Behind the Scenes: Public Sculpture in New York City
Saturday, March 19, 2011
On the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, "Civic Virtue" still stands tall. Several weeks ago, Congressman Anthony Weiner called for the statue's removal on the grounds that it is sexist. The statue depicts a large, muscled warrior standing on two writhing female forms, meant to represent vice and corruption.
"This is to some degree about whether or not art in public places should keep up with the mores of the time," Weiner said. "Maybe that was appropriate in the 1920s, but today when women's rights are under attack, it simply doesn't reflect where we are today. Clearly, it should not be put on such a prominent pedestal literally and figuratively."
Congressman Weiner's call to remove "Civic Virtue" is the latest episode in a long history of conflicts between politicians, artists, and local communities about what kinds of art should go where, who should be making the decisions, and ultimately, what the purpose of public art is.
Nobody knows for sure exactly how many public sculptures there are in New York City, since the works are administered by a range of city, state, and federal agencies, not to mention those sitting on privately owned property. The city's parks department oversees 1,300 statues and monuments. Most new statues are acquired through private donations, and proposals for erecting new statues on city property have to pass through a rigorous vetting process with the city's public design commission. Commission hearings are open to the public.
"The placement of a major work of art are few and far between," said Jonathan Kuhn, the director for arts and antiquities at the parks department. "Because we know that times will change, you have to project into the future a little. How are people going to perceive this later? Of course, you can't completely project into the future, times will change."
Once the commission has signed off on erecting a statue in a particular place in the city, the monument is meant to stay there for good. But some politicians, Weiner included, believe that there should be a way to remove statues that are offensive or out-of-date.
For many in the art world, however, opening up public statues to public scrutiny is a slippery slope.
"It seems more constructive to me to use controversial work as a mechanism for learning," said art historian Michele Bogart. "If you don't like 'Civic Virtue', bring schoolchildren to the statue and discuss why it was made, and why some people didn't like it."
A statue of King George III in Bowling Green being toppled on July 9, 1776 (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
"Civic Virtue" first raised eyebrows when it was unveiled at city hall in the 1920s. It was later moved to Queens by Mayor LaGuardia in 1941. But it wasn't the first statue to cause controversy; that distinction goes to a statue depicting King George III. A statue depicting King George III was toppled from its post in Bowling Green by colonists in 1776. A few centuries later, in 1989, a local judge successfully lobbied to remove the abstract sculpture "Tilted Arc" from Federal Plaza. In 1991, three statues depicting Bronx residents holding boomboxes and pitbulls were taken away from a South Bronx police station when two city workers said they were playing on stereotypes and therefore offensive.
In February, East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the City Council's parks committee, asked the parks department to remove a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, when she learned that he conducted medical experiments on enslaved women.
"The insensitivity of having that statue there without being able to recognize the realities of who was hurt in the process, how these women were experimented on, I think is something that has to be addressed," said Mark-Viverito. "There should be room for re-evaluation, and ultimately action, whether that means removal of the statue or something else."
Mark-Viverito added that she wants to create a process for how the city responds to complaints from the public about neighborhood statues.
"The more productive thing, in my opinion, is have discussions about it," said art historian Michele Bogart. "Then the work then can serve as a mechanism for informed and civil dialogue, rather than a bunch of rants."
While the debate about the city's public statues continue, "Civic Virtue" will stay put. The president of Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, Richard Moylan, has offered to find a home for it in the cemetery, but no concrete plans have been made.
Below, read up on the eight of the most controversial statues in N.Y.C. history:
"King George III" (Bowling Green, Manhattan)
The first controversial statue in New York history was also the city’s first public statue ever. The work depicted King George III, the enemy of the newly-minted American people, atop his horse in Bowling Green. On July 9, 1776, colonists held the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in City Hall Park. After getting riled up, they marched over to Bowling Green, toppled King George’s statue, and melted it down. The only bit of the statue that remains is a piece of the horse’s tail, currently in the custody of the New York Historical Society.
"The Heinrich Heine Memorial" (Grand Concourse, The Bronx)
In the case of the memorial to the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, which is often known as the Lorelei Fountain, the controversy wasn't so much about what, but where. The monument, commissioned in the late 1800s, was originally intended to be erected in Heine's hometown of Dusseldorf. But the city rejected it, reportedly for anti-Semitic motives. A group of German-Americans hoped to bring the work to New York, and install it at the plaza on 59th Street and 5th Avenue. A drawn-out debate ensued. Based on the belief that it would be inappropriate to have such a large monument nodding to a foreign culture in a prominent place in the city, some officials fought in 1889 to have it placed in the Bronx instead, on Grand Concourse and 161st street. (That was then a largely German neighborhood.) The statue stands there today with one major alteration: in 1900, a vandal chopped the arms of Lorelei's mermaids.
“Civic Virtue" (Borough Hall, Queens)
Designed by American Beaux-Arts master Frederick MacMonnies, "Civic Virtue" has been controversial since it was first placed in front of City Hall in 1922. The allegorical statue was meant to represent moral government (a muscled, 20 foot-tall warrior) conquering vice and corruption (two vanquished females). But two years after the universal suffrage movement granted women the right to vote, depicting vice and corruption as female wasn't seen as politically correct, even by the standards of the day. The statue was eventually moved in 1941 by Mayor LaGuardia as a "gift" to Queens at the inauguration of a new Borough Hall in Kew Gardens. Since then, it's been crumbling from neglect, as no politician has been willing to expend the political capital to get the funds necessary for its restoration. In February, Congressman Weiner called for the city to sell it on Craigslist.
“Tilted Arc” (Federal Plaza, Manhattan)
In many ways, the controversy surrounding “Tilted Arc” inaugurated a new era of government involvement--some might say interference--with public art in New York. Designed by the artist Richard Serra, “Titled Arc” was an abstract sculpture installed in Federal Plaza in 1981. The 12 foot-high, 120 foot-long metal wall cut the plaza in half. It was designed to make lookers on more aware of their relationship to public space, but it ended up angering those who worked in the area because they were forced to walk around the giant sculpture to get across the plaza. A local judge, Edward Re, lobbied to have it removed, and in 1985, public hearings were held to determine the sculpture’s future. Experts from across the arts testified in defense of keeping the work, but ultimately “Tilted Arc" was taken down in 1989. The removal opened a new chapter in New York’s history in which both communities and public officials played a larger role in deciding the fate of controversial public sculptures.
John Ahearn’s Bronx Residents (South Bronx)
In the 1980s, sculptor John Ahearn became known for his colorful casts of ordinary Bronx residents. Ahearn , who lived and worked in the South Bronx, made two copies of each of his statues, keeping one and giving one to the subject of his work. He was asked to contribute three pieces to a new police station being built in the Bronx as part of the Percent for Art Program, in which one percent of the building costs for any new public building had to be spent on public art. The pieces depicted a hooded youth kneeling with a pitbull, a man toting a basketball and boombox, and a young girl on roller-skates. Soon after the unveiling of the works, a group including local residents and two African-American city bureaucrats protested the works, claiming they depicted negative stereotypes of African Americans. Less than a week later, Ahearn paid to have the statues removed, fearing a public controversy that would cast him as a racist. The statues currently sit in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.
"Gay Liberation" (Christopher Park, Manhattan)
In 1980, the city announced plans to place four statues in Christopher Park to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that set off the gay liberation movement in the U.S. Right away, local residents objected to the statue at rancorous Community Board 2 meetings, from park advocates who felt the statues would crowd public space to members of the West Village gay community who didn't like the design of the statues and who thought they would make targets for vandals. Still others argued that the statues were too somber and not celebratory enough. After 12 years of debate, the George Segal-designed statues were finally erected in the park in 1992.
"Catherine of Braganza," (Hunter’s Point, Queens)
If you’ve never noticed the 35-foot tall statue of Catherine of Braganza on the waterfront at Hunter’s Point in Queens, it’s because it's not there. But for years, borough officials were planning to place Catherine, the Portuguese wife of Charles II who some historians believe is the queen that the borough is named after, on a spit of land owned by Port Authority in Long Island City. Portuguese groups raised huges sums of money so sculptor Audrey Flack could cast the statue at a foundry in upstate New York. Including the proposed 50-foot pedestal, it was to be New York’s largest work after the "Statue of Liberty." Then, a group of Queens activists formed a group opposing the statue, citing historical evidence that Catherine profited from the slave trade. Support for the statue quickly dried up. In 1998, Borough President Claire Schulman vowed that the statue would never end up on public land in Queens. A scaled-down version of the statue did end up in Lisbon (pictured at right).
"Dr. Marion Sims" (East Harlem, Manhattan)
Since 1934, a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, has stood on 103rd street and 5th avenue, across from the New York Academy of Medicine. After finding out that Sims conducted medical experiments on enslaved women, East Harlem City Councilwoman Mark-Viverito wrote a letter to the parks department calling for the statue’s removal. Mark-Viverito argued the statue’s presence was an affront to the largely African-American and Latino residents of her district, and proposed replacing the statue with a different figure who reflected the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican history. The parks department’s policy is not to relocate statues based on content, but they’ve offered to add a plaque that puts Sims’ darker side into historical context.
Which statues do you feel strongly about? Please let us know by posting a comment below.