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NYC Threatens to Ban Artist’s “Problematic” Public Sculpture

The New York City department of parks and recreation is forcing African American artist Aaron Bell to remove a symbolic noose from a public sculpture he designed for a city-sponsored program, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times reports.

A longtime student of the Arts Student League—a Manhattan-based art school—Bell created the work for the league’s competitive Model to Monument program which, in partnership with the parks department, places large-scale works in various places throughout the city. Last fall, Bell presented the department with a model of the proposed sculpture that would be installed in Manhattan’s Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Once completed the work, titled Stand Loud, Stand Tall, was supposed to be a sixteen-foot-tall human body with a hangman’s knot where the head should be. The noose has a slash through its center, which the artist said represents “zero tolerance for any and all manifestations of hatred.” The work’s title is derived from the words of Martin Luther King Jr., with a quotation by King at the base of the sculpture reading: “Our lives begin to die the day we are silent about the things that matter.”

The parks department’s public art coordinator, Jennifer Lantzas, informed the league via email that “the image of the noose could be problematic for the borough.” A spokesperson for the department, Sam Biederman, said that some parks officials were concerned because of the work’s proposed location, Riverside Park. While the league had randomly selected the site for Bell’s work, according to Biederman, the park “is adjacent to an area regularly programmed with passive recreational activities such as yoga, pilates, and senior movement.”

Bell tried explaining the meaning of his work to the city in writing because his requests for a meeting with officials to discuss the issue in person were ignored. “I’m really disappointed in the city,” Bell told the New York Post. “I’m shocked that something like this can still happen in this day and age.”

The Model to Monument initiative’s theme this year was the public square and its responsibilities. “My interpretation of that idea is a place where people interact for the benefit of social conscience and justice,” Bell said. “I knew that I wanted to do a piece that would introduce a dialogue.” In order for the city to install the piece, Bell had to remove the noose. He is replacing it with a large mouth. “Getting your sculpture put up in a public place in New York City is like hitting the lottery,” he said. “I can’t give up the opportunity. But I still stand by my original work.”