A New York City hearing to celebrate the replacement for the removed J. Marion Sims monument in Central Park on Saturday, October 5, erupted into chaos after local stakeholders objected to a vote by a panel of judges appointed by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA). A panel of seven judges voted 4 to 3 in favor of a proposal submitted by the artist Simone Leigh, but many community activists were in favor of Vinnie Bagwell’s proposal. Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, has called the judges’ decision “advisory.”
In December of 2018, the City of New York published an open call for artists to propose sculptural artworks that would replace a contested monument for Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who conducted brutal experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women without using anesthesia. The chosen finalists were the artists Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, Kehinde Wiley, and Vinnie Bagwell. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs invited the public to vote for the proposals by October 4, but the local activists in East Harlem accuse the city of ignoring the community’s will.
Soon after the vote was announced, activists from the Beyond Sims Committee, a community coalition that was initiated by the city together with local East Harlem groups in October 2018, complained that they were removed from the decision process.
Bagwell was the only finalist present at the hearing to discuss her proposal. Community members who were present in the room have expressed their support for her sculpture, one activist saying: “Your contestants didn’t even show up.”
“We feel very betrayed,” said M. Ndigo Washington, a member of the Beyond Sims Committee. “You continue to ask for our opinion, you continue to ask to participate in a process, a process that now feels rigged,” she said. “We feel as though our opinion does not matter,” Washington continued. “I am telling you that this is not the end.”
The DCLA has not immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“We bought into a process that’s nebulous, that wasn’t laid out anywhere … we pour our soul and heart to explain why we feel a certain thing,” said Nilsa Orama, chairperson of Community Board 11 of East Harlem. “What wasn’t explained to us is that we were a window dressing because our opinion won’t be counted unless it fell in line with whatever decision was made.”
“This a farce, a charade,” a third local activist shouted.
Writer and critic Antwaun Sargent, who was one of the judges on the panel, told the audience: “From our perspective, we were asked to be on the voting committee. From the community’s perspective, the community thought it was coming to the room to pick a sculpture. There’s a lot of confusion around what is the process, and what should have been the process.”
“The opinion of this panel is advisory to the city,” Finkelpearl clarified in an attempt to calm the atmosphere in the room. “The city can then take that advice or not take that advice. […] I have not signed off on this yet. They have done their job. we’re going to huddle back and talk to our stakeholders. Everybody is here because they really care about this, and the passion in this room is felt and understood, it is not going to be ignored.”
In a series of tweets posted today, Sargent accused Finkelpearl of undermining the commission’s process. “[Finkelpearl] came over while the panel was deliberating and told us that this was not about the art world and that we should basically give the people what they wanted. I told him he was grossly overstepping his authority,” he wrote.
“Also the panel stayed the entire time to talk to anyone who wanted to talk even when they were shouting at us. We were not there to offend or make the community feel disempowered. We were there to do what was asked: listen to the proposals and vote as experts,” he continued. In another tweet, he wrote, “I’m frustrated and confused about how I was used to further disempower a black and brown community.”
In another story relating to a controversial Central Park monument, this past September, the New York City Public Design Commission postponed a vote on a suffrage monument featuring Sojourner Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Statue Fund, the nonprofit pushing for the new sculptures, was asked 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.
“A fundamental part of the problem [at the J. Marion Sims hearing] was that DCLA, on their own initiative, put contemporary-art-world-type, famous artists in the pool, who didn’t work as hard as Vinnie (or even bother to show up),” Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, told Hyperallergic in an email. “I believe that in addition to the uncertain and chaotic matter at hand, we also need to discuss how this mess should trigger a reform of the Percent for Art process, with so many SheBuiltNYC and other monuments in the hopper.”
The discussion over the statue will continue tomorrow, October 8, at a DCLA meeting at the Community Board Eleven of Manhattan (1664 Park Avenue). The meeting will start at 6:30pm.
Editors note 10/8/19: This article has been updated to reflect the correct date of the hearing and original announcement of the open call. It has also been updated to attribute a quote to Nilsa Orama, chairperson of Community Board 11 of East Harlem. We regret the errors.