Fate of Madison’s Oldest Piece of Public Art Undecided

The fate of the City’s oldest piece of art will soon be decided, but the Madison Arts Commission wants to hear from you first. In this case, time is of the essence. The fountain was constructed between 1917 and 1925 as a memorial to charitable community member' Annie C. Stewart, who died of suicide in1905.

Frederick J. Clasgens created the fountain, which poured water from two triton’s on other side of a mermaid from their conch shells into smaller basins of water. But the piece was repeatedly vandalized as far back as the 1930’s and the tritons are now missing completely.

In addition to vandalism, Wisconsin weather has further degraded the condition of what is left of the fountain, leaving the piece nearly beyond repair.

Over the years, many neighborhood groups have attempted to conserve and repair the City’s best example of public art from the Victorian era. At one point, cracks in the stone foundation were filled in with concrete. That repair ultimately weakened the structure when freeze-thaw cycles expanded the concrete filler and further cracked the original basin.

City staff have been meeting with a small, but dedicated, group of neighbors for several years to determine the best path forward. For the last several years, the Parks Division has covered the sculpture in winter to protect it from extreme weather in an attempt to minimize the damage.

Over the last year, Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio, Inc. (CSOS), a Chicago-based consultant group, has been assessing various options for our community to consider. CSOS used Ground Penetrating Radar and 3D Laser Scanning (LiDAR) technology to determine the condition of the structure and foundation. CSOS then presented conservation options, outlined some of the pros and cons of each approach, and shared their estimates of what each option may cost. (see 6-square grid in the survey & link to the CSOS Powerpoint about the project).

This conservation project is not a simple one to decide. There are many issues to consider and voices to be heard before a final decision is made. Here is what we’ve heard from community members so far.

Most people believe that because the Annie Stewart Fountain is the oldest piece of public art in our City it should be preserved in some form or fashion. Some see the piece as the City’s only memorial for someone who suffered from mental illness and believe that aspect of the piece should be highlighted.

However, there is also heightened sensitivity to the fact that Madison has very little representational work that commemorates the lives of people of color. This makes some wonder if it is justified to conduct a large private-public partnership to raise funds for this sculpture in honor of another white citizen, presumably from an affluent family.

Others have pointed out that the location of the fountain, adjacent to the Vilas Park Mound Group, would not be permitted to be placed in that location by current standards and should be removed from this location out of respect to the cultural and historical significance of the site. The Vilas Park Mound Group (catalogued site  DA-0148) was designated a local landmark in 1990 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 because of its noteworthy heritage.  

The City is committed to making a decision that aligns with the wishes and desires of Madison residents. We want to hear from as many people as possible so please consider taking this short, 5 question survey. It won’t take more than a few minutes.

We could also use your help spreading the word – please send to any Madison residents you know. The deadline to complete the survey is March 20, 2023.