Rethinking public art with the Chicago Monuments Project | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Rethinking public art with the Chicago Monuments Project 

With 41 pieces flagged as potentially problematic, the city seeks input about next steps.

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click to enlarge Statue of Christopher Columbus in Arrigo Park

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Arrigo Park

Jyoti Srivastava

As much as we'd like to think that we're doing everything right, right now, we're not. Not totally.  

In a century or so, the folks who've taken our place here on the shore of Lake Michigan (assuming that we're not messing up so badly that there's not still a Lake Michigan) will recognize our failings.

They'll wonder how we could have been so ignorant and careless. Or worse, so craven. They’ll attempt to set things right. And, with the benefit of history's rearview mirror, they'll decide the fate of any monuments to false heroes or disastrous causes we may have left behind.

With luck, their task won't be as difficult as the one that's been handed to the Chicago Monuments Project.

Created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in response to the protests last summer that also prompted her to cause Christopher Columbus statues to vanish from public parks, the Monuments Project is led by a 30-member advisory committee that includes artists, architects, scholars, and civic leaders.

They're turning an overdue critical eye on the city's stock of public art and historical markers, looking, in particular, at the way history's been presented. Or, rather, misrepresented. They'll be making recommendations about what to do about that now, and how to avoid it in the future.

Cochaired by Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) commissioner Mark Kelly, Landmarks Illinois president Bonnie McDonald, and former Jane Addams Hull-House museum director Jennifer Scott, the committee began meeting in September.

The project aims to deal with the fact that "many of our existing monuments perpetuate harmful and untrue narratives that are offensive to many people," and to "address the hard truths of Chicago's racial history."

To start a public discussion about that, the committee came up with a list of 41 problematic pieces, all created between 1893 and the 1930s, when mythmaking about the founding of the city and the nation buried issues like slavery and genocide while (among other things) "promoting narratives of white supremacy."

The monuments range from images of Leif Erikson, Abraham Lincoln, and Columbus, to the golden replica of the "The Republic" that stands in Jackson Park.

There's been some pushback.

Last week, after drawing heat for previous sessions held in private, the advisory committee met publicly, on Zoom. You can still access that meeting (and other past public events) at the project website. If you do, you'll hear cochair Mark Kelly addressing misconceptions about the project. "This is not an effort to tear it all down," Kelly says, but is more about "repurposing, recontextualizing, reimagining."

"We're not here to rewrite history. We're looking to understand the omissions and half-truths that are represented in our public monuments."

And you'll hear 38th Ward alderman Nick Sposato say that "when I hear 'reimagine,' it bothers me." And, "We need to add in, not get rid of."

Some of what follows, in nearly two hours of comments by committee members, are suggestions that future monuments don't have to be statues, but can be, for example, gathering places, and that they should be less about prominent individuals and more about women, people of color, and the collective experience. DCASE staffers report that 125 artists submitted ideas for new monuments, and that, after Chicago, no place is more interested in the project website than Croatia, homeland of sculptor Ivan Meštrović, whose Bowman and Spearman sculptures (at Michigan and Ida B. Wells Drive) are on the list.  

There are also remarks from two members of the public, allowed just three minutes each to comment. Anthony Onesto argues for keeping the controversial Balbo monument in Burnham Park (a gift from one fascist memorializing another; see John Greenfield’s reporting on this), and Ron Onesti allows that "the narrative should be broadened," but notes that "our Columbus statues were the only statues taken down," and "we want them back."

Last week, Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, sent Chicago Park District head Michael Kelly a letter announcing that, thanks to FOIA document releases, the JCCIA has discovered an agreement signed by the Park District in 1973 that requires permission from their organization before the Columbus statue in Little Italy's Arrigo Park—originally displayed at the 1893 World's Fair, and one of those abruptly placed in storage by Lightfoot—can be removed.    

On Monday, the Park District replied that the agreement only calls for JCCIA approval for "substantial changes," and that since this removal (nine months ago and counting) is  temporary, "No substantial changes were made to the statue or plaza therefore the Chicago Park District is not in violation of the agreement."

The Monuments Project is hosting a series of public events that run into June, many of them in partnership with other organizations. I caught two of those in the last week: one cohosted by the Chicago Cultural Alliance (with presentations by the Bronzeville Historical Society, the Haitian American Museum, and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance), the other by the Mother Jones Heritage Project, which wants to put a statue of its namesake on Wacker Drive, just off Michigan Avenue.

Did you know that Mother (Mary) Jones immigrated to America from Ireland as a child, lost her husband and four children to an epidemic of yellow fever, and moved to Chicago (for a second time) in 1867, setting up a dressmaking business that was wiped out in the Great Fire before embarking on her legendary career as a labor organizer?

Mother Jones wasn't perfect; she failed to embrace the cause of women's suffrage. But she raised hell to get children out of the mines and factories.  v

In the next week or so the Monuments Project is offering programs on "North Lawndale Monuments" and the "Indian Boundary Line Marker," with the "Three Patriots Statue," the "Chicago Race Riot," and much more coming up. Check the website (chicagomonuments.org) for the schedule.  

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