The smiles. The hugs. The tears of joy. The electrified air of excitement so thick you could actually feel it on that hot, hot day in July. That’s what I remember most about Dedication Day, July 15, 2017 of the Maggie L. Walker Memorial Plaza. In every video and photograph, showing the new 10-foot statue of Maggie Walker in all her glory, you see off to the side a little park ranger losing her mind in the sheer joy of the moment. It was a milestone in a long journey as the Richmond community came together, just for a moment, through public art.
That snapshot in time sustains me today, actually. When things aren’t going quite right, I say to myself, “Well, at least the Maggie Walker statue is in place!” However, when I truly reflect, the path to that day was longer and rougher than any of us on the Public Art Site Selection Team anticipated. Many, many times we found ourselves turning to Walker’s quote about determination and perseverance: “Have faith, have hope, have courage and carry on.”
It started simply enough in late 2013. The Public Art Commission was pulling together a team of citizens (including members of Maggie Walker’s family), museum professionals, and public art representatives to jumpstart a project to memorialize the legendary civil rights leader and entrepreneur in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia as a gateway to her neighborhood, Jackson Ward. Some team members had worked toward this project as early as 1999, and again in 2008, to get the statue up through private funding. Now it was the task of the team to help advance the private efforts by using the city’s Percent-for-Art program. Through the public art process and with input from the community, the monument to Maggie Walker would be a reality at last. We’d build on the work of those who came before and follow the path for a project that was long overdue. It would be done by the 150th anniversary of her birth. Easy and uncontroversial, right?
We got off to a great start in early 2014 with public meetings that yielded valuable input about what people wanted to see in a memorial to Walker. That early feedback provided guidelines that kept us on the path throughout the rest of the process. It guided us as we selected the right artist, Toby Mendez, out of the more than 90 who answered the request for qualifications. It guided us as we weighed out the pros and cons of two sites that were gateways to Jackson Ward. It guided us back whenever we veered a little off path, reminding us that this was not our project but the public’s project.
Then all seemed to come to a screeching halt. The entire summer of 2015 came and went as contracts were written and signed, sites were analyzed and debated, and plans were developed behind the scenes. The memorial evolved from a single piece of art at an intersection to an entire memorial plaza. From the outside and even at times from my view, it looked like nothing was happening, but we didn’t give up hope. In our park archives we found a news article calling for a statue to Maggie Walker just a few months after her death in 1934. For more than 80 years this idea had been percolating. When I shared this with my team members we knew we were too close to give up now!
Those months of quietly getting all things in order proved to be crucial when the next round of public meetings began. When the city announced the selection of the artist and selection of the site on Broad Street, Richmond’s main thoroughfare, public reaction exploded in a way we hadn’t anticipated. The tone was far different from the 2014 meetings. Reactions were passionate about the site, about the height of the statue, about the effect on businesses and the neighborhood, about the whole process. Some comments were admittedly hard to hear, especially when some said they had never heard of the project or never had a chance for input, even though it had been an open public process for almost two years.
Yet the process worked. At the first public meeting of 2016 in January, more than 230 turned out to give their thoughts and show their interest in this public art. In the following public meetings, council sessions, and planning committee meetings, people from all walks continued to speak up and speak out to help shape the memorial and plaza. The dialogue and listening sessions helped immensely. No one got everything they wanted. There was give and take and compromise. In the end though, the community helped create a welcoming public space for all who would come.
And the space works. Since the dedication, the plaza has served as a gathering place, from hundreds coming together in unity after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to families and couples coming by for selfies and a moment of reflection. But my favorite was the time that I walked to the statue and found a single red rose, Walker’s favorite flower, lovingly tucked under her foot. To me that shows success—that this memorial plaza inspires a sense of place and a sense of meaning. It was a long and sometimes controversial journey to reach this point, and there is still some fine-tuning of the space yet to be done. Overall though, I can only come to one conclusion from my experience—when the public art process works, it works!