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NYC to Commission New Work to Replace Controversial Public Monument

New York City is currently seeking artists to design a new artwork to replace the controversial statue dedicated to J. Marion Sims, the nineteenth-century gynecologist once hailed as the “father of modern gynecology,” who was known for experimenting on enslaved black women. The monument, which was removed from its prominent location in Central Park, across from the New York Academy of Medicine, in April 2018, was the only public work that the city voted unanimously to take down.

The city was prompted to reevaluate all of its public artworks following the white-supremacist rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2018. The event led to violent clashes between those protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and counterprotesters. The rally led cities across the United States to confront the racist and colonial legacies of their public monuments and sparked a national debate on the role of public art and the commemoration of controversial figures.

After several months of meetings and deliberations, the commission Mayor Bill de Blasio formed to assess the monuments that reside across New York City’s five boroughs chose to provide context to historical statues rather than take them down. At the time, de Blasio said: “Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution. Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to—instead of removing entirely—the representations of these histories.”

Despite the commission’s decision to not remove monuments, it deemed the bronze statue of Sims no longer worthy of its pedestal in the park. The work was moved to the doctor’s burial place in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Other monuments that activists have called to be taken down include the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of Natural History and the figure of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle.

“Following the Mayoral Monuments Commission’s report, we stood alongside community advocates to remove the statue of J. Marion Sims from Central Park,” said cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl. “That extraordinary moment was just the beginning of the process to go beyond Sims’s legacy of medical experimentation on enslaved black women. Now we need artists to help us imagine what comes next.”

The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and NYC Parks, together with the Committee to Empower Voices for Healing and Equity—comprising East Harlem advocacy groups, cultural organizations, City Council and Community Board representatives, and other city agencies—announced the open call for artists on December 28. The selected artist will work with community stakeholders to develop an artwork that reinterprets the site where the Sims sculpture stood. 

The full request for qualifications is available on the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs’ website. Artists may respond to the open call through January 31.