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Chicago mayor announces review of city monuments as part of ‘a racial healing and historical reckoning project’

Crews remove the Columbus statue in Chicago's Grant Park in the early hours of July 24, 2020. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Nearly three weeks after ordering the removal of Christopher Columbus statues in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday announced the formation of a committee to review the city’s monuments as part of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”

The Lightfoot administration also said it will commission “a series of temporary public artworks that focus on a broader range of topics around COVID-19, inequality and racial reconciliation.”

The panel’s co-chairs will be Mark Kelly, who heads the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois; and Jennifer Scott, director and chief curator of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

In making the announcement, Lightfoot referred obliquely to her middle-of-the-night removal of the Columbus statues in Grant Park and Little Italy, a move she has insisted was temporary and based on public safety concerns. She later ordered the removal of a smaller Columbus statue in South Chicago.

“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,” Lightfoot said in a news release.

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Even before the unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, cities around the country were grappling with controversies over monuments that celebrate Columbus, Confederate leaders and other historical figures. Some have been marked with graffiti. Others have been pulled down.

Activists have urged that public art do a better job of representing a broad spectrum of American life, something Lightfoot said the Chicago effort will accomplish.

It “will provide a vehicle to address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history, confront the ways in which that history has and has not been memorialized, and develop a framework for marking public space that elevates new ways to memorialize Chicago’s true and complete history,” she said.

The city’s effort will have four main goals: cataloging monuments and public art on city property and the property of related agencies such as the Chicago Park District; filling out the advisory committee that will “determine which pieces warrant attention or action”; recommending new monuments or public art; and creating a dialogue about Chicago’s past.

The goal is for the panel, which will have about 20 members, to complete its report by the end of this year, following an artist-led community engagement process.

Kelly, the chief of the city’s cultural affairs department, said the advisory committee will assess whether minority groups are seriously underrepresented in Chicago’s public sculptures.

But in the news release, he suggested that they are underrepresented, saying the committee looks forward to commissioning “new memorials and monuments that equitably acknowledge Chicago’s shared history.”

Indeed, “The Chicago Public Art Guide,” a 96-page survey by the cultural affairs department that was last updated in 2014, shows more artwork celebrating mythical women than real women.

The mythical women include a 1954 bronze bas-relief by Milton Horn, “Chicago Rising From the Lake,” that’s mounted along the Riverwalk under the Columbus Drive Bridge. Its female figure, the guide says, “represents Chicago, emerging reborn from the bottom of Lake Michigan following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.”

There are few female and minority counterparts to the bronze statue of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1897 “General John Logan Memorial” in Grant Park.

During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, anti-war demonstrators climbed atop the statue, which portrays the Civil War general on horseback and holding aloft an enemy banner he’s seized in battle.

Women and minorities aren’t altogether absent from the city’s public art. Many appear among the large-scale, digital faces of sculptor Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. In addition, a statue of the prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was unveiled on the South Side in 2018. And the Harold Washington Library Center contains multiple artistic tributes to Chicago’s first Black mayor.

Still, the representation issue is “certainly something that needs to be discussed. It seems like this is a good time to do this,” Tim Samuelson, the city’s official cultural historian, said in a recent interview.

Other cities have used temporary sculptures to explore the issue of expanding representation.

Before 2017, for example, Philadelphia’s roughly 1,500 pieces of public art and monuments did virtually nothing to recognize people of color and real women (as opposed to mythological figures). Then two arts organizations, Mural Arts Philadelphia and Monument Lab, mounted a temporary citywide exhibition of 10 works by local and internationally known artists that shook things up.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas offered a giant Afro pick that tapered to a Black power fist at the end of its handle. Titled “All Power to All People,” the 800-pound, aluminum-and-steel sculpture was provocatively placed near a bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, a former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner who for many Philadelphians was a symbol of police brutality directed at African Americans and other people of color.

In late July, activists forcibly attempted to remove the prominent statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters. Lightfoot accused a group of individuals who wielded black umbrellas as they pelted police with projectiles of inciting anarchy.

Nearly a week later, Lightfoot took down Columbus statues in Grant Park and Little Italy. Lightfoot later removed the lesser-known statue in the South Chicago neighborhood.

Columbus has been condemned by activists around the country who point to the Italian explorer’s mistreatment of Indigenous people after he landed in the Americas in 1492.

Many Italian Americans prize the statues of the explorer as an expression of their mainstream American identity.

The Columbus statue in Grant Park was dedicated nearly 87 years ago to considerable fanfare. Thousands of people turned out for the dedication, on Italian Day during Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress, according to Tribune archives and the Chicago Park District.

But its creation was nonetheless controversial.

In 1932, Illinois’ State Board of Art, in reviewing sculptor Carlo Brioschi’s models, announced, “This statue is so bad it should not be put on public display.” Several days later, however, board members admitted it was the pedestal they objected to — not the statue. The piece, a gift of Italian Americans living in Chicago and Cook County, was dedicated on Aug. 3, 1933.

The monument was again singled out in 1963 when a Chicago Tribune reader complained to the paper that a likeness of Benito Mussolini, former Italian prime minister and leader of the country’s National Fascist Party, was one of four bas-reliefs included in the statue’s base. Amerigo Brioschi, the sculptor’s son, told the Tribune the relief was only an allegorical figure representing the Roman symbol for strength and unity.

The 9-foot-tall bronze Columbus statue at Arrigo Park was created for and displayed in the Italian Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Following that World’s Fair, the statue was placed in a niche above the entrance to the Columbus Memorial Building at State and Washington streets. That’s where it stood until the structure was demolished in 1959.

It spent much of the 1960s stored flat on its back in a yard outside the Joseph Lumber Co. on the city’s Northwest Side.

The statue in South Chicago was a gift from hotelier John. B. Drake, whose sons would later build and operate the Blackstone and Drake hotels. Drake was one of many philanthropists to gift the city with public works of art in advance of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

This 32-foot-tall coral granite structure with four drinking water basins was intended to provide free, ice-cooled water beginning on Oct. 21, 1892 — a national holiday for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America and also the day of the 1893 World’s Fair dedication — but the 7-foot-tall bronze statue of the explorer had not yet arrived from Italy. Though some materials to complete the fountain were also still in transit, “the work has been rushed so that it might be said that water had been drawn during the World’s Fair dedication,” the Tribune reported.

The statue was originally in a different location downtown, but its South Chicago location was chosen in 1908 for the fountain against the wishes of members of the Catholic fraternity Knights of Columbus, which preferred the statue stay in the city’s center. Without delay, however, it was taken piece by piece to its new home in horse-drawn wagons

Northwest Side Alderman Nick Sposato, 38th, said he was asked to be on the committee. He said his perspective, generally, is that statues should remain up, though he said he doesn’t understand why people support Confederate monuments.

But, Sposato added, he doesn’t believe that critics of monuments involving people such as George Washington and Columbus will be satisfied by what the committee decides. Sposato, who is a prominent Italian American alderman, gave Lightfoot cover by endorsing her plan to temporarily remove the statues.

“I just want people to be reasonable,” Sposato said.

Carlos Tortolero, president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, applauded the decision to review Chicago’s monuments.

“It is not rewriting history. It’s telling history correctly for the first time,” he said.

Tortolero added that he’d like to see more Latino representation in city monuments and school names, but also for other groups and more women.

“I often tell people, the first cowboy wasn’t John Wayne, it was Juan Wayne,” he said.

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© 2020 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.