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How a monument to no one found a home at Drexel University

Theaster Gates' art installation, Monument in Waiting, was born during the turbulent summer of 2020 when monuments to Confederate "heroes" were coming down all over the country.

People walk on Wednesday near the "Monument in Waiting," Theaster Gates' sculptural installation on the campus of Drexel University
People walk on Wednesday near the "Monument in Waiting," Theaster Gates' sculptural installation on the campus of Drexel UniversityRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

All public art is by necessity contemporary. But it ages and mutates quickly.

What is today’s powerful and permanent monument is tomorrow’s disintegrating colossal wreck, as Ozymandias well knew.

Public art is also a prisoner of place. Obelisks built in Egypt during antiquity now define spaces in Paris, London, and New York City. These monuments no longer represent the great Egyptian dead, but serve other gods in other places.

New York’s Cleopatra’s Needle is more about William Henry Vanderbilt, son of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, than it is about the power of the Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479—1425 BC), who only ordered the needle built; Vanderbilt paid to move it across oceans and continents to the grounds of the Metropolitan Museum.

Monuments are mostly about elites. Despite their illusion of permanence, elites are mutable, too.

So what to make of Theaster GatesMonument in Waiting? Drexel University has just installed the piece — on loan from the artist for at least a year — in the very public Korman Quad, on 33rd Street between Walnut and Chestnut streets.

Gates is a multidisciplinary artist concerned with matters of justice and equity and capital and labor. He teaches at the University of Chicago.

The Monument consists of large granite plinths, which were being disposed of by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis right at the moment Gates was asked to create an installation for the Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons. He snapped them up, and considered their used blankness — what they had once supported was no longer evident — an essential part of their meaning.

As they cluster, as if toppled, on the Korman Quad, no statues are evident. No generals on horseback. No stony busts surveying the conquered landscape.

Simply plinths — all awaiting something or someone. Gates has etched into one: “Until real heroes bloom, this dusty plinth will wait.”

The absence is a heavy presence indeed. Monument in Waiting was created during the turbulent summer of 2020 when Black lives were lost, anger and awareness were unleashed, and monuments to leaders of the Confederacy came down all over the country, but particularly in the South.

At the Parrish Museum unveiling of the Monument in Waiting in September 2020, Gates noted that Chicago was in the throes of unrest at the time, and friends were “experiencing unemployment for the first time in their careers.”

“The racial tension between the haves and have-nots in my city was coming to a real moment of eruption,” Gates continued. “Young people were leaving the West Side, the South Side of Chicago to go into downtown to protests. And then we started to see that our country was turning very quickly into a militarized state. All those things are happening at the time that I’m being asked to make something pretty or something that could grab the hearts and minds of people in the Hamptons.”

His monument, he said, is in some ways “an admission that I don’t have a heroic thing to say.”

More to the point: “I don’t really know a whole lot of heroes. The heroes that I know are people who would never be important enough to deserve a monument. They’re people we’d never know enough of because their stories weren’t recorded in history.”

The Monument remained at the Parrish Art Museum for about a year when Gates’ dealer contacted Harry Philbrick, the founder of Philadelphia Contemporary, the art organization. Would the more urban environment of Philadelphia be a good fit as the next stop for Gates’ meditation on art, history, and public culture?

Philbrick said, “Yes, indeed.” He contacted John Fry, the president of Drexel University, and Fry said, “Let’s make this happen,” Philbrick recalled.

“We spent a lot of time trying to identify the right site, working with Drexel and with Theaster’s gallery representative,” he said. “It’s a unique piece in that it’s very low. So it you know, you need to have the right sight lines for it. It’s also very heavy. We also wanted it to be in a site where a lot of people are going by so that people would actually see it and stand on it and interact with it. ”

Professor Alan Greenberger, Drexel’s vice president for real estate and facilities, said that in addition to the Gates Monument, the university is currently installing another major work, on loan from the Forman Arts Initiative — Pars pro Toto by Alicja Kwade. The piece, which consists of eight massive spheres, is on multiyear loan and is located along Lancaster Walk.

(Investment manager Michael Forman and wife Jennifer Rice are founders of the Forman Arts Initiative, which is a sponsor of the Gates project. Forman is also a Drexel board member.)

“We’re not on a mad campaign here, but to the extent that opportunities present themselves for presentation of more significant art on campus, we’re very interested,” said Greenberger.

The Gates piece, he said, “is very emotional and very cerebral.”

One of the plinths, he notes, makes the point that the monument will celebrate no one until “heroes show up.”

“So the question is, is it because there are not enough heroes? Or is it because, hey, it’s waiting for you to do something heroic. But I like that it asks many different questions.”

Monument in Waiting is made for a post-monument world. Conceived in the turmoil of the George Floyd summer, it reflects the time of its birthing, like all public art — from the Egyptian obelisks moved to enhance the glory of the conquerors to the Confederate generals placed on pedestals — the conquered in the wake of the war they lost.

“I think there’s plenty of controversies going on the last several years about heroes on statues and whether they deserve to be there or not,” said Greenberger. “It’s a timely piece, and so it asks a lot of questions about who do we hold up on the pedestal? Why do we do it? What’s the belief? What are the beliefs around it? And I think this is a little bit of a sad question — are there any more heroes? Or is what we are as a society just sort of antihero?”