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Billie Holiday Among Five Historic Women to Be Honored in New NYC Monuments

The De Blasio administration will build five individual memorials instead of the more ambitious group designs recommended by SheBuiltNYC’s advisory committee to honor women’s collaborative efforts.

First Lady Chirlane McCray and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen give remarks at a SheBuiltNYC event (image via NYC Mayor’s Office/Flickr)

One woman per borough. That’s the plan devised by the De Blasio administration to close New York City’s public sculpture gender gap. Only three percent of the city’s 150 statues depicting historical figures include women. Thanks to the SheBuiltNYC initiative, which began its selection process in 2018, that number will soon double from five to ten statues.

In November, First Lady Chirlane McCray and then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen announced that US Representative Shirley Chisholm would become the first woman honored with a monument through SheBuiltNYC. Last Wednesday, the pair announced four new honorees: jazz singer Billie Holiday; Civil Rights leader Elizabeth Jennings Graham; public health pioneer Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías; and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker.

Each monument will be placed at a site relevant to the woman. Holiday will be near Queens Borough Hall, close to where she lived; Rodríguez will be installed in the Bronx near Lincoln Hospital; Graham will be honored next to Grand Central Terminal to commemorate her fight against segregation in public transit; and Walker will be remembered in Staten Island, at the borough’s ferry station. (The Chisholm statue was previously announced for the entrance to Prospect Park.)

“When we launched SheBuiltNYC, we promised this would not be a ‘one and done,’” said Glen in a statement. “Today’s announcement marks real action by the City of New York to ensure that our public realm exemplifies the diverse and accomplished women who make this city so great.”

The news was bittersweet for the art historians and public art professionals recruited by the mayor’s office to serve on SheBuiltNYC’s advisory committee. In January, Hyperallergic reported that the De Blasio administration had ignored the committee’s recommendation for group monuments honoring women’s collaborative efforts instead of traditional “lone wolf” statuary highlighting the heroism of a single person.

The city responded by saying that the advisory committee’s recommendation was just one factor considered alongside those from various city agencies and staff. Public officials also told Hyperallergic that SheBuiltNYC was — like Glen said above — not a “one and done” program.

Nevertheless, the De Blasio administration’s initiative will forge ahead with five statues, a $1o million fund, and a projected end date of 2022 for the recently-announced sculptures. It also means that, despite the city’s previous response, it’s unlikely that SheBuiltNYC will engender its vision of a new type of women’s monument any time soon.

“I have no idea how they chose these women or the locations where they will be placed,” Harriet F. Senie told Hyperallergic via email after Wednesday’s announcement. 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.

Senie found the city’s decision rather odd. “If you look at the number of votes two of the four [women selected] received, they are not obvious choices,” the art historian said. And “although the comments by the First Lady and Alicia Glen indicated that these were democratic decisions made by a committee,” the selection of these four new statues had little to do with SheBuiltNYC’s advisory panel.

“We cannot tell the story of New York City without recognizing the invaluable contributions of the women who helped build and shape it,” said McCray in a statement. “Public monuments should tell the full history and inspire us to realize our potential — not question our worth. In honoring these four trailblazers today, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to see powerful women who made history receive the recognition they deserve.”

But as the city honors those historical figures, the opinions of women experts in public art continue to be ignored, deciding the landscape of the city’s monuments for generations to come.

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