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What Do Louisville's Monuments Have To Say About Us?

Take Down Castleman Statue_6
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

In recent months, Louisville's been trying to figure out what to do with a problematic statue.

John Breckinridge Castleman was a Confederate officer during the Civil War; he's memorialized in a monument in the Cherokee Triangle.

While Lexington dealt with its monuments that honored the Confederacy by swiftlyremoving them overnight, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer started a review process of the city's 400 pieces of public art after the Castleman statue was vandalized in August.

The review began in September and hasn’t produced any changes -- though it has sparked a lot of conversation.

Last Monday, Fischer announced steps to explore Louisville’s “history and values through public art and monuments.” The first step is establishing a mayoral advisory committee that will recommend principles that Louisville’s public art needs to meet.

Per a news release, “the committee members will be appointed by the Mayor and include representation from the city’s Commission on Public Art (COPA).” Members will determine their meeting schedule and methods; meetings will be open to the public.

The culmination of the committee’s work will be a report to the mayor in which they will recommend what kind of artwork should stay and what should go.

But the removal of problematic artwork is only one part of adjusting a public art collection to reflect a city’s current culture. And Louisville's could be in for some adjustment.

Whose Story Isn’t Being Told?

That’s where part two of Fischer’s plan becomes essential: proposed funding for local artists to create new monuments that focus on the untold stories of Louisville’s history.

“A monument makes a claim about freezing a moment in history,” says Chris Reitz, the gallery director and the head of the critical and curatorial studies program at the University of Louisville. “Alois Riegl, an early art historian, wrote a really important essay about what monuments are. I think that still guides our thinking.”

According to Reitz, Rieglwrote that there are different forms and kinds of artwork that qualify as monuments; they don’t have to represent a person, but their existence helps viewers access a moment in history.

And right now, if we assess Louisville’s history through its public art — even if all the monuments honoring bigotry, racism and slavery are removed — we lose wide swathes of our experiences and the people who made them.

The most prominent statue of a person of color in Louisville — of which there are only a few — is of York, the enslaved man who traveled with explorers Lewis and Clark. Up until 2015, there were no statues of women.

Even now, there’s only one: Mother Catherine Spalding outside the Cathedral of the Assumption.

What Louisville Could Learn from Philadelphia

Laura Holzman is a Public Scholar of Curatorial Practices and Visual Art at Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis; she studies how public artwork affects how people feel about the spaces around them.

She’s watching Philadelphia because the city has made some big moves in that area.

“I have seen a deliberate attempt in recent years to have new public art reflect the city's diversity more accurately than the historical public art in Philadelphia does,” Holzman says. “This has kind of appeared in two different ways.”

The first is that the city is adding public sculptures of historical figures who, Holzman says, should have been recognized a long time ago.

“A really current example is a sculpture of (civil rights activist) Octavius Catto that was recently installed outside Philadelphia’s city hall,” Holzman says.

Philadelphia isn’t just adding monuments of historic figures alongside their current statues of Benjamin Franklin and Commodore Barry.

According to Holzman, some new monuments more deliberately reflect the cultural traditions that exist and intersect in the city.

“And it's doing so not just by having art that reflects these diverse cultural experiences out in the neighborhoods where there are particular populations of immigrant communities, for example,” Holzman says, "but by bringing those cultural traditions and practices into the Center City area.”

Conversations About New Monuments

Holzman points to organizations like Philadelphia’s Monument Lab — a project that ran through the fall. It was sponsored in part by the city government and featured a series of 10 “labs” across Philadelphia where visitors were invited to answer the question: “What is an appropriate monument for Philadelphia today?”

At those 10 sites, there were prototype monuments to help get people thinking.

One example is a series of empty platforms with the names of important women throughout Philadelphia’s history who have yet to be memorialized in sculpture; another is an 800-pound Afro pick by artist Hank Willis Thomas. It's a commentary on the lack of sculptures honoring the city’s African-American identity.

Hundreds of suggestions were submitted for future monuments from all over the city from a diverse group of citizens; Holzman says this is important.

“This idea that civic leaders need to be intentional in seeking the input from citizens whose voices are rarely heard about public art,” she says.

Which, she says, is something Louisville — and other cities all across the U.S. — should think about as they're making determinations about what art needs to stay, go and be created next.