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“I’m disappointed,” said sculptor Meredith Bergmann today at the end of a hearing in front of the New York City Public Design Commission in City Hall in Lower Manhattan. Bergmann was hoping that her contested sculpture, “Women’s Rights Pioneer Monument,” would finally be approved by the commission after a year of deliberations. After criticism over the exclusion of African American suffragists in the monument’s original design, Bergmann redesigned the future Central Park sculpture to include abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth alongside suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Opponents say the redesigned sculpture still failed to address the concerns raised by the commission, which voted unanimously to table the motion for another hearing.
In the sculpture’s original design, Truth was featured in name only, listed among 22 suffragists inscribed on a long scroll that unfolds from Stanton’s desk. Sketches of the new design, which Bergmann officially unveiled today, show Truth working with Stanton and Anthony in Stanton’s home. The bronze sculpture rests on a five-feet-high granite pedestal that features the names of the three women together with the inscription “Women’s Rights Pioneers.” The scroll is no longer part of the design.
“Sojourner Truth is speaking, Susan B. Anthony is organizing, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is writing,” said Bergmann in her presentation. “Sojunerour Truth sits with Elizabeth Cady Stanton at a small table perhaps on the occasion of a conference for the abolishing of slavery or for women’s rights or both,” she said. “The women might be meeting in Stanton’s home” she added.
The gathering that Bergmann’s sculpture is depicting is subject to dispute. In August this year, 20 leading academics have signed onto a letter asking that the public art process involving the monument become more transparent and inclusive. The letter was organized by Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, and Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society. “Sojourner Truth is added in a manner that simply shows her working together with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Stanton’s home, it could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading,” the letter said. “While Truth did stay at Stanton’s home for one week to attend the May 1867 meeting of the Equal Rights Association, there isn’t evidence that they planned or worked together there as a group of three.”
“The historical record is complex,” said Bergmann. “The best sculptures in history are not fixed at a particular moment in time,” she said. To add some nuance to sculpture’s message of harmony and comradery, Bergemann said the women’s body language and facial expressions convey “some of the tensions among them.” Bergmann promised to continue to consults with stakeholders before the design is finalized.
“People from all walks of life, all regions, all races, all genders, immediately grasp the importance of the symbolism of having these three women’s rights pioneers in central Park,” said Brenda Berkman, a board member of the Monumental Women’s Statue Fund (also known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund), a nonprofit that was created in 2014 for the purpose of placing the first statue honoring women’s history in New York City’s Central Park. “They get how this statue is not the perfect answer to the lack of women and people of color in public spaces, but it’s an important start,” she said. Berkman urged the commission to approve the design despite the controversy around it. “Although these women [Stanton and Anthony] and other pioneers made mistakes and were imperfect, they fought for the rights we’re getting granted today.”
Todd Fine then read a letter on behalf of the Jacob Morriss, who expressed his “deep frustration” over the design’s approval process. According to Morris, the design was shared with the Public Design Commission and the other public agencies involved in the approval process, but the Monumental Women’s Statue Fund kept the new design confidential for a month, refusing to share it with the press and the general public. “The only conceivable reason for all this secrecy is to avoid the type of criticism that the previous design received,” wrote Morris.
Morris says the Harlem Historical Society has “no objection to the fundamentals of the design.” However, it demands the addition of a plaque to the sculpture that would give a historical context on “the different agendas among the sufferage activists.”
Artist Hank Willis Thomas, who serves as a commissioner, expressed his admiration for Bergman’s work throughout her career but urged the commission not to rush the decision over the sculpture. “There are six other statues that I think could be easily replaced by individual statues of each of these women,” he suggested. Willis Thomas acknowledged the deadline of August 26, 2020, a date that will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment which enshrined women’s right to vote in the United States Constitution.
Commissioner Mary Valverde, who is also a sculptor, said the commission has suggested to the artist and the fund to invite historians to view and comment on the design so it would be more “historically accurate” and display better “diverse sensibility.” Signe Neilson, chair of the Design Commission, asked Bergmann and the Statue Fund to present letters of approval from community boards, consult with historians, and consider “aesthetic changes” (which she did not disclose) to the sculpture before the next hearing.
“Meredith Bergmann did consult historians,” Anat Gerstein, a spokesperson for the Statue Fund wrote Hyperallergic in a comment by email. Gerstein wrote that Bergmann consulted Nell Irwin Painter, p
rofessor of American history at Princeton University and author Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996); Margaret Washington, professor of history at Cornell University, and author of Sojourner Truth’s America (2011); and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, a professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.
“We need to be thoughtful and careful rather than rushing to make what might historically be seen as a mistake,” Willis Thomas told Hyperallergic after the hearing. “History will judge us harshly,” he said.