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Teamwork Saves a Great Work of Art for Houston’s Future August 22, 2019

By The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Tags: conservation, art, hurricane-harvey, john-biggers, mural, preservation

blog post / Harvey mural

A view of the iconic mural after Hurricane Harvey and before conservation. 
John Biggers, The Contribution of the Negro Woman in American Life and Education, 1953, oil on plaster.

Recently, the Qatar Harvey Fund donated $4.98 million to the Blue Triangle community center in Houston’s historic Third Ward. The funds will further the restoration and preservation of a monumental mural by iconic Houston artist John Biggers.

The Contribution of the Negro Woman in American Life and Education has been the Blue Triangle’s touchstone for half a century. In 2017, leaks caused by Hurricane Harvey’s rains nearly destroyed this important work of art. Thanks to the dedication of the Blue Triangle community, along with early intervention efforts by MFAH art conservators and now the Qatar Harvey Fund, the mural’s preservation is assured.

On the storm’s second anniversary, we asked the Museum’s Steve Pine, senior conservator of decorative arts, to recall the art rescue effort in the days after Harvey.

How did you first learn about the damage to the Biggers mural?
The call for help came September 6, 2017, from our trustee Sarah Trotty. She was aware of the restoration work that I had done after Hurricane Ike through TX-CERA (Texas Collections Emergency Response Alliance), and the support that the Museum has given to the region’s arts communities for mitigation of loss after natural disasters.

When you went to take a look that afternoon, what was the condition of the mural?
It was really in a sad state. The entire wall was saturated from a leak in the roof, and the mortar itself was becoming very soft. Black, brown, and green mold spots had started to grow over large sections.

David Bomford, chairman of conservation (left) and Soni Bomford, senior paintings conservator, examine the mural.

What decisions did you and the Museum’s team make to shore things up in the short term?
We took down plastic sheets that had covered the mural, and put out some fans—those were the resources we had at the moment. At least we could start moving some of the air to start some drying. Then, the Museum coordinated with our construction company, McCarthy, to patch the roof. Our conservators, led by Soni Bomford, started putting tissue facing on the fragile sections to stabilize them. We opened holes on the wall on the other side to make a preferential route for water and moisture to drive them away from the painting instead of through it. We got it to be stable, to buy time, until the dedicated conservator, Scott Haskens, could be hired for the project.

How does it look now?
It looks wonderful! You can’t tell that there was any damage.

What can you say about the significance of Blue Triangle and the importance of preserving this part of its history?
It’s amazing, this continuity. Blue Triangle has existed for most of the 20th century and now, the 21st century. It has been a hub of education and community spirit. Generations of young women have seen this mural and have been empowered, too. It was just the right thing to do. It’s a great work of art. It’s a great way of supporting the greater community. You wanted to do a little extra for if you could.

• “John Biggers Mural in Houston Receives Conservation Treatment” —Glasstire & Houston Public Media
• “Twist of Harvey Fate Brings ‘Catalytic’ Cultural Funding to Houston” —Houston Chronicle
• “Mural Conservation of a National Treasure in Houston” —Fine Art Conservation Laboratories