It’s been less than a month since the Monumental Women’s Statue Fund announced it would add Sojourner Truth to its Central Park suffragist monument, and after the redesign was unveiled this week, the New York City Public Design Commission (PDC) put the project on hold.
In a public meeting on Monday, September 16, the commission voted unanimously to save the “Women’s Right Pioneer Monument” vote for another hearing. They asked the Fund and sculptor Meredith Bergmann to get letters of support from community boards and independent opinions from historians on the accuracy of the design—which the professional artist, who has over 20 years of experience, reportedly already did, according to Hyperallergic. Even Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has chimed in with support for Bergmann, saying the road to a female-centric statue in New York has been long enough.
“A statue is a work of art—in this case, designed by a remarkable artist who relied heavily on history and the views of the top historians. Her art does not, nor is it meant to, depict an actual historical moment.
“Furthermore, placing a statue of Literary Walk comes with many restrictions and obligations. The design must harmonize with the other statues there; it cannot represent an entire movement; it must be allegorical; the subjects must be from the 19th century.”
In the above comment, which appeared in a New York Daily News editorial by Brewer, she alluded to the recent criticism raised by civil rights scholars and leading local academics that likely played a big role in the commission’s decision to postpone the motion. In August, a group of 20 experts asked the Fund in a letter to reconsider putting Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, over the fear that the representation could “obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists.”
Despite this, Bergmann revealed a new rendering of the statue at the meeting that included Truth standing over a table where Anthony and Stanton sat. The suffragists’ scroll that was featured in the original design was removed and an inscription at the bottom of the pedestal now reads “Women’s Rights Pioneers.” Hyperallergic reported that in an effort to address the critics’ concerns, Bergmann told the PDC she used body language and facial expressions to convey the tensions that might have been going on between the three women at the time of their discussions.
For the commission and those who signed the letter, that wasn’t enough. Jacob Morris of the Harlem Historical Society co-wrote the letter and issued another statement at the meeting, asking the Fund to place a plaque on the statue to give further historical context should this design move forward. In addition, landscape architect Signe Nielson, chair of the PDC, told Bergmann and the Fund that they will need to provide the approval letters and address some minor “aesthetic concerns” before next month’s meeting. Pam Elam, president of Monumental Women, told amNewYork that the team expected these results, saying, “it’s just another delay.”
Over the next few weeks, members of the academic community and other stakeholders expect to be more thoroughly involved in the second redesign. Todd Fine of the Washington Street Historical Society, one of the signees in attendance on Monday, tweeted that though historians might accept the redesign, “the problem is the lack of outreach and the secrecy.”