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Over 120 Prominent Artists and Scholars Call on NYC to Take Down Racist Monuments

In a letter to the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, the signatories advocate for the removal of monuments to Christopher Columbus, J. Marion Sims, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Statue of J. Marion Sims in Central Park (photo Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
Statue of J. Marion Sims in Central Park (photo Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

On Tuesday, November 28, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers held its final public hearing for New Yorkers to voice their opposition to and support for the removal or reframing of public monuments around the city. Based on comments at the five public hearings and other feedback, the Commission is expected to make its recommendations to Mayor Bill de Blasio about how best to deal with contentious monuments by the end of the year.

Today, more than 120 prominent scholars and artists have signed and sent a letter to the Commission — and shared it exclusively with Hyperallergic — calling for the removal of three monuments and two historic markers. The signatories include such well-known art historians as Ariella Azoulay, Claire Bishop, Lucy Lippard, Fred Moten, Deborah Willis, Gregory Sholette, and Hal Foster, and artists, including Alicia Grullon, Jackson Polys, and Martha Rosler.

“These monuments are an affront in a city whose elected officials preach tolerance and equity,” the letter, which is included in full below, reads in part. “We encourage the Commission to seize this opportunity to make a brave, even monumental, gesture that will resonate for generations to come, rather than a politically expedient fix that will be easily absorbed — and quickly forgotten — by the status quo.”

Protesters covering the Teddy Roosevelt statue with a parachute during a protest outside the the American Museum of Natural History in October 2016 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The three monuments cited in the letter are the same ones that were most frequently discussed in the Commission’s public hearings: the Christopher Columbus monument in Columbus Circle; the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History; and the monument to J. Marion Sims in Central Park. The two historic markers, commemorating members of the government of Vichy France known to have been Nazi collaborators and convicted of treason after World War II, Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, are located in the so-called “Canyon of Heroes” on Broadway in the Financial District.

“[F]or all the infiltration of corporate philanthropy and so-called private public ‘partnerships,’ museums and public spaces are still considered society’s foremost public fora,” Carin Kuoni, the Director/Curator of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School and one of the letter’s signatories, told Hyperallergic. “As such, they must remain pertinent to contemporary society, responsive to the demands, hopes, and visions of ‘the public’ — citizens, visitors, moving populations alike. These institutions cannot insist on the duty to enshrine and preserve the ethical values of periods past, if they want to be thriving spaces of encounters for the people of our time.”

While many attendees at last month’s hearings suggested adding contextualizing plaques alongside controversial monuments, the letter’s signatories are adamant that they be removed.

The statue of Christopher Columbus atop the monument in Columbus Circle (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons)
The statue of Christopher Columbus atop the monument in Columbus Circle (photo by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Any plaque or signage that addresses the complicated legacy while leaving these statues in their current position, serves to justify, to indicate that these problematic glorifications — despite any complicating by indicating their genocidal roots — deserve to endure,” artist Jackson Polys, one of the signatories, told Hyperallergic. “These monuments, particularly the Statue to Roosevelt, directly communicate a message of superiority and inferiority along racialized lines. The danger is that this message is normalized daily, not only by adults but by more than 300,000 school children per year, reproducing harmful divisions. How far will this extend to our future generations?”

Indeed, the letter concludes by suggesting to the Commission possible ways of recontextualizing the statues and markers within historical institutions that would offer a less edifying, more educational framework.

“They should be placed in exhibits that lead visitors through this history so that at the moment of confronting the statue, the (white) viewer already has the knowledge they need to see the statue as racist,” Nick Mirzoeff, another signatory and a professor of visual culture at New York University, told Hyperallergic. “I don’t think that’s ever been a problem for Indigenous and African American viewers. In Germany, Nazi-era sculpture cannot be seen except in such organized exhibition space.”

The full text of the group’s letter is below. Anyone can add their name to the list of signatories via this online version of the letter.

* * *

To the Mayor’s Commission on Monuments:

As scholars of American art, cultural history and social analysis, we are writing to urge that the Commission recommend the removal of several monuments from public view in New York City. They have long been highlighted as objects of popular resentment among communities of color and anti-racist scholars, artists, and movements. It is thus no surprise that these monuments have risen to the top of the list of the “symbols of hate,” to quote Mayor de Blasio, singled out during the Commission’s recent public hearings. For too long, they have generated harm and offense as expressions of white supremacy. These monuments are an affront in a city whose elected officials preach tolerance and equity.

In this letter, we add our voice to the widespread sentiment calling for their removal. We understand this call for removal as an historic moral opportunity for creatively reckoning with the past and opening space for a more just future. We encourage the Commission to seize this opportunity to make a brave, even monumental, gesture that will resonate for generations to come, rather than a politically expedient fix that will be easily absorbed– and quickly forgotten– by the status quo.

The monuments in question are as follows:

1. The Dr. J. Marion Sims statue in Central Park, commemorating a doctor who performed surgical experiments on enslaved African American women, including children, without anesthesia or consent. Momentum for its removal has spurred a remarkably broad coalition in support of the long-standing demand from Black and Latinx Harlemites that this affront be removed.

2. Historic markers of Vichy France’s Nazi collaborators, Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, are located in the Canyon of Heroes. Lest anyone need reminding, Vichy organized its own deportation to Auschwitz of over 70,000 Jewish French citizens.

3. The Equestrian Monument to Theodore Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History. It depicts Roosevelt on horseback, accompanied by half-naked African and American Indian figures on foot, carrying his rifles.

4. The Christopher Columbus statue overlooking Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

We believe the case for removing the first two is largely beyond debate. There are no defenders of these monuments, and they have no place on City property.

The third monument is not simply a free-standing statue of the 26th President, but rather a grouping of figures: Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by subordinate figures on foot, one Black (African by appearance) and the other Indigenous (in a stereotypical Native American cast but with an especially inappropriate mix of headdress and clothing). As an imperialist, and frank advocate of eugenics, Roosevelt’s views on racial hierarchy are well-known to historians. The Museum (center of the American eugenics movement in the early years of the twentieth century) now pays tribute to his conservationist efforts, without acknowledging the link to those racialist beliefs. The dedication of the Museum’s memorial in 1936 and of the adjoining equestrian monument in 1939 was celebrated by its officials as a consummation of the theories of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who had presided over the institution’s early growth at the same time as he championed eugenics within and without. Even casual visitors who may not possess this knowledge regard the monument as a stark embodiment of white supremacy, and it is an especial source of hurt to Black and Indigenous people among them. The removal of this monument will be a bold statement on behalf of all New Yorkers that this unsavory moment in American history no longer deserves to be commemorated. Indeed, this past October, more than one thousand people gathered at the Museum at the invitation of groups including Black Youth Project 100, Decolonize This Place, and NYC Stands With Standing Rock to demand the removal of the statue.

By far the most controversial of the monuments is that to Christopher Columbus, who served the Spanish crown, and spoke and wrote only in Catalan. Because he was born in Genoa in 1451–a city that did not become “Italy” until the unification of the country in 1861–he was adopted as a patriotic symbol by Italian immigrants in the nineteenth century. But the public claim of “ownership” of Columbus by Italian-Americans cannot be allowed to override his key role in the historical genocide of Indigenous peoples of the Americas. By 1600, at least 50 million Indigenous people died in this hemisphere as a result of the Columbian encounter with Europeans, whether from war, disease or enslavement. It takes only a little understanding to see why their descendants do not regard anything associated with 1492 as an object of veneration. Many U.S. cities have chosen to do what is just and renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. There is now a national movement to remove statues of Columbus parallel to the movement to remove Confederate monuments in the South. The recent events in Charlottesville prompted Mayor de Blasio to establish the Commission, and so it is incumbent upon us to look to the example of that city in boldly opting to remove the offending monuments.

In calling upon the Commission to recommend the removal of the aforementioned monuments, we also endorse any forward-looking post-removal initiative to advance understanding of these histories and make creative use of the vacated city property. These statues could be placed in dedicated museum spaces or memorial gardens, as has happened in Germany, India, South Africa and across Eastern Europe. The Roosevelt monument by James Earle Fraser could be profitably displayed alongside Fraser’s The End of the Trail in the Metropolitan Museum, for example, so that viewers could explore how race and eugenics were visualized in the period. The empty sites could be used as the subject for artistic competitions, as with London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. In short, we see the outcome of the Commission not as destroying heritage, let alone the purported erasure of history, but as the beginning of an exciting new set of possibilities for public art and museums in New York City, one finally devoted to an inclusive and reparative vision of the difficult histories of settler colonialism and the Indigenous peoples of this land.

Sincerely,

Rachel Adams (Columbia University )
Awam Ampka (NYU)
Jane Anderson (NYU)
Tom Angotti (Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center)
Ariella Azoulay (Brown University)
Gianpaolo Baiocchi (NYU)
Kadambari Baxi (Barnard College)
Herman Bennett (CUNY Graduate Center)
Maurice Berger (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)
Claire Bishop (CUNY Graduate Center)
Kirsten Pai Buick (University of New Mexico)
Eduardo Cadava (Princeton University)
Jordan Camp (Barnard College)
Hazel Carby (Yale University)
Paula Chakravartty (NYU)
Kandice Chu (CUNY Graduate Center)
Simon Critchley (New School)
Arlene Davila (NYU)
Ashley Dawson (CUNY Graduate Center)
Patrick Deer (NYU)
TJ Demos (UC Santa Cruz)
Rosalyn Deutsche (Barnard College)
Jaskiran Dhillon (New School)
Natasha Dhillon (MTL)
Ana Dopico (NYU)
Lisa Duggan (NYU)
Johanna Fernandez (Baruch College)
Ada Ferrer (NYU)
Michelle Fine (CUNY Graduate Center)
Nicole Fleetwood (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
Hal Foster (Princeton University)
Julia Foulkes (New School)
Faye Ginsburg (NYU)
Kyle Goen (MTL+)
Jennifer Gonzalez (UC Santa Cruz)
Jeff Goodwin (NYU)
Gayatri Gopinath (NYU)
Linda Gordon (NYU)
Sandy Grande (Connecticut College)
Greg Grandin (NYU)
Margaret Gray (Adelphi University)
Steven Gregory (Columbia University)
Alicia Grullon (NYU)
Macarena Gómez-Barris (Pratt Institute)
David Harvey (CUNY Graduate Center)
Christina Heatherton (Barnard College)
Rachel Heiman (New School)
Amin Husain (MTL +)
Matthew Jacobson (Yale University)
Karl Jacoby (Columbia University)
Kimberley Johnson (NYU)
Walter Johnson (Harvard University)
David Joselit (CUNY Graduate Center)
May Joseph (Pratt Institute)
Rebecca Karl (NYU)
Cindi Katz (CUNY Graduate Center)
J. Kehaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan University)
Monica Kim (NYU)
Eric Klinenberg (NYU)
Arun Kundnani (NYU)
Carin Kuoni (New School)
Lucy Lippard (independent scholar)
Julie Livingston (NYU)
Eric Lott (CUNY Graduate Center)
Emily Martin (NYU)
Reinhold Martin (Columbia University)
Anna McCarthy (NYU)
Anne McClintock (Princeton University)
Yates McKee (Borough of Manhattan Community College)
Kim Miller (Wheaton College)
Mark Crispin Miller (NYU)
Nicholas Mirzoeff (NYU)
Timothy Mitchell (Columbia University)
WJT Mitchell (University of Chicago)
Jennifer Morgan (NYU)
Fred Moten (NYU)
Fred Myers (NYU)
Alondra Nelson (Columbia University)
Mae Ngai (Columbia University)
Rob Nixon (Princeton University)
Mary Nolan (NYU)
Gary Okihiro (Columbia University)
Liza Oliver (Wellesley College)
Bertell Ollman (NYU)
Kim Phillips-Fein (NYU)
Dana Polan (NYU)
Jackson Polys (Columbia University)
Michael Ralph (NYU)
Sujani Reddy (SUNY-Old Westbury)
Conor Tomás Reed (CUNY Graduate Center)
Robert F. Reid-Pharr (CUNY Graduate Center)
Bruce Robbins (Columbia University)
Miguel Robles-Duran (New School)
Shellyne Rodriguez (SVA)
Martha Rosler (Independent Artist)
Andrew Ross (NYU)
Marz Saffore (MTL+)
Maria Saldaña (NYU)
Sukhdev Sandhu (NYU)
Dean Saranillio (NYU)
Sarah Schulman (College of Staten Island, CUNY)
Richard Sennett (London School of Economics)
Greg Sholette (Queens College)
Ira Shor (CUNY Graduate Center)
Nikhil Singh (NYU)
Anne Spice (CUNY Graduate Center)
Elsa Stamatopoulou (Columbia University)
Marita Sturken (NYU)
Celina Su (Brooklyn College/CUNY Graduate Center)
Thomas Sugrue (NYU)
Neferti Tadiar (Columbia University)
Mick Taussig (Columbia University)
Diana Taylor (NYU)
Saadia Toor (College of Staten Island, CUNY)
Thuy Linh Tu (NYU)
Manu Vimalassery (Barnard College)
McKenzie Wark (New School)
Robert Warrior (University of Kansas)
Andrew Weiner (NYU)
Amy Weng (MTL+)
Deborah Willis (NYU)
Gwendolyn Wright (Columbia University)
Or Zublasky (New School)

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