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Philly project expands nationally to ask: Who deserves a monument?

Monument Lab is the first partner in the Mellon Foundation's new “Monuments Project,” a $250 million initiative that aims “to transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces."

Will Sylvester uncovered the Hank Willis Thomas sculpture “All Power to All People” at the Thomas Paine Plaza across from Philadelphia City Hall as part of the 2017 Mural Arts Monument Lab project.
Will Sylvester uncovered the Hank Willis Thomas sculpture “All Power to All People” at the Thomas Paine Plaza across from Philadelphia City Hall as part of the 2017 Mural Arts Monument Lab project.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

As cultural organizations are reeling from the upheaval of 2020, one has seen its mission merge almost seamlessly with the zeitgeist — Philadelphia’s Monument Lab.

While the pandemic has brought delays to some of its projects, Monument Lab’s broad objective to help reimagine civic memory in public space has never felt more apt. Around the United States, whether in the dismantling of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza, or the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue near City Hall, citizens and elected officials have increasingly seen a question written on the landscape: Whose stories are told there and why?

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $4 million grant to Monument Lab as the inaugural partner in its new “Monuments Project,” a five-year, $250 million initiative that aims “to transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces.”

The initiative puts the influence of one of the largest funders of the arts and humanities in the U.S. squarely behind efforts to diversify the nation’s historical narratives, and the grant enables Monument Lab to undertake a project unlike any it has attempted before, a “National Monument Audit,” now underway.

After a public report on the audit in early 2021, Monument Lab will create 10 field offices around the U.S. in partnership with local artists, activists, and organizations to support their projects for one year.

“Stories of hope and resistance”

The goal is to assess the country’s landscape of public memory in a time when our shared identity as Americans feels strained, if not broken. Then we can begin to understand where we go from here, says Monument Lab cofounder and director Paul Farber.

“One of the next steps forward for our country and for Philadelphia is how do we embrace stories of hope and resistance, alongside a reckoning that really understands repair and that from the greatest points of pain can come the greatest forms of transformation,” Farber says.

The Mellon partnership accelerates Monument Lab’s own transformation from a classroom experiment at the University of Pennsylvania by Farber and artist Ken Lum in 2012 (when both taught at Penn) to what they now term a public art and history studio, with staff, fellows, and collaborators spread across the U.S. and the world.

» READ MORE: Philly's big new art project asks: Who deserves a monument?

The organization remains best known in Philadelphia for a 2017 exhibition, produced with Mural Arts, that sited prototypes of monuments by 20 artists in 10 locations throughout the city. Among them, Hank Willis Thomas’ All Power to All People — an 8-foot tall Afro pick installed near City Hall — was embraced by Philadelphians and later purchased by PAFA for its permanent collection.

Other works in that project invited members of the public to see themselves as part of monuments in an even more literal sense, as in Two Me by Mel Chin, a pair of empty plinths that visitors could ascend, or Karyn Olivier’s mirror-clad Revolutionary War memorial in Vernon Park.

At the same time, Monument Lab sought ideas for imagined monuments from people who visited exhibition sites, compiling nearly 4,500 proposals into a public data set, an interactive map and a report to the mayor and city commissioners.

Among the data highlighted in the report were 15 proposals for a statue of Malcolm X in Malcolm X Park, 16 proposals for monuments in the Gayborhood, and 209 proposals for monuments to women. Statues were the most popular request, by far. The report tallied 397 proposed monuments at City Hall.

From artists to advisers

As other places around the U.S. have begun looking critically at the values reflected in their public spaces, they’ve turned to Monument Lab. “The work we had done became a reference point. Municipalities from around the country were calling us for advice,” Farber says. “We went from artists to being advisers.”

During this pandemic year, Monument Lab’s team of artists, researchers, and administrators has been working together remotely from Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, and other locations. Its newest members are five research assistants who began collecting data for the national audit in October, soon after the Mellon grant was announced.

Starting with publicly available data sets from cities, counties, federal agencies, and organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center, they’ll take stock of what information exists about statues and place markers in the U.S. and its territories. When was a particular monument, or group of monuments, put in place? Who underwrote its creation then, and who pays for its upkeep today?

Along the way, they’ll work with artist and computer scientist Brian Foo to translate their findings into an interactive, visual form.

The data reflects a “civic imagination [that] helps to open possibilities for some people and close them for other people,” says Laurie Allen, a digital librarian and Monument Lab’s director of research. Women, for instance, are almost entirely absent from Philadelphia’s landscape of commemorative statues.

“Monuments are tools”

Around the U.S., early-20th-century monuments to Christopher Columbus aided the assimilation of Italian-Americans into white American society, while Confederate memorials built during the Jim Crow-era offered their sponsors a way to signal support for white supremacy in the face of an emerging civil rights movement long after the Civil War ended.

“Monuments are tools,” Allen says. “Someone needed, or wanted, to make a claim about a place belonging in a particular story, and they were willing to spend money on it and had the power to make it happen. But there were thousands of stories that deserved just as much to be put there.”

After the release of the national audit findings, Monument Lab will issue an open call for applications to identify 10 field offices that will advance efforts to reimagine monuments in specific geographic locations. (Think towns and cities, but also regions, like Appalachia or the U.S.-Mexico border.)

Monument Lab senior research scholar Sue Mobley expects the field offices to consist of coalitions of people already doing related work in their own places. What each site does will be self-determined.

Mobley, who lives in New Orleans, previously codirected Paper Monuments, a project inspired by the city of New Orleans’ removal of four Confederate monuments in 2017. Following a public solicitation of ideas for new monuments, Paper Monuments sparked an ongoing push for New Orleans City Council to rename as many as 37 parks, places, and streets that memorialize Confederates. In their place, organizers plan to implement dedications to New Orleanians whose contributions to their neighborhoods and the city have been overlooked.

“It is not enough to remove harm. We have to envision something worth making together, something worth fighting for,” Mobley says. “This is an opportunity to talk about that in material terms that also have structural policy implications and investment implications for a future that is more inclusive and more just.”

Mellon’s five-year pledge

While the Mellon Foundation’s $4 million grant is the largest Monument Lab has received to date by far, it represents a fraction of the $250 million Mellon will pour into organizations across the U.S. during the five-year Monuments Project.

It is the largest initiative in the foundation’s history, says Mellon president Elizabeth Alexander, and builds on its recent support of projects such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (the first national memorial to victims of lynching), and planned monuments to women’s suffrage and the African American Lyons family in New York City’s Central Park.

Along with the creation of new public art, the Monuments Project will support organizations that want to recontextualize or remove objects in their care that are hurtful to communities, opening up such spaces to a multitude of different stories.

“To me, what is so exciting about the process and the project is imagining a gorgeous map with dots of light popping up as the nation becomes richer and more inspiring and more educational in its built environment,” Alexander says. “There are people with so many extraordinary ideas, and we can really make a difference by moving aggressively in these five years.”

Here in Philadelphia, Monument Lab has two projects planned for 2021. One is the release of an augmented-reality app called OverTime that allows users to access historical information at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, created in collaboration with spoken word artist Ursula Rucker.

Another is a partnership with the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philly to develop a cluster of public art installations on the theme of “staying power” and what the concept means to residents of the Fairhill-Hartranft neighborhood.