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NYC Launches Survey on the Role of Public Monuments

On Wednesday, October 26, New York City launched an online survey asking for the public’s input about the role of public art. Mayor Bill de Blasio established the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—which was organized in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee—ended in violence earlier this year. The commission will use the data collected to inform its decision about the handling of controversial monuments.

“Responses will play a critical role in shaping the commission’s work of developing guidelines that can be applied broadly to art on city property, with the ultimate goal of putting forth a thoughtful way to promote more inclusive, welcoming public spaces for all New Yorkers,” Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of cultural affairs, said in a statement.

The survey comprises seven questions that allow residents to address specific landmarks and what role they play, what factors the city should consider when reviewing them, and how to properly convey their historical and contemporary contexts. The survey is open until November 27.

While the commission does not ask for feedback on any specific works, several monuments have recently been targeted by protesters. People have been demanding the removal of a large monument in East Harlem that honors Dr. J. Marion Sims, who has been called the “father of gynecology.” He is also known for performing experimental surgeries on enslaved women without their consent. During a demonstration in August, twenty-seven-year-old activist Rossanna Mercedes told the New York Daily News that “memorializing of imperialist slaveholders, murderers and torturers like J. Marion Sims is white supremacy . . . We will no longer allow government institutions like the New York City Parks Department to passively allow symbols of oppression.”

More recently, protesters have defaced the statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park, painting the explorer’s hands red, and the bronze Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History, splattering a red liquid substance at its base. According to the New York Times, the Monument Removal Brigade admitted to carrying out the vandalism. “Now the statue is bleeding,” the group said in a statement. “We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation.”

Among the works that have already been removed are two busts of Confederate generals that were installed at Bronx Community College and a number of plaques around Brooklyn that were dedicated to Robert E. Lee.