vulnerable to wind, rain, ice, sun, and snow.
“There’s a huge craftmanship aspect of our work that you’re not going to see in [a museum]. You’re using a blowtorch or a heavy-duty pressure washer. It’s a different experience compared to museum-type conservation,” says Matt Reiley, the Conservancy’s Manager of Conservation and Preservation and longtime facilitator of the department’s summer internship program. Given the unique technical skills and tools required, the program provides extensive safety training and emphasizes hand skills, professional guidelines, and other competencies for effective craftmanship. The Conservation team also collaborates with other Conservancy staff on vital functional tasks that fall outside the bounds of traditional conservation work, such as maintaining the fountains, preserving the rustic architecture, and removing graffiti.
“I’ve learned perseverance here. I’ve called this internship ‘Conservation Bootcamp’ before,” summer 2023 intern Angie Lopez laughs. A recent University of Delaware graduate, she says her previous experience was in labs, mostly working on paintings and photography. When she applied to work in Central Park, she wanted to build her expertise in a new environment with different materials before going on to graduate school and deciding on a specific niche to pursue—but she says she never envisioned herself in a boom lift before this summer. “This experience gives you perspective. It helps you understand different fields and be grateful for the work that you’re doing. It all has a purpose.”
Angie wasn’t the only one surprised by the range and scope of hands-on experiences this internship offered. “I never thought I’d use a chainsaw. You don’t really expect that to happen until you’re there with a chainsaw,” summer 2023 intern Talisha Ward jokes about her time spent working on the Park’s rustic architecture. Under close guidance from Matt and the Conservation team, interns practice their skills and build confidence with correctly and safely using new equipment and materials in a variety of settings.
The Preservation Conservation Theater
Given the large-scale equipment, public setting, and high-octane tasks this work often demands, conservation in Central Park presents a certain degree of drama. Matt calls the theatrical aspect of the work the “preservation conservation theater.” On the interns’ first week, for example, they were passing around a blowtorch in 90-degree heat, practicing safely melting a sacrificial coating of wax onto bronze and brushing it on to create just the right finish. When nature’s elements threaten a piece of bronze work, the wax coating will deteriorate over time, instead of the surface of the piece itself. The coating will eventually need to be reapplied.
For over five decades, the Delacorte Clock has brought joy to Park visitors with its songs and spinning bronze animals.
2023 intern Gray Danforth experienced the performance element of conservation firsthand while working on the Delacorte Clock with Preservation Foreperson Hamid Alaoui. As part of their safety procedures, the team cuts the clock’s electricity while power-washing its iconic bronze animal statues that dance every half hour. As they worked and the next half hour neared, a large crowd began to gather beneath the clock. Hamid insisted they pause their maintenance efforts and restore the clock’s power to let it chime for the eager Park visitors below.
“I was getting anxious to finish up the job. I'm like, can't we just start [the clock] early? Hamid’s like, ‘No, no, it's gotta be on time,’” Gray remembers. “Finally, he turns it on and starts dancing with it. It was a really lovely moment. If you can make somebody's day just by doing this work, that's great.”
Despite the theatrical nature of the job, spend any amount of time with these conservators, and you’ll quickly realize how much unseen labor goes into making the Park’s most beloved sites look the way New Yorkers expect them to. Next time you stroll past the Bethesda Fountain—or one of the six other ornamental fountains in the Park—imagine the mechanisms underneath or inside of it. Consider the many people who keep it bubbling peacefully year after year for the Park’s 42 million annual visitors. Though this work often goes unnoticed, that’s kind of the goal.
“The work is best measured by what doesn’t change. That’s what you’re aiming for, visually. It speaks to the continuum of care and the years of inertia it’s taken to get to this point, and to how critical this work is each year. Each new group of interns comes on and carries it forward. That’s conservation, right there,” Matt says.
Evolving for the Future
Despite the Conservancy team’s many combined years of expertise in the field, they are eager to learn from each cohort of up-and-coming conservators. Matt emphasizes that there’s no single path to this profession and that members of his team can possess a variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and ways of going about conservation.
“When I recruit folks, I’m always trying to perk up an ear for what they can bring that I don’t know,” Matt says. “What kind of innovation is going to happen this year based on our group and what their unique perspectives are?”
As the meaning of public monuments and the complex history they represent continues to evolve, the new generation of conservators continues to bring a fresh and challenging outlook to the work. Following the City’s removal of the J. Marion Sims statue from Central Park and ongoing critiques of statues like Christopher Columbus, interpretation efforts and questions about the context surrounding public art remain top-of-mind for New Yorkers and young people entering the field alike. While there exists an inherent tension between sustaining a public monument and questioning its power and history, there are also opportunities to learn, grow, and stay curious.
“I think for contested monuments, there are a lot of really interesting ways to go about it,” Gray says. “There's a lot of potential, and I think that's very exciting for the monuments field.”
These possibilities are already surfacing in Central Park. Take the Gate of the Exonerated, which acknowledges the more recent history of the Exonerated Five and honors everyone wrongly convicted of crime. Or ongoing efforts to acknowledge Seneca Village, the largest community of free African-American property owners in pre–Civil War New York whose land was seized through eminent domain to create the Park. As we continue to understand, unearth, and honor complicated and violent histories, public spaces present new chances for the community to interact with and understand the landscape in a new way.
“My favorite landscape is the Seneca Village landscape where all the plaques are. It’s cool that the Park is reckoning with its history, but also helping visitors learn more as they walk through it,” Talisha says. “We have to be real about the history, and how we interact with it. I think it's up to you as a person to decide: What you want to be curious about and how far you want to take the interrogation of this public space. That's a really beautiful part of getting to work here. Like every day, it's another interrogation: What did I know about this? What didn’t I know? What am I willing to expose myself to? It's nice when you get to learn the truth on your own terms.”
As the field continues to develop and new talent emerges, Angie says she’s hopeful that this generation will continue to invite a diverse set of people and perspectives to the profession. Her insights echo a broader sentiment that resonates beyond professional boundaries: How can we both protect this space beyond our lifetime and ensure that future generations feel welcome within it?
“I think it's nice that the field is starting to reflect the people that we're serving. Especially in a place like Central Park, where there’s everyone from everywhere—they can see themselves reflected in people who are doing the work,” Angie explains. “Like, all the little girls that were looking up at us when we were in the boom lift. It’s so cool to be able to see that. If I was a child, and I saw that, I’d be like ‘Whoa, I could do that.’ That's very valuable, and it’s something that our generation is providing.”
Amileah Sutliff is the Senior Marketing Writer & Editor at the Central Park Conservancy.
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