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At Monument Meeting, Slight Progress Made Despite Crowd’s Focus On Castleman

The second Public Art and Monument Advisory Committee meeting, held Tuesday night, is best summed up with the saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Thiscommittee was established by Mayor Greg Fischer in December — about four months after the Cherokee Triangle statue of John Breckinridge Castleman wasvandalized with red paint.

For many, Castleman is a controversial figure. He served in the Confederate Army, but also played a key role in establishing Louisville’s park system. After the vandalism, Fischer directed the city’s Commission on Public Art to survey current artworks, and determine whether any could be interpreted as, quote, “honoring bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”

The point was not just to look at Castleman, but at the city’s nearly 400 works of public art. But on Tuesday night, like at previous meetings, Castleman was all people wanted to talk about.

The majority of comments at these forums have been made by white members of the community. To combat that, the committee announced it would be moving the meeting times and locations to accommodate more schedules and be in more neighborhoods.

But Tuesday night, despite meeting at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, the five people who signed up for the open mic were white, three of whom had already spoken at prior meetings on the topic.

And no surprise, the comments centered mostly on Castleman, as they have for the past six months.

But the committee itself — made up of seven members — did try to move the conversation forward.

Proposed Criteria

Chris Reitz, the gallery director and head of the Critical and Curatorial Studies program at the University of Louisville, is one of those members.

“As an opening criteria, my suggestion would be that Louisville has the monuments it would still put up today,” Reitz said during the meeting. “The criteria would be, if you wouldn’t put up that monument today, it shouldn’t be a monument in the town.”

Essentially, Reitz said that while monuments can become other things to a community — like a marker of the time period during which they were put up, or a neighborhood emblem — they were originally erected to honor a person.

“This gives us a much more narrow set of criteria to begin this evaluation,” Reitz said. “And I know we’re all thinking Castleman, but this doesn’t solve our problem.”

Reitz went on to say that there could ostensibly be a debate about Lincoln, given his history of racist comments.

“Knowing what we know about him, what he said — would that be criteria for removing the monument?” asked Cathy Shannon; she is a committee member, Louisville gallery owner and one of two people of color on the committee.

Reitz clarified that he wasn't recommending that the city not erect or preserve monuments to complicated people (as committee member Tom Owen noted, "all people have a blemish"); rather, his proposed criteria would move the city towards thinking about its current values.

The conversation became a little circuitous at times and no decisions were made, but the committee really broadened the scope of what art was being discussed. They also said they would leave thinking about whether Reitz’s suggestion for the first criteria was the right one.

So in that sense, there was some movement forward — but at the same time, a lot of the meeting felt stagnant.

At the end of the meeting, committee members urged the public to continue writing in online with their feedback — but to perhaps broaden them to include all of Louisville’s public art or to include criteria suggestions.

That, after all, is what Mayor Fischer asked the committee to provide to him in June.