A Public (Art) Notice

How can public art be made more sustainable? This collaboration among the Synthetic Collective, Centre for Sustainable Curating, Evergreen Brick Works, and The Bentway took place in the warm spring of 2023, and coalesced around a series of conversations with architects, public art commissioners, conservators, artists, curators, and arts managers, leading to in-depth discussion of what sustainability means for public art.. The conversations led to this initial list of best practices and an idea that sustainable public art reflects and nourishes the communities that live with it, causing no harm in its making or presence.  

Often, public art is defined as permanent and unchanging. We resist this notion. Increasingly, public art works are temporary or performative. But even monuments and statues are always changing due to exposure to unpredictable weather, as well as the whims of passersby, pets, salt trucks, construction, graffiti, and relentless processes of chemical and physical degradation. Public art works are never static. They disperse, rust, break, crack, and degrade.

Public art responds and also is responsive to its environs. Temporary or permanent, it is connected to land, air, water, and community. Sometimes it is welcomed for its ability to create place for community. Other times it is deeply critiqued. Public art can be a signal of displacement, upholding developer agendas and, in the words of the artist and activist Judith Baca, providing “something beautiful to stand in for the loss of public space.” In considering public artworks, the colonial histories of the land must be acknowledged. Sustainability must consider all of these elements, with the understanding that public art is many things: a memory made static, a beautiful stand in, possibly a rock where it already is.

This Public (Art) Notice opens a conversation and shares an initial list of best practices in order to encourage sustainable approaches to the making of public art. 

Sustainable choices aren’t always clear. Sharing knowledge is key.


Build capacity (and expense lines!) to support the administration and background labour involved in making projects less wasteful and more sustainable. Making public art sustainable requires system changes in the commissioning, budgeting, and management.

Consider the carbon footprint of shipping material choices, especially for large-scale art works. Choose local where possible.  

Consider if degradation can be built into the project. How long does the work need to last?

Create an afterlife plan for the work: does it tour to locales within a reasonable distance to amplify the artist’s work and sustain them through additional artist fees? Does it get installed again somewhere else in the city? Can local partnerships be forged to donate used materials? Can a circular economy of material exchange amongst artists and organizations be supported?

Research the forms of extraction, manufacture and/or emissions that are embedded in materials. 

Invest in quality material options that enable repurposing. For example, high-quality screws allow for easier removal and re-use of wood.

Reserve some of the budget for a future maintenance plan and/or allow for the use of ephemeral, eco-friendly, and reused materials.

Be as involved as possible in the making of the work. Communicate goals clearly with fabricators and actively research sustainable alternatives. Outsourcing to fabricators is often necessary for the scale involved, but it can result in the cheapest method taking precedence over the most sustainable.

For performance or event-based works, create budgets, environments, and generate resources that prioritize the needs and safety of performers and audiences.

Practice reciprocity. As a traveling artist, do not be opportunistic or extractive of local communities. 


PLASTICS will not last well (migration of additives, oxidation, hydrolysis). In outdoor environments, weathering can cause discolouration, cracks, and crazing. This includes fiberglass and spray foam insulations.

STEEL and CONCRETE have very high embodied energy (meaning the total sum of energy required throughout all stages of a material’s production). If using stainless steel, high grade 316 lasts the longest compared to lower grade stainless or mild steel. If using concrete, think carefully about how it could be used more minimally/efficiently, or, if structurally feasible, replaced entirely with reclaimed concrete blocks or concrete alternatives (such as natural plasters or hempcrete).

PAINT is often a form of plastic and can fade and break down into microplastics over time. If it must be used, can it be repaired and sourced in the future?

POWDER COATING is plastic-based and chips easily. Repairing requires the entire piece to be sandblasted and coated again in a specialized facility; spot-touches are not possible.

ANTI-SLIP measures are a requirement for certain public artworks that get walked upon. When designing pedestrian surfaces, avoid the use of coatings by integrating anti-slip treads and patterns.

NATURAL MATERIALS can have a big impact. Local rock is an excellent example of a long lasting, low maintenance, sustainable alternative. Mass timber is also gaining in popularity (although it involves polymer-based glue and industrial processing). Consider reclaimed hardwoods from damaged trees if available.

This page is a living document. Check back frequently for additions!


Conservation Considerations on Sustainable Public Art  

By conservator Melissa Allen 

Relating to graffiti and other forms of damage:

Some research has demonstrated that the most effective way of preventing graffiti is removing it as quickly as possible (Teng et al., 2016). This has led to the opinion among some practicing public art conservators that to leave or embrace graffiti will encourage the addition of more graffiti. That is to say that if a person sees that graffiti has been applied and not removed, they are encouraged in the thought that their intervention will also remain intact and visible. However, these types of reactive measures aren’t considered effective long term solutions (Shobe and Banis, 2014), and the reality is that many graffiti removal techniques and/or coatings are damaging to the environment.  For this, among other reasons, there has been a push in the field towards proactive as opposed to reactive management tactics (Huntington, 2018). 

There are, of course, many different forms of graffiti that will require different means to address them, some of which hold more potential for embracing the damage caused than others. There is encouraging research on the concepts of prevention through design and the balance of accepting ‘use damage’ such as that caused by skateboarding on public art (Wiggin and Bicknell, 2011). This relates strongly to the ideas put forward considering if degradation can be built into the project; “sustainable public art is probably not that which lasts unchanging.” This concept is key when considering a conservation perspective because the goals of an art conservation effort are greatly impacted by the intentions of the artist and other stakeholders.  

However, there will also undoubtedly arise some occasions where proactive and/or preventative graffiti management fails and interventions are deemed unacceptable. The reality of these outcomes should not be ignored. If, for instance, the graffiti is profane or relates to hostile targeting of a person/culture/religion it needs to be removed immediately. It will therefore still serve the community to consider those factors relating to which products may be the most appropriate for graffiti removal. Despite their issues, anti-graffiti coatings are generally divided into two broad categories of sacrificial and semi-permanent or permanent. They are both used as ways of reducing the need for economically and environmentally taxing removal or replacement if these products aren’t used. Further it could serve to reinforce the importance of following best practices regarding waste management and disposal when using more ‘traditional’ solvents or alkalis for graffiti removal.  

Protective Anti-Graffiti Coatings
Generally considered not very economical, effective or environmentally friendly (Huntington, 2018) (Teng et al., 2016) (Baalousha et al., 2016)
Sacrificial (intended to be removed with cleaning)often polymers like acrylates, biopolymers   and waxes (Huntington, 2018)Semi-Permanent/Permanent (not intended to be removed with cleaning)often polysaccharides, polyurethanes, silicon resins or fluorinated polymers (Huntington, 2018)
Cons: needs to be re-applied regularly Cons: can cause undesired changes in appearance of the work (such as colour) 
Graffiti Melt: paraffin wax sacrificial coating, does not appear to be sufficiently researched to fully support biodegradable claims at this time Conflicting research into the nanomaterial-based antigrafiti coatings as to if they could be an ‘ecological’ graffiti coating remover (Bartman et al., 2023) or may pose latent threats (Baalousha et al., 2016). 

Some specific material considerations: 


  • Generally accurate that they do not last well, especially outdoors. Of course, that will vary based on type of plastic and environment; some will have better longevity than others. Both fabricators and conservators should be consulted when considering plastic materials for outdoor works 

Steel and Concrete  

  • High embodied energy (Lenzen and Treloar, 2001)  
  • High grade 316 stainless steel often selected for outdoor sculptures due to higher corrosion resistance as compared to lower grade stainless or mild steel (Considine et al., 2010)

Paint and Powder Coatings

  • Considerations around touch ups are relevant and important 
  • Sometimes extra paint is saved for the purpose, or as is mentioned knowledge of where to source more is noted. However, also relevant to consider is the reality of how a weathered paint will differ in appearance than the same paint freshly applied 
  • See list of resources for as it applies to specific materials and what is required for needed for treatment 


Baalousha, Mohammed, Y. Yang, M.E. Vance, B.P. Colman, S. McNeal, J. Xu, J. Blaszczak, M. Steele, E. Bernhardt and M.F. Hochella Jr. 2016. “Outdoor urban nanomaterials: The emergence of a new, integrated, and critical field of study.” Science of the Total Environment 557-558 (July): 740-753. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.03.132

Bartman, Marcin, Sebastian Balicki, Lucyna Hołysz, Kazimiera A. Wilk. 2023. “Graffiti coating eco-remover developed for sensitive surfaces by using an optimized high-pressure homogenization process.” Colloids and Surfaces A: Physicochemical and Engineering Aspects 659 (February). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.colsurfa.2022.130792

Beerkens, Lydia, and Tom Learner. 2014. Conserving Outdoor Painted Sculpture: Proceedings from the Interim Meeting of the Modern Materials and Contemporary Art Working Group of ICOM-CC, Köller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, June 4–5, 2013. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute. http://hdl.handle.net/10020/gci_pubs/conserv_outdoor_painted

Considine, Brian, Julie Wolfe, Katrina Posner, and Michel Bouchard. 2010. Conserving Outdoor 

Sculpture: The Stark Collection at the Getty Center. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute. 

Eds. Croft, Catherine, Susan Macdonald and Gail Ostergren. 2019. Concrete: Case Studies in 

Conservation Practice. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Fife, Gwendoline R., 2021. Greener Solvents in Conservation: An Introductory Guide. London: Archetype Publications Ltd. 

Herriges, Marina. 2022.“Climate Change: Conservation Education is Key to this Agenda”. IIC News in Conservation, no. 89 (April-May) 52-56.

Huntington, David. 2018. “Sustainable graffiti management solutions for public areas.” SAUC-Street Art and Urban Creativity 4, no. 1 (November): 46-74.

Lenzen, M. and Treloar, G., 2002. “Embodied energy in buildings: wood versus concrete–reply to Borjesson and Gustavsson” Energy Policy 30, no.3 (February): 249-255, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0301-4215(01)00142-2.

Nagy, Eleonora E. 2004. “The Maladies of Mill-Produced Metal in Modern Art.” Studies in Conservation 49 (2): 67–72. https://doi-org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1179/sic.2004.49.s2.015. 

Naudé, Virginia and Glenn Wharton. 1995. Guide to the Maintenance of Outdoor Sculpture

Washington, DC: American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. 

Pozo-Antonio., J.S., T. Rivas, M.P. Fiorucci, A.J. López, A.Ramil. 2016. “Effectiveness and harmfulness evaluation of graffiti cleaning by mechanical, chemical and laser procedures on granite.” Microchemical Journal 125 (March): 1-9. 

Sanmartin, Patricia, Francesca Cappitelli and Ralph Mitchell. 2014. “Current Methods of Graffiti Removal: A Review” Construction and Building Materials 71 (August): 363-374. DOI:10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2014.08.093

Shobe, Hunter and David Banis. 2014. “Zero Graffiti for a Beautiful City: The Cultural Politics of Urban Space in San Francisco” Urban Geography 35, no. 4 (April): 586-607. DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2014.900961

Teng, Hualiang, Puli, A., Kutela, B., Ni, Y. and Hu, B. 2016. “Cost and Benefit Evaluation of Graffiti Countermeasures on the Nevada Highways. Journal of Transportation Technologies 6, no.5 (October 2016): 360-377. doi:10.4236/jtts.2016.65031.

Van Oosten, Thea B. 2022. Properties of Plastics: A Guide for Conservators. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. 

Van Oosten, Thea B., Lydia Beerkens, Ana Cudell, Anna Laganà, and Rita Veiga. 2022. “Front Matter.” In Properties of Plastics: A Guide for Conservators, 1–4. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. https://doi.org/10.2307/jj.4908205.1.

Wiggin, Vanessa Roth and Leanne Bicknell. 2011. “To us these things are more: skateboarding and public art.” AICCM Bulletin 32 (1):163-170, DOI: 10.1179/bac.2011.32.1.020

Other Possibly Useful Resources for Material Related Inquires

Materials Information & Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA)  


Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO)



The Centre for Sustainable Curating and Synthetic Collective would like to acknowledge the following:

Melissa Allen, Emily Cadotte, Suzanne Carte, Sarah Charette, Kari Cwynar, Anna Gallagher Ross, Andrew Hoekstra, Ella Hough, Charlene K. Lau, Christine Leu, Katie Lawson, Celeste Meledath, Deborah Wang, & Alan Webb