Preserving the Sid Boyum house: now the real work begins

Activists make progress on saving the late East Side artist’s property and artwork.


Sid Boyum.

Sid Boyum.

Since we first reported on a neighborhood effort to rescue late Madison artist Sid Boyum’s abandoned East Side house and a ton of artwork on the property, the project has seen a few setbacks and a lot of gains. Most importantly, the group of neighbors, activists, and art lovers involved have bought themselves some time: The Dane County Treasurer’s Office, which owns the Waubesa Street property due to back taxes, agreed earlier this month to not put it up for auction until 2016, and the county is allowing volunteers to help maintain and clean up the yard.

“There’s animals living in the building, we know that. There’s a hole in the roof. It hasn’t been maintained,” says Brian Standing, who’s become the effort’s de facto leader. “The neighbors are concerned about people traipsing in there. So the least we can do is make sure the sidewalk is shoveled and the lawn is mowed.”

The county likes this, because if the property isn’t maintained the City of Madison can actually slap the county with nuisance-property fees. And in to the volunteers who’ve stepped up to help with general maintenance, the group also has attracted some conservators and sculpture experts. Standing thinks they’ll come in handy as the group considers how to move the many concrete sculptures in the house’s backyard without damaging them. Concrete sculpture is the medium for which Boyum, who died in 1991, is best known—many of his sculptures are prominent landmarks on and near Atwood Avenue.

The East Side-based Madison KIPP Corporation has pitched in some money and in-kind support to help the effort, and the group is running two online fundraising campaigns: One to help remove and restore the piles of drawings and paintings inside the house, and another to hire consultants and conservators who can shape the group’s long-term strategy.

The main thing working against the group is the house’s poor condition. The county recently assessed the property’s value at about $50,000, which means a buyer would have to sink in hundreds of thousands of dollars—maybe up to a million—to get it back into habitable condition. “The gold standard we agreed on at our last meeting was, ‘Man, it would be great if we could preserve the house and the yard and have a museum,’” Standing says. But if that’s not within reach, he says, the group could form a nonprofit to raise the needed funds and administrate the complicated task, or settle for purchasing the property, razing the house and establishing a sculpture garden on the lot.

Additionally, the Kohler Foundation, which funds a lot of art-preservation projects in Wisconsin, took a look at the property but passed on getting involved.

The next steps will include securing intellectual-property rights to the art on the property, especially so that the group can make casts of the sculptures to preserve them in case they are damaged during the moving or restoration process. To judge from the conversations on the Save the Sid Boyum Art House Facebook group, the project has been a constant learning process for everyone involved, as the group works to figure out everything from fundraising to flood remediation to art conservation to the finer points of local real-estate law. But as these things go, the effort is looking pretty tenacious and making some impressive strides. The Facebook group has more than 330 members, but more importantly, the effort has about 25 volunteers who are willing to commit their time, get their hands dirty, and wrap their heads around the mind-numbing minutiae involved.

“It’s been really rewarding to see how the whole community has sort of rallied around it and the talents they’ve brought,” Standing says.

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