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City of Boston to remove the Emancipation Group statue after Boston Art Commission vote

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Arts and Culture

The Boston Art Commission called for a process to re-contextualize the statue in a new setting.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, together with the Boston Art Commission (BAC), today announced the Boston Art Commission has voted to remove the bronze figurative elements of The Emancipation Group statue from its location in Park Square. The statue, which is a copy of a statue in Washington D.C. created by Thomas Ball, has been criticized since its installation in 1879 for its depiction of an enslaved man.

“As we continue our work to make Boston a more equitable and just city, it’s important that we look at the stories being told by the public art in all of our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Walsh. “After engaging in a public process, it’s clear that residents and visitors to Boston have been uncomfortable with this statue, and its reductive representation of the Black man’s role in the abolitionist movement. I fully support the Boston Art Commission’s decision for removal and thank them for their work.”

The Emancipation Group was a gift to the City by Moses Kimball, a local politician. The statue depicts Abraham Lincoln, whose right hand rests on the Emancipation Proclamation. His left is raised in a gesture of benediction above the crouched figure of Archer Alexander, a Black man who assisted the Union Army, escaped slavery, and was recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act. There is an inscription on the front of the piece that reads, "A race set free/ and the country at peace / Lincoln / Rests from his labors.”

For generations, Bostonians have called for its removal due to its racist depiction of a Black person. Many also feel it implies that one person ended slavery and misrepresents the complexity of United States history. A recent petition by local artist Tory Bullock calling for the statue’s removal garnered over 12,000 signatures. The City of Boston encouraged the public to share their input on The Emancipation Group through an online survey, which received 645 responses. The Boston Art Commission held two special meetings to hear public testimony, and also welcomed written testimony via email.

“Public art is storytelling at the street level. As such, the imagery should strike the heart and engage the mind,” said Ekua Holmes, Vice-Chair of the Boston Art Commission. What I heard today is that it hurts to look at this piece, and in the Boston landscape we should not have works that bring shame to any groups of people, not only in Boston but across the entire United States.”

The commissioners unanimously voted to remove the bronze figurative elements of The Emancipation Group pending:

  • Engagement of an art conservator to document, recommend how the bronze statue is removed, and supervise its removal and placement into temporary storage;
  • Commissioning of detailed documentation of the artwork into Boston Art Commission archives, which may include photography of the statue in situ, drawings, and a 3D scan, as well as the history of the piece and the process that the Boston Art Commission took in order to make this decision;
  • Creation of a public event that will acknowledge the statue’s history and inform the public;
  • Initiation of a process to determine how to re-contextualize the existing statue in a new publicly accessible setting; and
  • Addition of temporary signage to the site to interpret the statue prior to its removal and permanent signage after the removal.

The date for the removal of the statue has not yet been determined. The Boston Art Commission will continue this conversation at its July 14, 2020 BAC meeting.

“We need to engage in public dialogue and examine the inequities that exist in our public realm. Who is represented in our artwork, which artists, and whose histories?” said Kara Elliott-Ortega, Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston. “I appreciate the immense contributions from the public and their thoughts for the future of The Emancipation Group, and I look forward to using this process as a model for assessing other pieces in our collection.”

In 2017, the BAC established a collection policy to ensure that only artworks of the highest quality and enduring value are accepted into and kept in the City's holdings. With the creation of that policy, the BAC also established a deaccession process for the formal removal of an artwork from the City’s collection after cautious and careful deliberation. The report An Opportunity for Change by local art historian Ewa Matyczyk, commissioned by the BAC, recommends the removal and relocation of the statue, with options including a long-term loan with a museum, or placing it somewhere where it can be in conversation with other representations from the historical era.

In 2019, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture began an effort to catalog the City’s art collection and create a searchable online database with educational content. As part of this process, the City sought public input in assessing the historical and cultural significance of Boston’s monuments and memorials. 

To learn more about how the City of Boston is examining equity and representation in Boston’s public art collection, visit boston.gov/art-under-review.

The Emancipation Group, a copy of a statue in Washington D.C. created by Thomas Ball, photo courtesy of the Boston Art Commission.