Artist-Led Task Force Wants SF to Rethink Approach to Public Monuments

A section of 'The Relic Report,' the first part of a two-part study masterminded by the New Monument Taskforce aimed at rethinking monuments in San Francisco. (Courtesy of New Monument Taskforce)

It’s been a particularly tumultuous year for San Francisco’s public monuments.

The debacle surrounding the commissioning of a memorial honoring the poet and activist Maya Angelou, the toppling and defacing of several bronze statues representing the country’s colonial history, and the city’s hasty removal of the imposing bronze statue of Christopher Columbus by Coit Tower, have opened up questions about San Francisco’s relationship with its monuments and whether some of the artworks in the municipal collection should exist at all.

As city officials trundle along with the slow process of reviewing all 87 monuments under their purview—and have yet to announce the set of criteria they plan to use to assess the artworks—a group of creative industry workers known collectively as the New Monument Taskforce have taken it upon themselves to conduct their own parallel report.

“Being artists, we can move much faster than the city,” says Cheyenne Concepcion, the San Francisco artist and designer who founded the task force and is the report’s main author.

San Francisco-based artist and designer Cheyenne Concepcion is the founder of the New Monuments Taskforce and the main author of 'The Relic Report,' the task force's first publication. (Quentin Langlois)

Inspired by the city’s ongoing official survey, the task force (which Concepcion playfully calls a “fantastical municipal body”) came out this week with The Relic Report: An Unofficial Municipal Study of SF’s Monuments. The slender volume groups the 87 monuments under six headings. Each of the six sections features images of the categorized artworks as well as written commentary on the groupings. It’s like a slimmed-down version of an Audubon bird guide, but for public memorials.

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The Relic Report’s taxonomy includes colonial statues (or “Original Gentrifiers”—OGs—in Relic Report parlance) such as the 1939 statue of St. Francis of Assisi in Golden Gate Park; war memorials like the five memorializing the Spanish-American war; statues to political and cultural icons including Robert Louis Stevenson, Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare; non-representational monuments like pop artist George Segal’s The Holocaust, a 1982 memorial made from bronze, wire and concrete, installed in Lincoln Park; and a group of misfits, like the Volunteer Fireman Memorial, a 1932 sculpture depicting a trio of firefighters mounted on a marble plinth located in Washington Square.

You can scroll through a complete list of the city’s monuments here.

But the largest group in the Relic Report by far is “The Boys Club”—a section devoted to monuments mostly depicting dead white men. “Monuments tell us about who we are, where we have been,” Concepcion writes in her report. “So what does that entail when there are three women and fifty-three men represented in the San Francisco Civic Art Collection.”

Concepcion says she hopes grouping the city’s collection in this way will help members of the public see patterns in San Francisco’s approach to commissioning monuments.

“I think that there’s a correlation between that number of monuments and their messaging,” she says. “So the fact that there are fewer modern monuments tells us that maybe that’s not as important to us. And then the fact that the most patriarchal monuments is the biggest group, maybe that kind of weighs heavier in terms of the level of importance.”

The task force currently consists of 12 members representing an array of backgrounds, including Elizabeth Gessel, director of public programs at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora and Huey P. Newton Foundation deputy director Xavier G. Buck. The majority of the members are Bay Area-based. But there are some exceptions, like Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio in Philadelphia.

“Cheyenne Concepcion’s New Monuments Taskforce and The Relic Report are part of a fascinating and meaningful wave of local interventions that also address the national reckoning over monuments,” says Farber. “Even when a city runs official oversight over public art and keeps data on its own public monuments, we rely on artists and critical thinkers to animate and push those civic processes—to draw out potential connections, complex motifs and timely entry points for further action.”

Concepcion is one of 18 Shaping the Past artistic fellows supported by the Goethe Institut, Germany's foreign cultural institute. Shaping the Past projects aim to reflect on cultural memory in the U.S. and across the globe.

“Cheyenne’s approach is deeply connected to the questions that Shaping the Past is addressing in general: What social repercussions are associated with the rooting of history in monuments and memorials, and how can those narratives be shifted or upended through alternative, innovative approaches to memorialization?" says Bettina Wodianka, former program curator at the Goethe Institut in San Francisco.

Now that the task force’s Relic Report is live (paper versions are currently available for free at Adobe Books in the Mission District), Concepcion says the plan is to solicit feedback from the public about the city’s monuments. The window for public comment runs through Oct. 25. People can submit their responses to the task force’s series of questions via an online survey or a mail-in one, which can be found inside each hard-copy version of the report.

'The Relic Report' includes a survey asking members of the public to share their views about San Francisco's monuments. It can be completed online or via the mail-in survey enclosed with each hard copy of the report. (Courtesy of The New Monuments Taskforce)

After that, Concepcion says, the task force will meet to discuss the findings. The public input will form the basis of a second report, a set of recommendations for San Francisco monuments going forwards, which the task force plans to share with city officials in December. “It’s a means to apply political pressure regarding more meaningful representation through public art in our public spaces,” Concepcion says.

Concepcion says she started reaching out to the San Francisco Arts Commission, one of three city departments tasked with surveying and rethinking San Francisco’s monuments processes and policies, a couple of months ago.

She says someone from that department finally got back to her last week. “It sounds like they’re open to at least seeing what I have to say to them,”  Concepcion says. “I see this as a resource for them too.”

“The Arts Commission has no comment because we are not partnering on this project,” wrote the arts commission’s acting director of communications, Rachelle Axel, in an email to KQED. “These are parallel efforts. Members of our team had a call with Cheyenne last Friday to get more information from her on her task force plans. But we aren’t working together ... Cheyenne’s is an artistic endeavor and ours is very much about the future disposition of the City’s monuments.”

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“I view my version as a punk rock version; it’s less serious and more snarky than the city’s," Concepcion says, noting the advantages of being unofficial. “I’m hoping that people will feel like they can be more honest, so we can generate meaningful reflections.”