The Ringling’s David statue is 100-plus years old. How does the museum keep it forever young?

·5 min read
Workers used an 80-foot, articulated lift to clean and refresh the David statue at The Ringling Museum of Art.
Workers used an 80-foot, articulated lift to clean and refresh the David statue at The Ringling Museum of Art.

At the dawn of the 20th century, John Ringling bought a cast-bronze replica of Michelangelo’s original statue of David from the Chiurrazi Foundry in Italy. He later installed it in the courtyard of what would become The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Despite hurricanes and the shifting winds of Florida politics, David has remained there ever since. He’s looking pretty youthful for 100-plus years. That’s no accident. The iconic sculpture has been lovingly cared for – but only in the last few decades.

“The museum didn’t initially have a conservation program,” said Emily Brown, The Ringling’s conservator of sculpture and decorative arts. “We only started our conservation maintenance treatments in the 1980s.”

Those treatments have continued to this day. Brown and her conservation team now give David special care. But he’s not alone. Their care extends to all of The Ringling’s sculpture and decorative art. The museum’s exterior pieces need tender loving care.

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What happens in a conservation treatment?

According to Brown, regular conservation treatments are vital for The Ringling’s outdoor artwork. They’re delightful to look at under the Florida sun – and constantly exposed to a barrage of corrosive elements. Thanks to the museum’s bayfront site, that includes sun, salt, rain and biological agents. Without constant attention, these pieces wouldn’t stay delightful for very long.

Workers thoroughly clean the David statue at The Ringling, before sealing it with a protective layer, in a process comparable to washing and waxing a car.
Workers thoroughly clean the David statue at The Ringling, before sealing it with a protective layer, in a process comparable to washing and waxing a car.

What exactly happens in a conservation treatment?

For a metal sculpture like David, it’s a lot like washing and waxing a car. First the art object is thoroughly cleaned; then it’s sealed with a protective layer. While museum conservation is far more complicated, the logic behind it is the same. And we all know what happens to your shiny new car if you stop going to the car wash.

Before long, it’s not so shiny and new anymore.

What’s true for a Lamborghini is also true for a 16.5-foot bronze sculpture.

In normal times, David’s makeovers happen like clockwork. But life in the time of COVID is hardly normal. The pandemic stopped David’s conservation clock for nearly two years. By the summer of 2022, David was looking a tad less youthful.

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According to Brown, David’s last major conservation treatment was in July of 2018. Depending on the whims of weather, he should get regular maintenance treatments roughly every three years to keep him in good shape.

“David was due for a maintenance treatment in 2021,” Brown explains. “Unfortunately the impact of COVID-19 delayed our funding and we had to put it off. By the beginning of this summer, he was really overdue.” The upcoming storm season was another ticking clock, she said. To beat the summer rains, David’s treatment couldn’t wait any longer.

In June, The Ringling tapped Mike Weinbrecht and Meghan Page from EverGreene Architectural Arts to do the three-day job. Bringing their heavy equipment inside the museum’s courtyard wasn’t an option. Instead, Page and Weinbrecht parked their 80-foot, articulated lift just outside the courtyard – and right next to David. That gave the two conservators in the lift platform total access to the sculpture’s entire area.

Mike Weinbrecht and Meghan Page of EverGreene Architectural Arts Conservators use a lift to clean and refurbish the David statue that stands over the courtyard of The Ringling Museum of Art.
Mike Weinbrecht and Meghan Page of EverGreene Architectural Arts Conservators use a lift to clean and refurbish the David statue that stands over the courtyard of The Ringling Museum of Art.

‘We want David to still look good 100 years from now’

First, they cleaned David from top to bottom with jets of hot water from a pressure washer. They blasted off all the old protective wax, stains, dirt, copper deposits, and corrosion. Small hand tools and solvents removed any stubborn elements the pressure hose didn’t. The next step involved the gentle application of chemicals to create a corrosion-resistant, and perfectly even patina. The finishing touch? A protective coating of darkly colored wax to seal everything in place.

Thanks to his latest conservation treatment, David is looking good again. He still doesn’t look his age.

But David’s makeover goes beyond surface appearance. It’s really about structural integrity. And it’s what inside that counts.

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“Our goal is museum-quality conservation,” Brown says. “The bronze sculpture is in excellent shape for being more than a century old. Yes, he looks good. But we want David to still look good 100 years from now.”

Making that happen will require a team effort spanning decades. Ideally, the sculpture’s conservation treatments will continue at roughly three-year intervals. After a decade or two, The Ringling’s current conservation team will hand the responsibility off to the next generation. Then they’ll pass it on to the team that follows.

According to Brown, that’s exactly what The Ringling’s conservators intend to do. Barring climate change, wars, asteroids, or a tsunami, I have no reason to doubt it.

Thanks to The Ringling’s ongoing commitment to conservation, David should remain forever young.

The Ringling is at 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. ringling.org

Read more visual arts stories by Marty Fugate.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: David statue at The Ringling gets spruced up and protected