Chicago will form committee tasked with reviewing ‘problematic’ statues and monuments

Winds of Change

Chicago will form committee tasked with reviewing ‘problematic’ statues and monuments

Columbus was here. Carlo Brioschi’s bronze statue was removed last month from Grant Park in Chicago. (James Conkis/Wikimedia Commons)

Weeks after ordering, with some initial resistance, that any and all statues of Christopher Columbus be temporarily removed from public spaces, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has announced formal plans to form an advisory committee that will assess the entirety of the city’s monuments, memorials, and public art as part of a larger, comprehensive “racial healing and historical reckoning project.”

The four-pronged initiative will be overseen by the city in collaboration with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), Chicago Park District, and Chicago Public Schools. The formation of the advisory committee is the first and perhaps most consequential step in the project and will be co-chaired by Mark Kelly, Commissioner of the DCASE, Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, and Jennifer Scott, director and chief curator of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Historians, artists, and city officials will be invited to join the advisory committee in the coming weeks before it gets to work reviewing the city’s full inventory of public art and assessing which works are potentially “problematic.” An artist-led community engagement process will be a key element of the undertaking, and “take a variety of creative forms and expressions that use the unique talents of artists to capture public input through storytelling, oral history, archiving and other educational programs” per a press release from the Mayor’s Office announcing the project.

As a press release goes on to elaborate, the committee will then “produce a report that recommends next steps for the existing collection as well as processes for the city’s commission of monuments moving forward, which will include speculative proposals by committee artists.”

“This project represents the first step in a deliberative and long-needed process by which we as a city can assess the many monuments and memorials across our neighborhoods and communities,” said Lightfoot. “This effort is not just about a single statue or mural, but how we create a platform to channel our city’s dynamic civic energy to purposefully reflect our values as Chicagoans and uplift the stories of our city’s residents, particularly when it comes to the permanent memorialization of our history and shared heritage.”

Through the public engagement efforts, which will be held through this fall, the city and various stakeholders will devise a scheme to erect new permanent monuments in parks and other public places that “equitably acknowledge Chicago’s shared history.” A final set of recommendations for dealing with existing monuments and memorials and erecting new ones are expected to be established by the end of this year.

In the meantime, a slew of temporary public artworks will be installed across town in the coming weeks and months; addressing pressing topics such as COVID-19 and racial injustice, they’ll also be “informed by ongoing conversations with stakeholders and members of the community.”

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, there’s not a complete dearth of public art and statuary representing BIPOC people and women in Chicago. But there is noticeable underrepresentation including the presence of more mythical women than real women in public artworks.

Chicago joins a growing number of other cities stateside and abroad that are also taking a hard look at public monuments and memorials during the ongoing historic civil rights movement pushing to end structural racism and police brutality.

London, New York City, and San Francisco have all formed commissions and committees with similar or, as is the case with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission, even more wide-reaching goals. There are also calls for Philadelphia, a city with an immense collection of public art, to establish one as well.