Public Art vs. the Public in Indianapolis

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A work of public art is causing a stir in Indianapolis — and it hasn’t even gone up yet. The dispute involves a monument of a freed slave that was supposed to be placed in downtown Indianapolis. The work, “E Pluribus Unum,” is by the celebrated African-American artist Fred Wilson

Wilson based his figure of the freed slave from the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial, made in 1902. Positioned at the base of the older monument, the man is shirtless, sitting down, and holding up a flag. Wilson, who is known for recontextualizing existing art objects, tells Kurt Andersen that he wanted to replicate the figure but give him a prominent place of his own nearby, “so that he is a person, he is a man, and he can represent something else, something positive.”

But some in Indianapolis’ African-American community don’t see it that way. In the last year, opponents have organized, protesting the work at civic meetings, in the media, and recently at the State Capitol. One opponent is longtime state representative Bill Crawford, who says that Wilson’s statue — intended to correct stereotypes — instead perpetuates them.

Artist Fred Wilson and State Representative Bill CrawfordArtist Fred Wilson and
State Representative Bill Crawford

"As long as we keep looking back to what we were,” he tells Kurt Andersen, “we are never going to be what we ought to be and what we're going to be." He argues that the public should have a larger say in the matter of how they are represented. “Public art can be challenging, but it cannot be in your face without asking [the public's] opinion.”

The private foundation that is backing the statue recently announced that it will not be placed at the original location. Although they’re looking for another site, they acknowledged that the statue may never be installed. 

"Of course it doesn't make me happy that people are upset with this particular sculpture,” Wilson says. “But I am really thrilled that people are in dialogue about imagery, the city, and how race is infused in that dialogue … In the end, the people of Indianapolis really have to come together, and I'll abide with whatever comes down the pike."

What do you think about the controversy? How much input should artists have to get from the public when they make public art? Is there a work in your community that you find offensive? Tell us in a comment below.

 

Slideshow: Fred Wilson's “E Pluribus Unum”

The Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial, which sits in the heart of Indianapolis, was the only monument in the city featuring a person of color until 2010. The sculptor Fred Wilson wanted to give the African-American figure a prominent place of his own nearby, “so that he is a person, he is a man, and he can represent something else, something positive.”

( Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation )

A detail of a rendering of Wilson's project, "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One). The statue reappropriates the African-American figure from the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial. Rather than evoking a history of enslavement, Wilson wants his statue to tell a story of triumph and progress. The figure would hold a flag representing the African Diaspora.

( Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation )

A rendering of "E Pluribus Unum" as it would stand in front of the City-County Building in downtown Indianapolis, the proposed location for the project.

( Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation )
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