A vote this month over one of New York City’s new, more inclusive monuments became so combative — with audience members shouting “How dare you!” — that the acclaimed artist who won the commission walked away from the job.
And many Catholics were incensed when City Hall omitted Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, from the first group of women to be honored by the new statues, with the actor Chazz Palminteri calling the mayor’s wife a “racist.”
A planned Central Park monument to women’s suffrage, featuring Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was criticized for excluding black women. So Sojourner Truth was added to the design — then more than 20 academics objected in a letter that the grouping would be misleading because the white suffragists’ rhetoric “treated black intelligence and capability in a manner that Truth opposed.”
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, the city is aiming to build monuments at an unusually rapid rate to honor women, people of color and others previously overlooked. But the effort has become far more contentious than expected, as a diverse, vocal and highly opinionated city fights over the legacy it should leave in bronze and stone.
Tensions have dramatically increased in recent months as the mayor aims to fast-track the construction of more than a dozen new monuments. Arguments have broken out over who should be honored, who should create the statues, what they should look like and where they should be located. Some have questioned, for example, why a steel sculpture depicting Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first African-American congresswoman, will be placed at an entrance to Prospect Park, which was not part of her Bedford-Stuyvesant-based district. (The city says the site is cost-effective because it takes advantage of a coming construction project at the park.)
City Hall has not helped its cause, sometimes sending ambiguous messages over who has the final say. A coalition of historians, preservationists, politicians, and community organizers is now calling upon the city to better codify its public art procedures. At stake are tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, prestigious commissions that can elevate an artist’s career and the image of New York City’s values.
“There needs to be more Council oversight and an intentional reform of the process,” said Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Historical Society, “especially before this battery of new monuments advances.”
City officials have acknowledged the criticisms, while also defending how they have managed the effort. “There is no perfect process when it comes to choosing public art,” Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, chairman of the City Council committee that oversees cultural affairs, said. “The community has to be involved at all levels, but there are going to be cases where it’s impossible to find consensus and people are going to be unsatisfied.”
Historically, memorials often came prepackaged by wealthy patrons who financed their projects and picked their artists. The city was typically asked only to advise and confirm the final location of monuments, which were not constructed on any deadlines — East Harlem’s Duke Ellington Memorial, for example, took nearly 20 years to complete.
By comparison, the de Blasio administration aims to finish many of its statues in two to three years, while trying to maintain at least an appearance of democratic decision-making.
Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said that the struggles over the statues were a reflection of the charged politics of the day, especially among liberals who feel empowered locally and powerless nationally. It is happening beyond New York as well: this month San Francisco rescinded a commission for a large bronze portrait of the author Maya Angelou after public calls for a more traditional, figurative statue.
“They have no power in Washington,” Mr. Moss said of those speaking out, “so they’re going to find a way to express their values and if they have to do it though every statue that has to be updated or revised, so be it.”
In Washington, the city’s public art program has tried to avoid such protests by soliciting public input early and including residents on judging panels. “When you just drop something into someone’s community it’s the equivalent to someone dropping a work of art in your living room,” said Sandy Bellamy, who runs the program.
The New York statue campaign had its origins in the nationwide debate over Confederate statues. Mr. de Blasio ordered a review of New York’s own monuments, while also beginning the process of creating new ones that better reflected the city’s population.
The city ultimately decided to take down just a single statue that neighborhood activists had wanted to dislodge for a decade: a bronze in Central Park honoring J. Marion Sims, the 19th-century “father of gynecology” who conducted experimental operations on female slaves. The Sims was forklifted off its granite perch at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street one morning in April 2018 and moved to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the doctor is buried.
Filling the gap where Dr. Sims once stood has required another kind of heavy lifting.
After a seven-hour meeting at the Museum of the City of New York, a panel appointed by the Cultural Affairs Department announced that it had selected Simone Leigh, an artist with works in the Guggenheim and the recent Whitney Biennial, over three other African-American artists who competed for the opportunity.
The outcry was immediate. With shouts of “How dare you?” and “Why? Why?” several present vehemently argued that the selection of Ms. Leigh had disregarded the consensus choice of the community. Their preference was Vinnie Bagwell, whose proposal — “Victory Beyond Sims” — called for a bronze angel holding a flame in one hand and a staff in another, encircled by a wreath representing “the unending circle of life.”
“Vinnie’s was the clearest depiction,” Marina Ortiz, founder of the neighborhood group East Harlem Preservation, said after the meeting. Ms. Bagwell also drew support for being the only artist to show up. “Vinnie stayed there with us for seven hours and she brought the only model that we could actually see, touch, and look at as opposed to something onscreen,” Ms. Ortiz said.
Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, finally ended the fractious meeting by reassuring the crowd that the 4-3 vote by a panel of judges was only advisory. This was a legal distinction of which even the panelists themselves had apparently been unaware; in the recent past, the city has followed the advice of the panel.
Learning of the protest, Ms. Leigh promptly withdrew. “I greatly appreciate that my proposal was selected by the committee,” she said in a statement. “However, I am aware that there is significant community sentiment for another proposal. Since this is a public monument in their neighborhood, I defer to them and have withdrawn my work.”
Confusion over who has the final say also led to the recent, ugly recriminations over Mother Cabrini, a nun who created health and social welfare programs for poor Italian immigrants and others in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Cabrini, who died in 1917 and was made a saint in 1946, received the most votes in an online city poll asking which women should be honored with new statues.
But the city did not select her as one of its first set of women to be honored, who include the jazz singer Billie Holiday; the abortion rights activist Helen Rodríguez Trías; the 19th-century African-American civil rights leader Elizabeth Jennings Graham; the transgender advocates Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson; and Ms. Chisholm. Many Catholic New Yorkers expressed their displeasure, including Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn as well as Mr. Palminteri.
“Why open this for a vote,” wrote Councilman Justin Brannan of Brooklyn to Ms. McCray’s office in August, “and then ignore the results?”
On Columbus Day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who rarely passes up a chance to get under the skin of Mr. de Blasio, a political rival, circumvented the process altogether, saying he would have the state pay for a Cabrini statue.
Mayor de Blasio responded by calling the Cabrini dust-up “a manufactured controversy,” and said on WNYC radio last week that the city would eventually give Mother Cabrini her due.
“What’s pertinent is we are trying to honor the majority of New Yorkers who are women and actually bring their history to life in this city and we’re going to keep doing that,” he added.
Mr. Finkelpearl, the cultural affairs commissioner, said on balance that the system had worked. “We’ve done 400 projects; 99 percent have been well received,” he said, referring to the city’s public art program. “It’s impossible to create a process for public art that’s going to avoid controversies.”
The revised suffragist monument was approved on Monday by the city’s Public Design Commission, over the objections of the academics who wrote that adding Sojourner Truth “could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading.”
As for the work that will replace Dr. Sims on Fifth Avenue, Ms. Bagwell, who got the commission in the end, saw the outcome as a victory for everyone.
“Public art is an expression of the values of a community,” Ms. Bagwell said. “The community always has the last say.”