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After Harlem Community Protests, Simone Leigh Withdraws Proposal for Central Park Sculpture

Vinnie Bagwell’s sculpture “Victory” will instead replace the removed monument to J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who performed brutal experiments on enslaved women in the 19th century.

Rendering of Vinnie Bagwell’s “Victory” (image courtesy of the artist)

Artist Vinnie Bagwell’s proposal “Victory” will replace a removed J. Marion Sims statue in Central Park, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) announced today. The decision follows a heated debate on Saturday, October 5, when community groups from East Harlem protested a panel of judges’ vote in favor of artist Simone Leigh’s proposal. Leigh withdrew her proposal today in recognition of the community’s preference for Bagwell’s proposal.

Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist, conducted brutal experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women. Local activist groups protested against the monument for years before the city finally removed it in April of 2018. In February of 2019, four artists were selected to develop proposals for the new monument: Bagwell, Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley.

An uproar erupted after a panel of judges for the DCLA’s Percent for Art commission voted 4-3 in favor of Leigh’s proposal. Representatives of East Harlem groups claimed that their voices were not heard and complained against a vague decision process in choosing a replacement of the Sims monument, which was installed near 103rd street. Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the DCLA, eventually announced the judges’ decision as just “advisory” to the city before closing the meeting.

“I greatly appreciate that my proposal was selected by the committee,” Leigh wrote in a statement that was circulated by the DCLA this afternoon. “However, I am aware that there is significant community sentiment for another proposal. Since this is a public monument in their neighborhood, I defer to them and have withdrawn my work.”

Vinnie Bagwell, “Victory,” Bronze, Rainbow granite, eternal flame, Sculpture and pedestal 18’3” high (image courtesy of the artist)

Following Leigh’s withdrawal, the city announced that Bagwell’s proposal has been officially selected to replace the Sims monument. The artist was the only finalist who appeared in front of the panel, and the public, to discuss her proposal.

“As a creative steward for our nation’s memory, I am so excited about balancing the narrative for enslaved Africans by creating ‘Victory…’ for the City of New York,” Bagwell wrote in a statement today. “I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the community-at-large for their collective advocacy of my work.”

“Now that this immediate situation has been resolved, the City should reevaluate how it selects public art,” said Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, in an email to Hyperallergic. “The Percent for Art process should not be a one-size-fits-all method; selection processes should be tailored to their specific circumstances.”

The DCLA announced that it will invite local residents to refine the design of Bagwell’s proposal as it moves through the City’s review and approval process. Installation is anticipated to take place in 2021.

“Community members and admirers of Vinnie Bagwell’s proposal will need to stay alert to ensure that her full vision can be realized, helping address the City’s logistical concerns and potentially seeking additional sources of funding,” Fine said.

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