The revised version of Central Park’s planned monument to women’s suffrage. Courtesy the New York City Public Design Commission.

New York City to Reassess Public Art Program Following Calls for More Transparency

Following several disputes that erupted over New York City’s commissioning of new monuments earlier this year, the city council is attempting to reevaluate its public art program, reports Artnet. During a hearing that was held on Tuesday, council member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the legislature’s cultural affairs committee, declared that the residents of New York want more transparency. Rising tensions over the city’s introduction of new statues seem to correlate with the city’s growing ambition to push out more than a dozen new works in the next few years.

While the 2018 launch of the $10 million She Built NYC initiative, which aims to bring more statues honoring historic women to the city’s public spaces, was celebrated as a step toward achieving greater inclusivity, lawmakers began questioning the program after some of the art being selected sparked backlash. Among the pieces that have caused the greatest contention are a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and a work by Simone Leigh.

When the women’s suffrage monument slated for Central Park was revealed, it was called racist for excluding black women, which led to a hasty redesign—Sojourner Truth was added to the mix—that was opposed by more than twenty academics. The vote in favor of commissioning a statue proposed by Leigh also faced opposition. The community claimed the work was at odds with their consensus choice of a bronze angel holding a flame by Vinnie Bagwell for their neighborhood. The conflict caused confusion over which work would be selected after Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, declared that the vote was only advisory—Finkelpearl announced his resignation shortly thereafter.

The urgency behind the campaign for new public sculptures came after the 2017 tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, which involved a protest against a confederate monument of General Robert E. Lee and a white nationalist rally. Clashes between activists and participants in the Unite the Right rally culminated in the death of thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, who was purposely hit by a car driven by an extremist. The events of that weekend prompted cities nationwide to reassess the legacy of their public art.

To ensure more engagement with the city’s communities, the Department of Cultural Affairs said it is already stipulating that an extra meeting be held between residents, city officials, and members of the selection panel for new works. While Finkelpearl conceded that an additional meeting would be beneficial, he added that he does not believe controversy can be avoided when funding public art since there will always be dissenting views over who should be commemorated and how. 

Among the other concerns raised at the hearing was the city’s Percent for Art program’s lack of resources. The initiative, which spends 1 percent of the budget for city-backed construction projects on art and currently has more than 125 projects in the works, is run by a staff of only three people—the city of San Francisco employs ten individuals to oversee a similar program.