Robert Gray tried his best to protect a monument to Christopher Columbus that had watched over Denver’s iconic Civic Center park for a half-century.
Just a day earlier, protesters motivated by the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd had spray-painted and then toppled a 111-year-old sculpture of a Civil War soldier in front of the Colorado state capitol on June 25, 2020. So Gray placed plywood boards around the bronze Columbus statue to keep demonstrators from vandalizing it.
The boards had been painted with original works by Black artists as part of Gray’s Black Love Mural Festival and he hoped protesters would think twice if they had to smash through a wall of colorful, progressive art before going after the Columbus statue, something they saw as a symbol of oppression.
“I wanted to make sure Black people weren’t getting blamed for (vandalism),” said Gray, an art dealer, curator and educator whose festival debuted in between the near-nightly protests of June 2020. Black artists quickly filled Civic Center with original memorials and pieces celebrating nonviolence and racial justice. “We wanted to express ourselves in a peaceful way.”
But he knew that the boards weren’t meant to be a permanent solution or an impenetrable wall, and they didn’t end up keeping protesters at bay. On June 26, 2020, the day after the Civil War statue fell, the Columbus statue was spray-painted and pulled to the ground.
At least the demonstrators had gently placed his plywood murals to the side first. “When people are motivated, there’s not much you can do,” Gray said.
That same day, city officials voluntarily removed a statue of frontiersman Kit Carson, which had sat at Broadway and Colfax Avenue’s Pioneer Monument for more than a century, before protesters could do it themselves. That statue, along with Columbus, are now at undisclosed locations to prevent further destruction. The Civil War soldier is at History Colorado Center.
Denver is one of more than 200 U.S. cities where historical monuments were removed — either by protesters or city officials — from public spaces in 2020, having come to symbolize slavery, racism and oppression to many. But more than three years later, public officials in Colorado are still trying to decide what to do with the most controversial items in their art collections.
The process may get a shove from the nonprofit Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which awarded $25 million in grants to nine U.S. cities, including Denver, this summer aimed at funding works that “more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories.”
In Denver’s case, the money will be used to audit the city’s collection of monuments, hold community meetings and gather feedback, and pay for new monument construction.
That’s been an ongoing process for city officials, since they have yet to specifically tap their $2.3 million from Mellon, said Tariana Navas-Nieves, cultural affairs director for Denver Arts & Venues.
“Most of the (nationwide) focus has been on Confederate statues, and that’s not the case in Denver,” she said. “We’re in the heart of the American West, so our monuments are entangled with our identity and this mythologized version of Western history.
“In reality, that history includes not just European settlers and colonialism, but Indigenous and Latino people, the City Beautiful movement and disability-rights activists,” she added.
Some of the Denver money is reserved for a forthcoming tribute to Denver’s Gang of 19, the original disability-rights activists who helped kick off the national movement resulting in the Americans with Disabilities Act. But what shape the changes take will be unique to every city, Navas-Nieves said, as no one has yet figured out a surefire approach to renaming and replacing controversial monuments.
“We have to ask who we want our heroes to be,” she explained. “Our narratives have only been told through the voices of those in power. So we want to do it right, not fast.”
The fate of the toppled
Denver’s Columbus statue itself was a piece of art, created by Denver artist William F. Joseph and installed in 1970, according to historical documents. It was in honor of Colorado as the first state to recognize Columbus Day as a holiday in 1907, Denver Arts & Venues said. The Civil War cavalry soldier was by John Dare Howland, while Kit Carson was designed by Frederick MacMonnies.
But replacing art like this is “a historically common thing,” as social mores and politics shift, said Steven Weitzman, a veteran sculptor who got his start in Boulder in the 1970s. “People have been doing it since time immemorial … It’s not shocking to me nor do I take objection to removing statues. But do I think that all the statues not in public favor should be destroyed? Not necessarily. … What we can do is use it as a learning opportunity.”
Weitzman designed The Great Map of Colorado that blankets the great hall at History Colorado Center, among many other statewide landmarks, and has been commissioned to create pieces for the National Zoo, the United Nations headquarters and other national institutions.
He’s currently creating a statue to replace a Robert E. Lee monument at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. — his second in the building, following a statue of Frederick Douglass. This one will be of Barbara Rose Johns, the 16-year-old Black student who led her classmates in a strike against segregated schools in Virginia in 1951.
“It boils down to: what is art in the first place?” Weitzman said. “It’s a form of communication. That conversation the artist had with themselves, and that conversation the artists hope you have when you see it.”
In Colorado, legislators voted to replace the Civil War soldier with a sculpture of an Indigenous woman mourning the atrocities of the 159-year-old Sand Creek Massacre. It was to be created by artist Harvey Pratt, but Pratt withdrew his design in March 2022, citing creative differences with the tribes leading the replacement effort, according to Colorado Politics. A replacement has not yet been chosen, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee said.
Meanwhile, the Union soldier statue has been repurposed as a conversation-starter, a few blocks from where it once stood, at the History Colorado Center. Titled “On Guard,” it still sports its graffiti, but also includes commentary and context, said museum spokesman Luke Perkins.
As for Kit Carson, replacing that process will take longer, Navas-Nieves said, due to the fact that it was of a larger monument in Civic Center park and, in her opinion, a more complicated history. She said a comprehensive assessment and audit will begin this year.
But city officials declined to say on the record where the Kit Carson and Columbus monuments are being held for fear of more vandalism. “The pieces are being temporarily stored on private property owned by one of the artist’s family members,” Navas-Nieves said.
“There are a lot of sensitivities around the sculptures and we’re just trying to protect them and the location where they’re stored,” added public art program manager Michael Chavez.
Looking forward, and up
Despite the fact that they’ve not yet decided how to use Mellon grant money, state and city officials have long known which monuments are most vulnerable. On June 25, 2020, the Colorado Information Analysis Center sent out a bulletin to law enforcement agencies identifying eight statues that could be targets, according to a copy obtained by The Denver Post.
The document, titled “Colorado’s Statues of Interest,” included the Columbus memorial along with a Confederate statue that sits in the Riverside Cemetery in Commerce City, Colorado’s oldest operating cemetery. The list also identified Confederate monuments in Pitkin and Fremont counties, a Civil War cannon in El Paso County, and two Civil War memorials and a Columbus statue in Pueblo County.
A renaming commission created after the protests also began meeting in June 2020 to evaluate 482 facilities and 400 pieces in the city’s public art collection, Navas-Nieves said. The renaming commission unites representatives from the African American, Latino, LGBTQ and American Indian communities in order to change the way the city’s history is told. Those are the same stakeholders involved in replacing statues at Civic Center, the state capitol and other sites around the metro area.
“When I was in elementary school it was the start of bussing students to other schools, so there were Black kids in my class, Latino kids, Latino teachers,” sculptor Weitzman said. “My upbringing was culturally diverse, so that’s how I see the world. When I’m working on sculptures are in any art form, that’s very present in my mind.”
Whether or not the public art landscape reflects current social and political sentiments, there are existing sites worth elevating, preservationists say. Five Points’ Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, as well as History Colorado, received $50,000 from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in 2021 for preservation. Understanding Black history can help bring broader perspectives to discussions about racial justice and police violence, Gray said.
“I didn’t feel safe coming down to (protest at) Civic Center, and my voice would have been one in a sea of them,” he said. “But public art is accessible to anyone, and I wanted to make myself heard that way. It’s not in a museum or locked behind a paywall. It’s not just for rich people. It’s a reaction, and it’s there to generate reactions.”
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