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An opportunity for change

Memorials long known to be symbols that promote white supremacy are being challenged and removed around the world in response to the demands of protesters calling for anti-racism and decolonization.

This blog post was written by the Boston Art Commission.

The City of Boston and the Boston Art Commission (BAC), which is responsible for the commissioning, acquisition, and maintenance of the art collection owned by the City of Boston, recognize the significant yet often overlooked role public art plays in this city, and the need for the collection to reflect our residents and the values of our communities. Unfortunately and despite ongoing efforts, African Americans, women, Indigenous peoples, local activists, LGBTQ figures, and many others are missing from the commemorative landscape in our public spaces--and have been missing for centuries. 

Addressing the failures and voids in the city’s commemorative landscape is in line with the goals and vision articulated in the BAC’s curatorial mission, in particular, in the aims of engaging communities, enriching and enlivening the urban environment, and enhancing diversity. Examining and interpreting the City’s public art collection and addressing inequities that are embedded in some of our monuments and memorials are also directly in line with the City’s cultural plan Boston Creates and the City’s Resilient Boston plan for racial equity. As we work to address racism as a public health crisis in the city, it’s important to evaluate the role and impact of our collection. 

A truly comprehensive approach to the consideration of problematic artworks will address their complex histories and origins and allow for members of the public to contribute their own observations and suggestions of monuments that need re-contextualization, additional educational components, or require removal. 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. Deaccessioning is the formal removal of an artwork from the City’s collection after cautious and careful deliberation. While deaccessioning is within the options available, the BAC may instead vote to remove and relocate an artwork to storage or by loan to an institution without deaccessioning the artwork from the City’s collection. The BAC may also consider commissioning responsive works from artists or partnering with educators and cultural practitioners to provide public interpretation, events, and learning connections.

In 2018, the BAC commissioned An Opportunity for Change, a report on the national dialogue surrounding monuments and its relevance to Boston’s public art collection. The report included an overview of how other cities have tackled this issue, and a summary of six local monuments that are in some way controversial or offer opportunities to engage with painful histories. This report was revisited at the June 9, 2020 public meeting of the BAC.

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. By evaluating and understanding the artworks in the City’s collection, we can understand what stories and people are missing and which artworks need to be reinterpreted or reexamined. We may also consider the biases and prejudices that are embedded in artistic choices, as well as the historical context that may have informed or limited the options available to the artist and people advocating for the artwork. As part of this process, we seek public input in assessing our monuments and memorials. Community conversations about public artworks, their history, and their meaning, will inform the Boston Art Commission’s review of existing artworks as well as future public art projects.

The City of Boston, through public meetings held by the Boston Art Commission, is assessing the historical and cultural significance of our collection and the harm done to people through racist imagery and symbolism. We are committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure that our public art collection enhances our city, and will engage in community conversations to determine the future of specific works. 

This process will include an online survey and a series of public meetings. The first of these special meetings will be held on June 25 at 6 p.m. to hear public testimony on The Emancipation Group, a copy of a statue in Washington D.C. by Thomas Ball. The BAC will not vote at this initial meeting designed for public input, but may do so at a follow-up public meeting on June 30 at 5 p.m. after considering the testimony received from the public. 

The Emancipation Group has been criticized since its installation, primarily for its visual representation of Archer Alexander as the passive recipient of Lincoln’s gift of freedom. Many also feel that it inaccurately implies that one person is solely responsible for ending slavery, presenting Lincoln as a paternalistic white savior and obscuring his complex history. The BAC has received repeated calls for its removal, including a recent petition that has garnered thousands of signatures.

The conversations that can come out of a public dialogue will help guide decisions around our art collection. They may also help us better understand our histories and envision our future. 

The deadline to take the survey has passed.

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