NYC Reverses Decision to Censor Artist’s “Problematic” Public Sculpture

New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation has reversed its decision to censor African American artist Aaron Bell’s sixteen-foot public sculpture featuring a symbolic noose that according to the artist represents “zero tolerance for any and all manifestations of hatred,” Emma Whitford of The Gothamist reports.

Created for the Manhattan-based Arts Student League’s competitive Model to Monument program in partnership with the city, the work was designed as a large figure standing on a pedestal engraved with a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. that reads: “Our lives begin to die the day we are silent about the things that matter,” as previously reported. Officials called his piece Stand Loud, Stand Tall “problematic” after Bell revealed that he planned to replace the figure’s head with a noose that has a slash through it. A spokesperson for the department, Sam Biederman, said that there were concerns about the work’s selected location, Riverside Park, a place that “is adjacent to an area regularly programmed with passive recreational activities such as yoga, pilates, and senior movement.”

In November, Bell was informed that he had to remove the hangman’s knot in order for the piece to be realized. Bell had said he was “shocked” and “disappointed” by the decision, but complied with the department’s wishes because he didn’t want to risk losing the chance to see his work displayed in New York City. The work was unveiled in the park last week with a large mouth in lieu of the noose.

According to West Side Rag, after a meeting on June 14 between Alessandro Olivieri, general counsel at the Parks Department; Bell; and Norman Siegel, the artist’s civil rights attorney, the city will allow Bell to alter the work so that it reflects his original vision. Siegel said, “Alessandro was terrific. He understood the First Amendment implications of not allowing Aaron to have his original expression. Recognizing there was a problem, without placing blame, we corrected it. So, there is a happy and just result to this artistic-expression story and we’re very pleased.”

Bell said, “I feel like Muhammad Ali. They told him to go to war and he said, ‘I’m not going and I’m not changing my position. I’m holding my ground.’ This is a victory not just for me, but for every artist who has ever been subject to censorship.”

In a statement Biederman said, “We are happy that we were able to come to agreement with Mr. Bell, who shared with us a vision of his piece that suits the site and conveys its message clearly and powerfully.”

The artist said that the changes to the sculpture will probably take him two weeks. It will most likely be finished in time for the Fourth of July. The work is located along the water at West 61st Street and Riverside Drive.