Essay

Reimagining Monuments as Opportunities for Cooperative City Change

by Johanna K. Taylor

The intensity of debates over the future of monuments reflects the power that monuments hold in people’s minds. Monuments often depict white, male military heroes or conquerors from past generations sitting on a horse or standing proudly atop a plinth, flanked by a weapon, and positioned to look across the city to reinforce the values they fought for in life. As sentinels they keep watch, surveying the public and representing the policies and institutions that regulate life in the city. Yet monuments are not passive representational artworks; they present opportunities for collective conversation about the policies and institutions that define daily experience. Public dialogues about which monuments hold physical space are opportunities for civic engagement that invite residents to cocreate shared futures.

Many have argued for removing monuments that symbolize histories of oppression and exclusion, yet focusing on removal does not change policies or engage communities. Moving toward a more just city requires us to think beyond removal as the end goal; it is crucial to consider the process by which it is achieved and what happens next. My aim in this paper is to explore art as a process of public reckoning, not neatly unifying people in agreement over a local monument, but making visible the underlying systemic hierarchies which have repeatedly granted power to certain groups over others. Because art is both a product and a process of creation, art is not only a mechanism to right perceived wrongs with a new, more inclusive monument, but also an invitation to process and deconstruct legacies of exclusion. Monuments are not static symbols of the past but can be used as active policy tools for the future. Public debates over existing monuments and selecting new ones are leverage points around which grassroots groups can lead collective action and civic leaders can promote and legitimize their agendas for how the city functions and whom the city supports. Art provides an opportunity for public collaboration that can support inclusive and equitable policymaking by first facing foundational and structural biases. 

Collective Action and Awareness 

The selection of monument subjects and sites provides strategic opportunities for state leaders to elevate select narratives that promote an image of unity, but these political choices typically do not reflect the sentiments of all residents. Rather, they legitimize the values and priorities of particular groups. In recent years, and intensified since the murder of George Floyd, communities have begun to protest the biases inherent in these choices by focusing on monuments to Confederate military figures, European colonizers such as Christopher Columbus, and others.

Community organizing and activist groups have been lobbying city leaders not just to remove monuments, but also to recognize their relationship to policies of structural inequity in the city. Since 2015, the New Orleans activist group Take ‘Em Down Nola has advocated for the removal of all honorifics that reinforce racial hierarchies and systems of oppression. Statues, street names, and public building names honoring Confederate heroes were early targets for public action; the group strategically connected public art such as figures of Robert E. Lee to the context of inequities such as lack of affordable housing and education. They explained this tactic in an open letter: “these memorials only serve as constant reminders of the past and present domination of Black people by the rich white ruling class” (Take ’Em Down NOLA Coalition). In frequent protest events Take ‘Em Down Nola made clear the connection between celebration of segregationist history and present-day exclusion. The group used art practices as opportunities for community involvement and response, such as turning the plinth holding a Robert E. Lee statue into a screen for projecting images and messages questioning his legacy and relevance to the contemporary city. Their methods were sidelined and their message was coopted by city leaders pursuing superficially similar goals, but with a focus on monument removal (product) rather than public reclamation of equal rights (process).

Image 1: An empty plinth at the entrance to City Park in New Orleans photographed in 2018. It supported a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard on a horse until its removal in 2017, the plinth was taken down in 2018. Photo by author, 2018.

Early in the 2015 monument debate, Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not reference racism or discrimination as he promoted monument removal, but over time he shifted his approach to call out specific injustices and connect them to visions of a more equitable city (Sheehan and Speights-Binet).  In December 2015, amid rising controversy and at Landrieu’s request, the New Orleans City Council voted 6 to 1 to remove four monuments, but it took over a year of lawsuits and continued debate until they were taken down in April and May 2017. In the aftermath Landrieu became a figurehead for change in the former Confederate South; his public speech on monument removal was printed in the New York Times (Landrieu 2017) and his 2018 book In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History became a bestseller (Landrieu 2018).

Landrieu’s speech continues to be cited by scholars and others discussing monument removal, particularly among people not from New Orleans. Take ‘Em Down Nola did not miss the irony that a white man was celebrated as a heroic savior and accepted public validation without acknowledging the generations of activists who had long advocated for this change. At a promotional event for Landrieu’s book, Take ‘Em Down Nola member Michael “Quess?” Moore took the opportunity to confront him directly about “co-opting black activist’s work” in removing the monuments by “his lone valiant self” (Moore). Their interaction at this public event was recorded, turning what occurred as a private interaction into a public critique that exists in the digital public sphere. The one-minute video includes subtitles, turning the confrontation into a meme that spread on social media. Landrieu did not lead the charge for monument removal but his speech and the book became political tools to promote his own role as savior, obstructing the ongoing work of Take ‘Em Down Nola, Quess?, and other activists. It also implicitly dismissed the need for community involvement in discussing removal and future monuments.

Among New Orleanians, Take ‘Em Down Nola’s public protests and art practices stirred debate over the deeper structures of city operations that make it untenable to simply view Landrieu as a hero. Instead residents have been called to reconcile the tension between monuments and underlying structural inequities, while recognizing their own collective complicity in supporting systems that marginalize some groups while privileging others. 

A Call for Democratizing Policymaking 

How we preserve and frame the past is complicated by the concerns of the present; as memory studies scholars agree we “select, distill, distort, and transform the past, accommodating things remembered to the needs of the present” (Lowenthal 194). A celebration of a particular narrative of the past without context or critique legitimizes the exclusionary choices of the present that shape everything from the built environment to social programs in cities today. Awareness of these complexities is growing as public tensions over monuments call into question the policies and processes governing their selection, installation, and continued maintenance. As broader publics collectively question the meaning of monuments there are demands for policy change to foreground civic voice in monument selection, recognizing that existing processes merely validate the interests of select groups who already benefit most. Exposing oversights in public art policies broadly and the process of monument selection specifically is an opportunity to make visible biases in policy design and potentially model more equitable alternatives.

Efforts to make monument design and installation cooperative and community engaged can reveal underlying exclusionary assumptions structuring procedural development, but these efforts can be subverted, as occurred in the process led by the New York City Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. Established in 2017 in the wake of Charlottesville protests, the commission studied five monuments that could be considered “symbols of hate” to residents and “may be viewed as inconsistent with the values of New York City” as “a just city that prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion” (Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers). The commission organized public conversations with residents in each of the five boroughs and solicited other community feedback about the five contested monuments. In 2018 the commission chose to replace the monument of J. Marion Sims, a controversial 19th-century surgeon who used Black women for gynecological experiments without consent or anesthesia. Located on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, the Sims statue faced the New York Academy of Medicine where he once taught and into East Harlem, a neighborhood that currently is majority nonwhite. The 2018 population included 27.3% of people identifying as Black and 46.5% Hispanic (Furman Center). Years of protest called for its removal and highlighted Sims’s abuse of Black women (Cascone). The selection of new artwork to replace Sims became an opportunity for city leadership to publicly align new processes, values, and actions with the present-day residents of the city. 

A 2019 open call for artist’s proposals led to four finalists (Vinnie Bagwell, Simone Leigh, Waneguchi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley) to be ranked in a public community forum before a seven-member panel led by art world professionals made a final decision. The community votes favored Bagwell’s proposal: Victory Beyond Sims, a tall bronze angel holding an eternal flame that looks down with hope on all passersby. Meanwhile the panel selected Leigh’s proposal 4 to 3: a figure of a reclining Black woman intended to portray the lack of Black representation in contemporary art and medicine (Selvin). The Beyond Sims Committee, established by the city and local community groups in 2018, criticized the lack of consideration for community opinion in making a final decision that misaligned with the local preference despite the depth of resident involvement. One Beyond Sims Committee member said to city officials: “you continue to ask for our opinion, you continue to ask us to participate in a process, a process that now feels rigged…we feel as though our opinion does not matter” (Bishara).

The differing top selections suggest that art world credentials and aesthetics were valued in the monument selection process over local concerns, in spite of the city’s efforts to develop a practice of public art design and implementation foregrounding community participation. This was evident in the division of finalists based on status: while Bagwell is self-taught, the other three hold more power in the global art world; Leigh was selected for the 2022 US Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. This hierarchy was reinforced by the art professionals serving on the decision-making panel whose personal priorities and criteria were aligned with art gatekeepers and aesthetic values, making Leigh’s proposal and her own art world status appealing. 

Learning of the controversy, Leigh withdrew her submission from consideration, aligning with the community choice and exposing the biases underlying a supposedly public process. She leveraged her powerful position in the art world to elevate community voice, and the city did not have to decide between the preference of the people and the preference of the professional panel. The Beyond Sims Committee emphasized that it felt manipulated throughout the process, questioning whether the city commission intended to include them as genuine collaborators, or merely to cultivate the appearance of inclusion. The intentions guiding the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers were based in community responsiveness, yet the process was still unable to fully shift from the biases in favor of power and privilege that underscore how state decisions are made. 

The artists themselves intervened to claim the power they held and weight the process in favor of the community preference (Rooney). Leigh recognized the community in a statement, saying “since this is a public monument in their neighborhood, I defer to them and have withdrawn my work.” Bagwell said that “it’s really important to engage the community and to keep them very much involved in the process” (Selvin). The monument commissioning and selection process reinforced some of the systemic problems the removal sought to address: it was top-down, privileged professional voices, and followed an unclear process that marginalized the perspectives and values of the local people who directly engage with the monument and the site most. While the framing intentions behind the process were well intentioned, in practice deeper biases in city-led program design were exposed and an opportunity to align with community priorities was missed until the artists themselves took control.

Risk of Artwashing Systemic Wrongs

The 2020 protests concerning racial justice spurred a new movement for monument removal among artists and the public who recognized the silent influence that these symbols of repressive histories hold over our present social and political landscape (Davis). 

Choosing not to remove monuments amid the rise in public disapproval is a political choice for city leaders to remain safe and hold onto particular perceptions and values. White people specifically may perceive removal of monuments as threatening the dominance of white culture in societal hierarchies. This “politicization of white grievance” works against advancements made by people of color (Hooker). There is a need to move beyond tying monument removal to political loss, and instead shift the conversation to civic engagement and building community collectivity. 

Community organizers have made efforts to create counter monuments or alternative opportunities to contextualize histories now identified as inaccurate or exclusionary. This may entail moving a monument to a sidelined location (the Sims statue is now located at his gravesite at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn), memorializing overlooked histories in new projects (the National Native American Veterans Memorial opened at the Smithsonian in 2020), or complicating histories with additional context through added signage next to a monument. Focusing efforts on monuments, public art, and other symbols, however, can become “artwashing.” This concept refers to oil companies and other corporations making large donations to arts organizations to present a socially conscious public image (Evans); its meaning has expanded to include art tied to gentrification and displacement of low income communities (Pritchard). Such efforts can postpone the systems change work necessary to address structural inequities such as balancing resources to support both the police and mental health programs, or investing in other ways of caring for the community. Communities must question whether cities are only removing monuments widely accepted as racist or if they are taking down monuments as a part of concomitant transformation within internal operations and through new cooperative models of designing future monuments. 

 Art and Future Creative Cities  

Deliberations over existing and new monuments present an opportunity to begin a community engaged process of public reflection and an exploration of systemic biases in decision making. Even when these processes are subverted from community interest, underlying systemic hierarchies are revealed which can be challenged.

As monuments fall, visions of white supremacy fall as well. Historian Peniel Joseph sees the United States as currently navigating a third period of reconstruction, which he frames as the birth of a new American freedom (Joseph). This future freedom is hindered by political leaders who hold onto monuments that celebrate imperialist histories in conflict with collective efforts to build a more equitable America. Awareness of what monuments represent and the decision-making underlying their presence is growing, necessitating processes to become more transparent and cooperative to expand the conception of what a monument can be for the people. This cannot merely be community inclusion in monument design processes, but rather requires reconceptualizing institutional cultures and power hierarchies to move closer to systemic change. While residents may be invited to share future visions with city leaders, they also must be incorporated into city processes from the onset that shift monument decision-making power to communities. 

In removing select monuments and choosing what will replace them, we are not just changing our aesthetic values or coming to terms with a new political reality that aligns better with the majority sentiments of the moment. Rather, we are collectively envisioning equitable futures. Through cooperation and redistribution of power, future creative cities can be more equitably reimagined.

Johanna K. Taylor is an Assistant Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Her work is grounded in a core value of art as catalyzing force advancing justice in daily life; her research pursues questions of cultural equity through the intersection of art, community, policy, and place. She holds a PhD in Urban Policy from The New School and an MA in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University. Her book The Art Museum Redefined: Power, Opportunity, and Community Engagement (2020) explores museums disrupting organizational hierarchies by sharing decision making with artists and communities. As an arts administrator she has worked at BRIC Arts|Media, A Blade of Grass, and Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

johanna.taylor@asu.edu


Works Cited

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