Protecting Our Nation’s Mural Art

Chemistry Professor Anthony Lagalante is working with mural arts programs nationwide to preserve these beautiful exhibits so that they remain part of our culture well into the future

Villanova Professor Anthony Lagalante, PhD, is working with the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia

VILLANOVA, Pa. - Anthony Lagalante, PhD, Professor of Chemistry in Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a leader in developing new techniques for the cleaning and preservation of modern art. Together with Professor Richard Wolbers of the Department of Art Conservation at University of Delaware, Lagalante is enhancing best practices for creating, protecting, exhibiting and preserving modern painted surfaces.

As part of their work, Lagalante and Wolbers have been collaborating with mural arts programs and mural artists across the United States, including the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, to help restore and preserve the beloved murals from the ravages of graffiti and outdoor elements. 

As the “Mural Capital of the World,” Philadelphia is home to more than 3,000 murals. They are a cherished part of the civic landscape and a great source of pride for communities, residents and visitors. These murals are a daily reminder of the beauty that exists throughout the city, and the fact that art doesn’t exist solely behind museum walls. 

Philadelphia has become synonymous with urban murals, and this art form has never been more popular. But, while the production of city-sponsored mural art is thriving, the challenge now is with the continued preservation of these public art works. The murals are constantly exposed to the elements – rain, dirt, pollution, sun – and are often tagged with graffiti.

One important aspect of mural preservation is the application of protective coatings.  Commercially available clear coatings are often hard to remove. Water-based applications are an option, but they still require solvents or harsh chemicals for removal. Coatings, regardless of type, must still perform under extreme conditions, be compatible with the building structures to which they are applied, and be reversible under the most careful artistic and environmental conditions possible.

To help preserve the longevity of outdoor artwork, Lagalante and Wolbers have developed an environmentally-friendly, water-reversible, coating that can be applied to new murals or used on degraded murals. The coating can safely be removed from surfaces tagged with graffiti —removing tagged coating layers without damaging the underlying painted mural itself. Much of the performance testing is conducted on Villanova’s campus by Dr. Amanda Norbutus, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Lagalante’s research group. The roof of the chemistry building and campus test wall murals mimic the exposure the murals would receive in the outdoors. 

By working with local programs such as the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia, as well as mural arts programs nationwide, Professors Lagalante and Wolbers have been able to preserve these beautiful exhibits of individuality so that they remain part of our culture well into the future.