Mellon Foundation

After the statues come down

What to do with monuments that celebrate people and stories we'd rather forget?

On October 5, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced the Monuments Project, a $250 million commitment to overhaul public art in the United States over the course of the next five years. The project promises to “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces and ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.”

There are three categories of grants associated with the project: (1) to fund new works; (2) to contextualize existing works through “installations, research, and education” and; (3) to “relocate existing monuments or memorials.”

The first category will likely garner the most excitement: The possibility of that kind of funding for new public artworks that could tell underrepresented stories is almost dizzying. It could be a much-needed chance to showcase new artists, new populations, new voices. The other two categories don’t have the gravitational pull of the first. If the work is already here, it is probably already known, and there’s probably something wrong with it. It may be problematic in any number of capacities—subject, voice, intention, location, etc.. Wouldn’t it be better to move on and create new fanfare, the kind of enthusiasm that only something shiny and new can generate? Not so fast.

The second two categories are less immediately appealing, but I would argue as important, if not more important, to the larger project of public art. This is especially true since the Mellon Project is an initiative that is supposed to happen in the next five years. Removing works is a first step, but removal must be followed by relocation and contextualization. 

Portland is facing its own public art reckoning. On Sunday, October 11th, protestors toppled statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln (in addition to damaging the Oregon Historical Society) as part of the “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage” on the eve of Columbus Day (still a federally observed holiday). Defacing or damaging public art has always gone hand-in-hand with putting it up in the first place. It happened in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia and continues to happen today. The visual impact of a former leader face-down on the pavement hasn’t lessened over the past 5000 years. 

The 1928 Abraham Lincoln sculpture at Southwest Main and Madison was toppled on October 11, 2020. Photo credit: Brittany Peterson.

The response to defacement has been far more varied and depends on the relationship between the protestors and the guardians of public art. When the people who put the sculptures up are vanquished, conquered, otherwise removed – the question is less urgent. But what happens when the people who put the sculptures up are still around and still “in power” but have had a change of heart? What happens then?