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Maintenance Art

The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles has devoted her career to work that engages with the idea of ‘maintenance’, drawing connections between caring for human (particularly urban) and natural environments and looking after our own wellbeing. Her work seeks to reframe maintenance not as a banal necessity but as a vital part of how we interact with the world and she works closely with practitioners of maintenance, such as employees of the New York Sanitation Department.

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Project Description

In 1969, the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles composed a Manifesto for Maintenance Art. In it Ukeles addresses the status of ‘maintenance work’ across public, private, and domestic contexts. By ‘maintenance work’ she means, in the broadest possible sense, the cumulation of errands and tasks that must be repeatedly performed to maintain systems and facilitate development. She categorised maintenance work into ‘personal’ tasks such as washing, ‘general’ tasks such as cleaning the home or repairing roads, and ‘Earth’ tasks such as removing pollution or preserving habitats, although she sees all three as intimately connected.

Ukeles considered maintenance tasks as performative processes within her creative practice, deliberately focusing on the act of doing them in order to place emphasis on their value. Ukeles suggested that for any form of personal, artistic, economic, or social development to occur, tasks which aim to preserve and maintain are essential. She thus sought to elevate their status from unrecognised labour to art. By considering personal domestic maintenance alongside societal and environmental maintenance, Ukeles sought to connect these fields and emphasise the particular role of women in relation to maintenance work.

A proposal for a show, entitled, Care, was included within the manifesto. The hypothetical exhibition would entail Ukeles the artist living, or simply working at the museum, performing maintenance tasks required for the general upkeep of the art museum. By performing these tasks within a museum environment, she sought to make viewers re-imagine these procedures as art. The exhibition would display transcripts of interviews between her and members of the public from a wide variety of classes and occupations discussing their perception of maintenance tasks. The questions included:

  • what do you think maintenance is? 
  • how do you feel about spending whatever parts of your life you spend on maintenance activities?
  • what is the relationship between maintenance and freedom?
  • what is the relationship between maintenance and life’s dreams?’

To address the concept of Earth maintenance in the exhibition, Ukeles suggested that the contents of a sanitation truck should be brought to the museum regularly to be reused for the purpose of art. In addition, she proposed for a container of polluted air, a container of polluted water from the Hudson River, and a container of ravaged land to be brought to the museum to be ‘maintained.’ The containers would be de-polluted and rehabilitated, demonstrating the importance of environmental maintenance tasks. 

This show was never produced. However, Ukeles continued to navigate these ideas and themes into further works including Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (1973). This performance, documented though black and white photography, depicted Ukeles washing the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum. During the period, these jobs were often reserved for workers who were of ethnic minorities. Ukeles, a white woman artist, highlighted the importance of these jobs and those who perform them.

Maintenance Art 3

Documentation of Ukeles’ Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside

Ukeles explored similar themes in an eleven-month performance entitled, Touch Sanitation (1978-9), where she shook the hand of all 8500 employees of the New York Department of Sanitation. Throughout this performance, Ukeles would spend 8-16 hours visiting sanitation workers, known as ‘sanmen’. During this time, she would interview and shadow them as they performed their maintenance tasks, as well as documenting them with photography, conversation transcripts, and a map of locations. 

Ukeles would thank each worker individually, saying, ‘Thank you for keeping New York alive!’. Through this ritualised process, she sought to place a greater emphasis on the important role that the sanmen played in dealing with New York’s waste, quite literally helping to keep the City alive by safely removing the city’s potentially harmful waste products. 

During this period, Ukeles was appointed the official artist in residence of the Sanitation Department of New York, a position that she continues to hold to this day. The residency was unpaid but she was granted access to studio space and materials and was able to work directly with the employees of the department. One of the works that came out of this relationship was Touch Sanitation Show (1984), an exhibition that included displays of department equipment alongside a performance piece that invited visitors to erase the ‘bad names’ that sanmen had been called. She also produced a multitude of large sculptures that re-used the department’s waste and discarded equipment, including a ‘ceremonial arch’ made from discarded rubber gloves.

Her more recent work has focused further on the ‘Earth’ category of maintenance work described in her manifesto, while continuing to create connections with other social issues and collaborate with the sanitation department. Flow City (1983-95), installed a visitor centre in a fully functioning waste management facility, allowing visitors to view New York City’s waste being loaded onto barges for transport and ritualising this procedure. Ukeles’ sought to help visitors think deeply about the properties and aesthetics of the ‘waste’ material, encouraging them to reconsider their relationship with disposability. 

Landing (2008-) has been instrumental in the ongoing redevelopment of the ‘Freshkills’ landfill site on Staten Island into the largest new park in the City. The aim is to provoke viewers to consider their position with regard to the relationship between the natural world and human waste that the site represents by encouraging the more active way of seeing that we associate with appreciating art. The work is fully accessible to the general public and seeks to be interconnected with rather than distinct from daily life.

Partners & Stakeholders

Ukeles is an independent artist who has worked with a range of museums and public organisations. 

Ukeles became the New York Department of Sanitation’s artist in residence in 1977. She was granted this position by Vito A. Turso, the now deputy commissioner for public information and community affairs for the New York Department of Sanitation.

Washing/ Tracks/ Maintenance: Outside was performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum, Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

Touch Sanitation Show took place at West 59th Street Marine Transfer Station and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, USA. 

Flow City was based at the New York Sanitation Department’s marine transfer station at Fifty-ninth Street and the Hudson River.

Landing was commissioned by the New York Departments of Sanitation and Cultural Affairs and designed by Ukeles in collaboration with WXY Studio and URS Corporation through Fresh Kills Park’s Percent for Art programme.

Sustainability Issues

  • Putting maintenance at the centre of creative practice is one way of putting sustainability at the centre, through the overlap between practices of maintaining and sustaining.
  • Ukeles’ articulation of the different scales on which this needs to be addressed (domestic, city and world)  laid ground for understanding environmental protection and preservation as connected with social issues of class, race, sex, and gender. 
  • The use of performances like Touch Sanitation to draw attention to the overlooked encouraged audiences to recognise the significance of maintenance work. It raises the status of acts of preservation and conservation and draws a continuum from cleaning floors through to detoxifying air and water.
  • By performing maintenance-based tasks within a museum environment, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside drew attention to art’s dependence on physical resources and materials.
  • The sculptures and performances that Ukeles made from the Department of Sanitation’s equipment monumentalised the tools and resources involved in maintenance as well as demonstrating the value of working with re-used materials. 
  • Flow City and Landing seek to actively involve viewers by encouraging them to consider how they situate themselves in relation to the wider structures of waste management.

Lessons, Tips & Advice

  • Ukeles’ work provides a model for how artists can engage with environmental sustainability through how they carry out their work as well as through its content. Her work actively helps to preserve and maintain her environment rather than consuming its resources.
  • Ukeles’ artist in residence position with the New York Sanitation Department demonstrates how organisations that are not necessarily public-facing can benefit from the input of an artist to encourage better understanding of and engagement with their work. 
  • The artist in residence position was unpaid, but Ukeles’ felt that she was provided with adequate payment in kind through studio space, resources, and ability to work with the department’s employees.
  • Although she sought to celebrate and elevate the status of the sanmen, Ukeles’ has been critiqued for her non-involvement in their strikes and pay-disputes. This raises questions of how artists should approach their political role in relation to their work.
  • Much of Ukeles’ work is based outside of museum environments and is often created as part of or in close proximity to sites involved in waste management. This helps it reach new audiences and highlights connections with its environment
  • Ukeles’ work was at times hampered by ambition that exceeded available resources, her full plans for Flow City for example were never realised.

‘Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art. “We have no Art, we try to do everything well.” (Balinese saying)’

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art


Ukeles’ position as the official artist in residence for the New York Department of Sanitation was unsalaried. While working on Touch Sanitation the Department of Sanitation provided Ukeles with a studio space but no stipend. Works such as Ceremonial Arch were produced using materials from the department. 

Flow City was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Landing is funded by the Freshkills Park Alliance, an organisation itself funded by numerous private donors, and the New York Departments of Sanitation and Cultural Affairs.


Avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials. Conceptual and Process art, especially, claim pure development and change, yet employ almost purely maintenance processes. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art
Fact: We are in a dire, perhaps fatal, crisis of the environment. [...] Some scientists say we have forty years. Some say it's less. What do we do in the face of this? Create! We are powerful enough to transform us to us and to Earth. I propose that we flood with creativity our environmental infrastructure. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, A Journey: Earth/City/Flow

All images property of Mierle Laderman Ukeles and used here in compliance with Fair Use

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