SF to Evaluate Public Monuments, But Community Questions Its Track Record

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A Recreation and Parks employee cleans the pedestal of a toppled Junípero Serra statue in Golden Gate Park. (SFAC)

The San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) has outlined preliminary plans to evaluate which of the city’s nearly one hundred public monuments and memorials should stay—and which should go.

Monuments in SF

The plan, ordered by Mayor London Breed, comes less than a month after protesters toppled several statues depicting controversial historical figures such as Junípero Serra and Ulysses S. Grant, and planned to pull down the statue of Christoper Columbus in front of Coit Tower.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Visual Arts Committee Chair Dorka Keehn said she welcomes the chance to explore which monuments align with the city’s values.

“This is a really important and I think very exciting opportunity to look at our our old memorials and what we want to see represented in the city in the future,” Keehn said.

Keehn explained the city will look at factors like the story behind the historical figure the work depicts, the reputation of the artist who made it, how the community has responded to the work during its existence, and the cost of removing and storing it.

The Christopher Columbus statue being removed from its plinth in front of Coit Tower in the early morning of June 18. (SF Gov)

Cost is a huge issue. Like other city departments facing cuts in the COVID-19 economic fallout, the city’s civic art budget has been slashed from close to $900,000 to just over $110,000 for 2021. And the bill for preparing and moving the toppled Columbus statue, and storing it for just one year, comes to $110,000.

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Keehn said when the criteria are in place, the city will move towards the second phase of the project—assessing the monuments themselves. She added that San Francisco is looking to other cities facing similar challenges with statues, like New York and Louisville, Kentucky, for guidance on that front.

“There are monuments in other cities that have been vandalized, that have had a negative response from the community,” Keehn said. “And so we’re going to be targeting those artworks first among our our larger group.”

The SFAC is partnering with the city’s Human Rights Commission and Recreation & Parks Department in an effort to engage the community in the process.

But the commission may face some pushback in its engagement efforts.

Several members of the public, as well as—in a highly unusual move—arts commission staffers, voiced their concerns at the meeting about the city’s broader monuments strategy and past handling of similar projects.

A rendering of Lava Thomas' proposed monument to Maya Angelou, 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman,' outside the SFPL main branch.
A rendering of Lava Thomas' proposed monument to Maya Angelou, 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman,' outside the SFPL main branch. (Courtesy of Eren Hebert)

Artist Lava Thomas read a statement criticizing the city’s process to commission a new monument honoring poet Maya Angelou last year.

Thomas was prevented from clinching the prized assignment even though she was the arts commission’s leading choice of artist, after city officials said her proposed design wasn’t representational enough.

The artist accused the city of “weaponizing a European convention of statuary ... by insisting that Dr. Angelou be honored ‘in the same way that men have historically been elevated in this city’—the very same men whose monuments embody white supremacy that have been toppled and removed.”

Arts commission officials wouldn’t allow Thomas to finish her statement because of time restrictions. This caused an outcry among other people present at the meeting, including fellow Black artist Sirron Norris, who was presenting a mural design for a construction fence outside the Southeast Treatment Plant in Bayview.

“I think it’s a time where we don’t hamper Black voices and we need to listen,” Norris said. “I’m going to let people know what I just heard because I’m angry. This shit is wrong.”

You can read Lava Thomas’ full statement, provided to KQED, below:

I’d like to address the 2019 RFQ for a Sculpture to Honor Dr. Maya Angelou for the San Francisco Library. First, I’d like to commend the SFAC staff for their professionalism during that process last year.

When the Visual Arts Committee failed to approve, under political pressure, the selection of my proposal in the 2019 RFQ for a Sculpture to Honor Dr. Maya Angelou, it upheld practices that are rooted in institutional racism. My proposal was selected, almost unanimously, by a panel that included a critical mass of Black women artists and arts professionals in a process that was transparent and democratic. My proposal was grounded in an ethos of inclusion and Black Aesthetics, followed the project and legislative guidelines which have “statue” crossed out and “artwork” written in its place.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani then demanded that the project be closed, calling for a traditional statue and weaponizing a European convention of statuary to reject my work by insisting that Dr. Angelou be honored “in the same way that men have historically been elevated in this city”—the very same men who embody white supremacy in monuments that have recently been toppled and removed. Stefani’s manner was rude and arrogant, and she left the VAC meeting before I and the other Black women in attendance had an opportunity to voice our concerns. This public display of disrespect and public rejection of Black women’s intellectual and creative labor is an affront to myself and the other Black women who were present.

When will the Arts Commission, the Visual Arts Committee, Supervisor Stefani and the SF Board of Supervisors take restorative action to remedy this egregious injustice?