Whimsical fountain at botanic garden may be removed

The multicolored Rosalie Doolittle Fountain at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden has deteriorated to the point where city officials are now considering removing it. (Jon Austria/ Albuquerque Journal)

It took the creation of 4,000 handmade ceramic tiles of cottonwood leaves and flower motifs and two years of installation before the Rosalie Doolittle Fountain at the ABQ BioPark’s Botanic Garden began flowing in 1996.

The whimsical, curvilinear fountain with incorporated bench space for seating, was artist Shel Neymark’s first large public art project, for which he was paid $50,000 from the city’s Public Art Program.

Jump ahead 27 years and the multi-colored fountain, prominently located near the entrance to the Botanic Garden, has physically deteriorated to the point where it is now being considered for decommissioning and removal.

Artist Shel Neymark designed and created the Rosalie Doolittle Fountain near the entrance of the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden. The fountain is now being considered for decommissioning and removal. (Courtesy Shel Neymark)

Neymark said this week that he is not happy that the fountain was allowed to deteriorate and he’s not convinced that it is beyond repair.

After multiple inspections and assessments, the fountain was found to have delaminated tiles, a faulty plumbing system and numerous leaks, according to a report to the Albuquerque Arts Board drafted by Sherri Brueggemann, the Public Art Urban Enhancement Division manager. The fountain is “damaged irreparably, or to an extent where the repair is unreasonable or impractical,” according to the report.

Brueggemann’s report was presented to the Albuquerque Arts Board on Feb. 15, and the board is currently considering the conclusion that the fountain “should be removed completely from the Public Art Collection,” as well as other options including relocating the work, selling or trading it, offering it back to the artist at its current value, or selling it through an auction or other public sale.

The board, which is an advisory body, will make a recommendation to the city’s Department of Arts and Culture, which in consultation with the Mayor’s Office makes the final determination, Brueggemann said.

Neymark doesn’t disagree that the fountain “looks really bad,” and based on that he believes that “there have been assumptions made that it’s ruined, and I’m not so sure that’s true.”

Neymark, who lives in Embudo, said he had an opportunity to look at the now waterless fountain about two weeks ago. “I certainly believe that it was leaking,” he said. “I didn’t see any real damage, but I couldn’t inspect it closely and the bottom of it was covered in leaves and dirt,” he said. “I’m concerned that the city hasn’t done a real technical assessment.”

He also said that as part of that technical assessment a plumbing expert should be consulted, something that he said has not been done — at least not recently. Other than replacing some tiles in the first few years after the fountain was installed, Neymark maintains that until he was notified about the possible decommissioning, BioPark officials have not consulted with him at all.

Brueggemann’s report, however, indicates that is not the situation:

“Over the past 25 years, the Public Art Program and the BioPark have participated in numerous conservation and maintenance efforts regarding many aspects of the fountain, from tile replacement to structural assessments to pump replacements,” the report said. “Some of those efforts included consultation with the original artist and others did not. Some of the conservation work was performed by hired public art conservators and some was provided by the BioPark Staff.”

As far as options to relocate or sell the fountain, Neymark said, “it’s built in place and there’s absolutely no way it can be moved or salvaged, and that includes individual tiles, which would be really hard to get off and would probably break in the process.”

The fountain was named for the late Rosalie Doolittle, a longtime Albuquerque resident, master gardener, author of gardening books, a charter member of Albuquerque’s first garden club, founder and president of the Albuquerque Rose Society and a driving force behind establishment of the Albuquerque Garden Center.

Since the first Art Board meeting about the fountain in January, various departments and city officials have fielded nearly 100 messages and emails from citizens who said they appreciated the fountain, were disappointed that it might be removed, and encouraged the city to try and save it, Brueggemann said.

While Neymark received $50,000 for his design work and creation of the tiles, the total cost of the fountain is unclear. The city, he said, was supposed to have committed $100,000 for material and for workers to build the forms, do the cement work and install the fountain infrastructure. In addition, the predecessor organization of the New Mexico BioPark Society was supposed to have conducted a fundraiser for the remaining costs.

Brueggemann said she could find no documents detailing the total cost of the fountain; likewise, BioPark Society spokeswoman Danielle Flores-Mills said the society had no documents indicating if a fountain fundraiser was actually held.

Neymark has created and posted a YouTube video explaining to Albuquerque residents what they got for their money, the process of designing and installing the fountain, and what they will miss if the fountain is removed. The video can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9DQhoYelqQ.

Now in its 44th year, the Public Art Program has helped to fund and place more than 1,400 pieces of art in public outdoor and indoor spaces. During those years, Brueggemann said, about 30 pieces of art have been decommissioned.

“It happens for a variety of reasons and every situation is unique, and follows a thorough analysis,” she said. “We take this process very seriously.”

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