When the mayor’s office announced in late November that it would honor US Representative Shirley Chisholm with a permanent statue at the entrance of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, everyone rejoiced. Well, almost everyone.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress; 50 years later, she will become only the sixth monument in New York City to honor a historical female figure. (By comparison, there are nearly 150 historical male statues.) Hers is the first sculpture commissioned under the SheBuiltNYC program, a city initiative to rectify the public art gender gap through an open nominations process later funneled through an advisory committee that ultimately delivered a list of recommendations to municipal officials.
Chisholm may be an excellent inaugural pick for the SheBuiltNYC initiative, but she wasn’t the committee’s first choice. Multiple sources on the advisory board tell Hyperallergic that Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration disregarded their initial recommendations in favor of honoring Chisholm, a native Brooklynite whose name had repeatedly arisen during the group’s discussions.
What SheBuiltNYC had originally proposed was far more ambitious than a single statue. The committee had intended to question the very nature of how public monuments often propagate a masculine paradigm of “lone wolf” heroism in society by glorifying the individual — and how female statuary could shift course by honoring women’s collaborative efforts.
Harriet F. Senie is a City College of New York art historian specializing in public art and memorials. An author of numerous books on the topic, she was a member of SheBuiltNYC’s committee and previously served on the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, which produced the landmark 2018 report on some of the city’s most contentious statues. She tells Hyperallergic that the city chose Chisholm above the committee’s official recommendation to honor groups “rather than individuals to make the salient point that history is never changed by one individual alone, that changes take time, and that women are known to work collaboratively.”
“That really was an outrage,” Dr. Senie says concerning the city’s disregard for the group’s recommendation. “The committee came up with five suggestions, all of them groups of women with the express intention of changing the existing paradigm of memorials. We were very clear and unanimous about that and then without a word we get a single work to Shirley Chisholm.”
Mabel O. Wilson was another member of the 19-person SheBuiltNYC committee. The Columbia architecture professor joined the initiative upon the recommendation of Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs. She says that over the course of two months, the committee met three times to review nearly 2,000 recommendations from the public. “One of the things I was interested in is why we even needed a singular figure,” she tells Hyperallergic. “How can we do something different?”
Although Wilson was disappointed that the De Blasio administration ignored SheBuiltNYC’s input, she’s “just glad something is happening.” Besides, “it doesn’t mean some of our suggestions won’t happen down the road.” Ultimately, she hopes that the city will choose more radical monuments of women in the future.
“It may not have been the initial way we wanted to see Shirley Chisholm, but it’s good that she is being represented,” she added.
The director emerita of East Harlem’s Museo del Barrio, Susana Leval, also expressed her support for the Chisholm statue in Brooklyn, which has a projected completion date of 2020. “As to the procedure and processes of the committee,”” she cautioned in an email to Hyperallergic, “any time one is invited to be on an advisory committee, all matters are ultimately subject to that, that it’s advisory. You win some, and lose some.”
According to public officials, the advisory committee’s recommendation was just one factor considered alongside those from various city agencies and staff. Ultimately, First Lady of New York City Chirlaine McCray and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen were the two people who decided on erecting the first SheBuiltNYC statue for Chisholm.
“The whole process was a charade,” Dr. Senie tells Hyperallergic. “I really believe it is important to reconsider our memorial paradigms as well as mayoral appointed commissions whose recommendations are ignored. It suggests they are, in fact, a charade for the mayor to hide behind, implying his final decision was one that came from these appointed bodies when in fact it did not.”
Shortly after the Chisholm statue was announced, Dr. Senie had reached out to her SheBuiltNYC colleagues to express her surprise and disappointment that the committee’s recommendation was ignored. “Although Shirley Chisholm is clearly a worthy subject, it was both a lost opportunity, as we discussed, and a total disregard of a process DCA created.”
The city notes that the selection committee recommended to honor “women in politics,” and that Chisholm was explicitly mentioned in that category. Although the decision to honor an individual instead of a group may have upset some on the SheBuiltNYC committee, public officials say that the initiative is not a “one-and-done” program; they are preparing to announce many new monuments in 2019.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.