Last month, Philadelphia’s Art and Historical commissions heard hours of passionate testimony about Mayor Kenney’s proposal to remove Marconi Plaza’s Christopher Columbus statue. The statue became a flashpoint for violence this summer as armed mobs claiming to “protect” the statue clashed with protesters who took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
In presenting its case, the Kenney administration acknowledged that while Columbus is a culturally meaningful symbol for Italian-Americans, he also represents Indigenous genocide and European colonial aggression. The administration says removal is a matter of public safety and about protecting the historic sculpture. But it is also a values statement.
This is not a sculpture being pulled down mid-protest or a hasty, sanctioned removal under cover of night. Instead, the Art Commission is expected to vote on the statue’s removal on August 12. This is the city trying to dismantle a symbol of oppression through official channels – a process that feels like forcing flood water through the funnel of bureaucracy.
» READ MORE: Historic Commission Votes to move statue
Philadelphia should open the floodgates and embark on a comprehensive review of its entire collection of public art, memorials, and monuments, including the names gracing public properties like schools and streets. It’s time to take stock of what values our public realm reflects and whose stories dominate. The rest of our symbolic landscape should receive the same level of scrutiny as a single statue of Columbus.
Neither the Art Commission nor Historical Commission are big enough venues to hold the weight of these important conversations. And members of the public need more than a three-minute-long blurt on Zoom to say their piece.
This moment demands an honest reckoning with the past. If the city is serious about this kind of reconciliation, it must ensure the shared network of spaces maintained and created in our names lives up to our highest democratic values. We must rethink the structures, symbols, and systems long taken for granted and ask how the built environment can be an instrument of justice.
Following public outcry over its sculpture of Christopher Columbus, New York City undertook a similar review of its public art collection in late 2017; Philadelphia can learn from its experience. There, a diverse panel of experts convened for three months to review New York’s public art, monuments, and markers, and to collect public input. Its work resulted in guidance on confronting or removing public artworks.
» READ MORE: Why is the Columbus statue an issue?
Philadelphia has no shortage of people actively engaged in these questions and it is time to tap their wisdom. The public art and history practice Monument Lab, for example, has worked for years to stoke public imagination about the connections between public art, social justice, and equity. It spent Summer 2017 soliciting proposals for new monuments that represent Philadelphia today. The responses and the process revealed a deep public sensitivity, knowledge, and curiosity about the city.
It’s time to build on that foundation. The mayor should establish a commission to assess the city’s public art and monuments, through an inclusive and participatory process designed to prioritize citizen expertise with professional guidance. Its work has the potential to advance a city built on greater empathy, brotherly love, even.