Statement on the Intersection of the Arts, History, and Community Dialogue
On August 12, 2017, the fate of a public art piece—a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee—became the focal point for a violent and racism-fueled clash in Charlottesville, VA. In the wake of those events, many communities across the United States are grappling with the existence and legacy of divisive monuments, and local, state, and federal policymakers, including President Trump, are weighing in on the fate of these monuments.
Americans for the Arts strongly supports diversity, equity, and inclusion, and stands against racism, bigotry, and hatred.
Our nation's public art is complex and it is powerful—we must be mindful of that power. Public art reflects the stories and histories we most want to tell ourselves, the lessons we want to learn, the pride we collectively hold, and the memories and priorities with which we craft our communities' futures. The presence (and the absence of) people and events in the sculptures, murals, music, and imagery with which we commemorate history create the narrative we tell our communities.
For nearly 60 years, Americans for the Arts, with its member organizations, has been a fierce advocate for public art and how it can help transform, inspire, and educate communities. Americans for the Arts stands with community members who are coming together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully and honestly assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve today. Americans for the Arts stands in opposition to any form of violence, intimidation, or illegal activity that cuts short such community dialogue.
The Challenge of Confederate Monuments and Memorials
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are over 1,500 Confederate monuments and memorials in 31 states across the United States, including areas that were not part of the Confederacy. Over 700 of these monuments are on government-owned sites. The existence of these monuments, and their locations, creates a narrative of value and official support that can be problematic.
Art on the public square carries great meaning. Such sculptures often represent the culture of a community and are seen as vessels for what we choose to honor and make permanent. To many, Confederate monuments glorify inequality, white supremacy, racial discrimination, and bigotry. To others, they reflect a conservative desire for the reinstatement of white nationalism, which they feel has been nullified by demographic and policy change.
Most of these monuments were commissioned long after the end of the Civil War as part of an ongoing so-called “Lost Cause” movement to re-write history, and nearly 200 Confederate monuments in the United States were commissioned on or after 1960, arguably in reaction to the black civil rights movements of the early- and mid-20th century. In fact, as many as 35 of these monuments have been commissioned since 2010.
All public artwork, whether controversial or not, is at its most impactful when it is being considered honestly. Context, origin, and the feelings of the community must be part of an open dialogue and, ultimately, a community choice. The illegal removal of these monuments or the quashing of dialogue by government edict, or by violence, disempowers the community and dampens the innate power of public art to spark dialogue, change, and community healing.
What Can Be Done
The choice of what to do with these sculptures—and the schools, parks, courthouses, university campuses, and public squares they are often part of—must emerge from an informed community in dialogue with itself. And there is a wide spectrum of actions that communities have taken.
- In New Orleans, LA, after community dialogue, four Confederate monuments throughout the city were removed and Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a landmark speech that outlines many of the reasons. The city is in the process of handing off the monuments to other cultural institutions for viewing in other spaces with contextualization.
- In Birmingham, AL, the community transformed Kelly Ingram Park, site of the famous confrontation between Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor and civil rights protestors, into “a place of revolution and reconciliation” and installed a variety of sculptures depicting scenes from the civil rights movement.
- In Annapolis, MD, the site of a slave market was turned into a public art sculpture of Roots author Alex Haley reading to children of multiple races. A statue of the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision was removed under cover of night from the grounds of the state capitol after a committee vote.
- In Louisville, KY, a Confederate statue was removed and relocated to a Civil War battle site where it could be viewed in an educational context.
- In Baltimore, MD, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, four Confederate monuments recently removed are being offered to two cemeteries dedicated specifically to housing the Confederate dead. On the pedestal of a former Robert E. Lee statue a new, unofficial public sculpture, Madre Luz, depicting a pregnant woman carrying a child and raising a golden fist in triumph and hope, was briefly installed before being toppled by vandals.
- In Minneapolis, MN, a controversial sculpture depicting the gallows from which Native Americans were hung was destroyed in a special ceremony after the commissioning museum, under community pressure, engaged in deep dialogue with Native American elders.
- In Macon, GA, a plaque for the Baconsfield Park that dedicated it to the “benefit and enjoyment of the white women, white girls, white boys, and white children…” was removed and relocated to the Harriet Tubman Museum, where context and interpretation allowed it to be a learning mechanism.
There are international examples as well:
- Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Budapest chose to leave vestiges of Communist iconography that had been re-mixed in public spaces including the boots of a statue of Stalin on its original pedestal and old street signs with communist names crossed out in red and new street signs beside. In other areas, Communist statues have been gathered in confined parks for viewing and scholarly study.
- In Paraguay, a statue of dictator Alfredo Stroessner was deconstructed and then reconstituted into a new piece in which the former statue appeared crushed between stones.
- In Germany, the remnants of the Nazi regime have been treated differently in different cases: the Haus der Kunst, site of major Nazi-sanctioned art exhibits, now commits most of its funds to displaying art that would have been banned by the regime. Sites of atrocities, such as the Bebelplatz, where thousands of books were burned and Nazi marches were held, have installed public art pieces to engage with that history through a lens of learning and reconciliation. Certain sites such as Hitler’s final bunker, after dialogue, were deliberately obscured to keep them from becoming shrines for neo-Nazis.
These choices were determined by members of these communities and/or by elected leadership, driven by a shared belief in a new narrative, and an understanding of what role these art pieces would play. Regardless of the direction a community takes when addressing a publicly placed artwork, there should be a strong community engagement component that allows for dialogue.
Americans for the Arts is encouraged by the growing number of U.S. cities that have been engaging in dialogues like this already. Community dialogues have been conducted, or are starting, in New Orleans, LA; Baltimore, MD; Louisville, KY; Gainesville, FL, and elsewhere. The mayor of Lexington, KY, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, has reversed himself and recommended removal of two Confederate statues on the site of a former slave market. Elected officials from both major parties in states including Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas and Maryland are asking support for similar dialogues to begin.
Un-Erasing Narrative through Public Art
This is, however, a beginning for truth and reconciliation, not an end.
These monuments, and their long tenure in the public square, are symptoms of larger issues of systemic racism and white privilege that pervade far beyond these statues; public art reflects and makes permanent our deepest beliefs, both good and bad. Confederate names adorn many Southern schools, a quarter of which are majority-African-American. The Confederate flag is an integrated part of the design of the state flag of Mississippi, and maintains a publicly supported presence in at least six states. Racially-charged melodies, stories, and traditions intertwine visibly and invisibly into place names, state anthems, songs, bedtime stories, and more.
Moreover, there is a resounding absence of narratives about slavery, segregation, discrimination, emancipation, and the ongoing fight for civil rights. There are currently three times as many monuments to the Confederacy in the U.S. Capitol as there are monuments to African-Americans. There are artistic commemorations of many of the leading Segregationists throughout the South, but the first such large-scale monument to the many black men and women lynched during that period will not open until 2018.
Our communities use public monuments as artistic commemorations of what we deem important. Americans for the Arts believes that, as more communities enter dialogue about what these divisive public artworks say about their residents and their beliefs, these art pieces can help facilitate positive community transformation.
Americans for the Arts supports ongoing community dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and removal and replacement of the various artistic and cultural vestiges of white supremacy and racism in the United States, and the installation of monuments commemorating narratives of emancipation, shared strength, and equity. We recommend that local arts agencies and other arts institutions join these dialogues in concert with affected communities.
To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.
Resources for You and Your Community
- NEXT TUESDAY, August 22nd at 3pm, Americans for the Arts will hold a special members-only briefing to discuss the issues outlined in this position statement, as well as next steps. After the 30-minute briefing, there will be an opportunity for public art administrators and others to engage in conversation with each other, led by a member of the Public Art Network Council.
- We also want to hear from you – share your stories of what is happening in your communities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deaccession/Conservation & Maintenance
- The Public Art Resource Center offers information and tools on community engagement, public art maintenance and conservation, and sample documents and policies.
- San Francisco Arts Commission Policies and Guidelines for the Civic Art Collection includes the deaccession policy (starts on page 25).
- American Institute of Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works highlights conservators and other professional resources to help care for an artwork.
- “It's Not Forever”: Temporary Works and Deaccessioning blog posts outlines some of the current questions and thoughts around longevity and permanence of public artworks.
Florida’s Art in State Buildings Program Deaccession Policy is a sample deaccession policy for public art programs.
- Planning & Designing Arts-Based Civic Engagement Projects includes worksheets to help you design your community engagement process.
- Participatory Action Research Approach to Planning, Reflection and Documentation offers an approach to research and learning that uses different methods to address issues or possibilities identified and defined by a community to create new ways of working, interacting, and knowing.
- The 8 R’s of Talking About Race: How to Have Meaningful Conversations helps identify and manage your speaking about race.
- The Controversy Conundrum: Public Art Advocacy and Communication Strategies to Keep Your Program Thriving is a webinar that reviews case studies and practices when dealing with controversial issues and your public art collection.
- The Equal Justice Initiative provides resources for understanding racial justice from slavery to the civil rights movement.
- Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy has a variety of case studies and tools for engaging in difficult civic dialogues, including about public artworks whose meaning and narrative have shifted over time.
- Who’s Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederate by the Southern Poverty Law Center provides a history of the development of Confederate imagery and symbols.
- A Monumental Problem podcast from NPR’s 1A provides multiple perspectives and context to Confederate monuments and memorials.