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?

In June and July of this year, three sculptures were removed by the Regional Arts and Culture Council in consultation with the Portland City Council: a sculpture of George Washington from Northeast Sandy Blvd, the Thompson Elk, and The Promised Land from Chapman Square. The next steps for these removed works are still under consideration. I want to make a case for removal and contextualization. 

The Thompson Elk in storage in August. Photo credit: Brian Libby.

The Thompson Elk was, in the words of RACC’s Director of Public Art, Kristin Calhoun, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The elk—which is apparently actually an anatomically incorrect deer with elk horns—sat atop a granite reservoir foundation at the center of Southwest Main Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. This location, right across from the Multnomah County Justice Center, was right at the center of the ongoing protests. The fountain had been shut off because of Covid-19 and the empty granite basin was used for fires or alternately smashed. The fountain suffered significant damage during the Occupy Protests in 2011 as well. The Thompson Elk didn’t come down for content. It’s hard to object to a deer/elk. It was even embraced by antifa as a sort of unofficial mascot and then remade into the Nightmare Elk after removal. It was the subject of a loving ode by Brian Libby who checked on its welfare in September (it’s fine). Barry Johnson wrote about it for ArtsWatch last week in his column “Starting Over: It’s not about the elk, it’s all about the elk.”

George Washington was a content issue. George Washington was a slave owner, after all, and the bronze figure was pulled off its pedestal on Northeast Sandy Blvd in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. The sculpture came down on the eve of Juneteenth, June 18th. RACC retrieved it when it was prone in the grass. Calhoun explained that the goal was to avoid the sculpture getting dragged in the street or tossed in the river—actions that can easily turn into public safety concerns. 

The 1927 George Washington sculpture on Northeast Sandy and Alameda was pulled down on June 18, 2020. Photo credit: Rebecca Ellis/OPB

The last of the three summer removals was perhaps most fraught: David Manuel’s The Promised Land from 1993. The bronze family grouping of a bearded man, wistful woman holding a doll, and young boy clasping a cross-emblazoned Bible had been on a pedestal in Chapman Square since late 1994. The spoked wheel and Little House on the Prairie garb clearly mark the figures as 19th Oregon settlers. The sculpture was commissioned by the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council, a group convened by the state government to oversee the sesquicentennial celebrations of the arrival of the settlers on the Oregon Trail. RACC announced the removal in an Instagram post on July 23

David Manuel’s The Promised Land (1993) in Chapman Square prior to its July 2020 removal.

The reaction to the removal on social media was positive—double, if not triple, the “likes” garnered by Regional Arts’ other posts. One especially astute comment by Rozzell Medina (@Rozzellmedina) summed up the general sentiment: “So happy to see this monument to white settler colonialism go away, and I hope it gets lost in the vaults. This land was not promised to white settlers or their ilk; it was stolen from people who were deeply connected to it and to the spirits resonating within it. Good riddance.”

In 2020, The Promised Land was met with disapproval and disdain, and it was equally met with derision from some sectors of the community when it debuted in 1994. The sculpture was “donated” to the city, but the gift was rejected by the predecessor of RACC, the Metropolitan Arts Council’s Public Advisory Committee. The head of the committee, Anne Johnson explained the rejection in 1994: 

It was the unanimous decision of the committee to reject this proposal, as the piece was not deemed an appropriate acquisition…The Committee based its decision on two main points. First and most importantly, the depiction of subject matter was found to be an inappropriate and inaccurate representation of the settlers of Oregon, excluding the many other races and religions of those who have come to call Oregon home. It is also insensitive to the history of the indigenous [sic] people of the area. Secondly, the committee did not feel that the workmanship of this sculpture is of the caliber of the other bronze figures in the City’s collection…

The rejection set off a debate that reached the national stage. The Metropolitan Arts Council was accused of applying an “unauthorized and fallacious standard of political correctness” and of hating Western art by Brian Booth of the Oregon Trail Coordinating Committee. 

The debacle raged: Rush Limbaugh got involved, there were articles in USA Today and in the L.A. Times along with many stories in the Oregonian. KATU did a poll of 12,000 people in 1994 and 94% of respondents were in favor of the City accepting and siting the sculpture. The poll wasn’t scientific but of the people surveyed that is an overwhelming majority. Kristin Calhoun recalls that there were several days during which all the 8-person staff of the Metropolitan Art Council did was field calls from people angry about The Promised Land.  The files from the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland City Archives on this sculpture are voluminous, and, at least to me, endlessly fascinating. 

The Promised Land saga is interesting in its own right, but more pressing is the familiarity of the argument, the debate over “political correctness” and anger or frustration over the destabilization of white supremacy. Portland may have shifted definitively to one side—there was no public outcry in the city over the removal of The Promised Land this summer, for example. From the vantage point of 2020 though, it’s difficult not to see this debate as emblematic of the division in the country at large. Rush Limbaugh received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union in 2020, and I could be wrong but I have a feeling his opinions on the righteousness of The Promised Land haven’t changed in the past 16 years. 

Works of public art that, in the words of RACC, “no longer align with the City’s anti-racist values” should come down. Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s 1904 sculpture of two Indigenous people titled Coming of the White Man, can’t stay in place. In fact, it seems that the only reason this sculpture hasn’t been pulled down already is that it is tucked away in Washington Park (and when I went to find it two weeks ago, the access road was closed so it was a challenge to even find it). 

The 1904 sculpture Coming of the White Man in Washington Park. Photo credit: Portland Public Art blog.

The sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott at Mt. Tabor was already vandalized with the words “F*** a racist” in February of 2020. Scott may have been a long-time editor of The Oregonian, but he also fought with a militia that violated the treaty rights of Indigenous people in the area. 

There are other sculptures in the public collection that shouldn’t stand “as is”—Sacajawea and Jean-Baptiste from 1905 or the monument to the Spanish-American War, which was erected in 1906 after a campaign led by Harvey Whitefield Scott—they’re not in line with the values that we want to embrace in 2020. 

Our instinct may be to remove these works—destroy them entirely or just put them in storage to commune with the dust bunnies. We can use our public art to proclaim who we are now: a liberal city committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. If Donald Trump wants to leave the monuments in place, you better believe that over here in the “anarchist jurisdiction” of Portland, we’re taking them down. Cancel the racists. 

The problem is that “cancelling” racism doesn’t make it go away. Removing the sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott from its pedestal on Mt. Tabor doesn’t change the fact that he helped to shape the intellectual landscape of the state. 

Pulling down The Coming of the White Man doesn’t negate the fact that a speech from 1904 about the sculpture proclaimed “one cannot feel for old Multnomah and his falling star, and pity the youthful innocence of the boy who did not know that before civilization’s march barbarism falls.” That sentiment may not be uttered with the same absurd sincerity today, but the idea that Indigenous cultural or governmental structures are somehow “less than” still persists in insidious ways. 

Putting The Promised Land in storage doesn’t acknowledge the fact that it was the migration of white Protestants arriving on land that was already inhabited (settler colonialism) that is considered the generative fact of the state. There is a covered wagon at the center of the state flag. 

We may not have monuments to the Confederacy put up during Jim Crow, but the history of Oregon, the history celebrated by these monuments, is still fraught, complicated, and messy. Some of the sculptures can use historical distance as a crutch—Coming of the White Man is wildly inappropriate, but at least it is from 1904. It was 90 years later, only 26 years ago, that 94% of 12,000 Portlanders surveyed thought The Promised Land belonged in the city. 

Let’s take the sculptures down, but let’s put them somewhere still accessible and explain why they were made in the first place. Budapest put its monuments to communism in a park. Outliving its raison d’être doesn’t mean there is no historical or cultural relevance. The monuments can’t be “lost;” we have to acknowledge the history that they represent. In announcing the Monuments project, the Mellon Foundation’s president, Elizabeth Alexander, framed the issue as “How do we say who we are? How do we teach our history in public places?”

The works can help teach the complicated past: stolen land, Black exclusion laws, white privilege. These need to be discussed and taught openly, not to encourage self-loathing but because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. The drive to reinvent ourselves can’t come at the expense of a full acknowledgment of the past. The belief that we can ever be totally cleansed of past sins is an especially pernicious vestige of cultural Christianity. Oregon can’t remove some sculptures and baptize itself with craft beer and proclaim to be made anew, freed of the stains of racism or the uglier parts of our past. It is this sort of selective blindness to historic and systemic racism that got us where we are now, red hats and all. 

The park of rejected sculpture can tackle more recent events as well. George Washington was toppled on the eve of Juneteenth as part of the city’s Black Lives Matter protests—that is now part of its story that needs to be told. George Washington is both the first president of the United States and a slave owner. “Dakota 38” was painted on the base of the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, a reference to the hanging of 38 Dakota men executed by the order of the president in 1862. Lincoln is both the president who shepherded the United States through the Civil War and held responsible for atrocities committed against Indigenous people. Good and bad are not mutually exclusive. 

Nightmare Elk on August 19th. Photo credit: Andrew Jankowski.

Kristin Calhoun (the Public Art Director at RACC) suggested that the granite basin of the Thompson Elk, the one damaged in protests over the summer, would be recast before it was reinstalled downtown. The one that is pitted and scarred shouldn’t be discarded though—the Black Lives Matter protests are now an important part of the city’s history and the basin has become part of that. It should be topped by the Nightmare Elk. Surely it deserves that treatment after it was stolen by Patriot Prayer last week and then remade out of wooden palettes and replaced by Monday evening.    

Public art can be used to proclaim that we aren’t who we were. Our past is flawed. But rather than fearing that or pretending that it didn’t happen, let’s choose to be forthright and continue to strive to do better.