Last month, city officials marked the location of a 19th century statue of Thomas Jefferson that had been elevated above the New York City Council chamber. It had spent more than 100 year there.
The decision, which came after a unanimous vote, was decades in the making: Many Council members, especially from the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, had pushed for the statue’s eviction; opponents argued that removing it would be an overreaction to Jefferson’s complex history as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, but also as a man who enslaved more than 600 people and fathered several children with one of them, Sally Hemings.
The question of when and where the statue, which measures 7 feet tall, would be moved was not resolved.
These answers were made clear on Monday. The statue will be given to the New-York Historical Society, and will be placed in its lobby gallery for six months before being relocated to the museum’s reading room for the duration of the 10-year loan agreement. Both locations can be accessed by the public in areas that do not require tickets.
Louise Mirrer, the historical society’s president and chief executive, said the statue would be displayed starting in April and would coincide with an exhibition looking at the “principal contradiction of our founding ideals.”
“From the start, we have seen the opportunity to display the statue as consistent with the ways in which we look at history at our institution,” Ms. Mirrer said in an interview. “Jefferson just has to be one of those figures that really draws attention to the distance between our founding ideals and the reality of our nation.”
The Public Design Commission, responsible for overseeing art on city-owned properties, finalized the decision Monday.
The commission had originally planned to authorize the transfer of the statue to the historical society last week, but it was delayed due to concerns that it wouldn’t be easily accessible if it was placed there. During a virtual public hearing, members of the public voiced strong opposition to this proposal.
The sculpture was created by the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers. It is a plaster replica of the bronze Jefferson statue that is displayed in Washington’s Capitol Rotunda. The statue was commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces.
Later, the painted plaster version was donated to New Yorkers. It arrived at City Hall in 1834. Levy charged admission to see the sculpture and donated the money the the poor. Levy’s sword is already in the collection of the historical society.
Michele H. Bogart, a professor emeritus of art history and visual culture at Stony Brook University in New York, said the statue’s removal only “deflects attention” from the “bad men” who are sometimes memorialized in public art. Ms. Bogart was one of 17 historians who signed a letter last month that suggested relocating the statue to the Governor’s Room in City Hall, a reception room where it was housed for most of the 19th century.
“I have a philosophical problem with removing it from City Hall,” said Ms. Bogart, who served on the design commission under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. “If you can remove the Thomas Jefferson statue, then you can remove works from other city buildings.”
The Governor’s Room option was rejected for several reasons, according to Keri Butler, executive director of the design commission: The city lacked the ability to properly contextualize the statue in that space; City Hall is not typically open to the public on the weekends or evenings; and the Governor’s Room is only open to the public during scheduled tours.
The controversy highlighted the contentious debate over how much to weigh America’s history of racialized oppression in re-evaluating artwork and public monuments.
“It should be destroyed,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, a former councilman who first tried to get the statue removed from City Hall in 2001. “A statue should be for those who we honor for their exemplary service and duty to all of this country, not just the white race.”
The national reckoning is indeed upon Jefferson and his legacy as slave holder. In the last year, several other Jefferson statues were removed or destroyed, including ones in Oregon.
Todd Fine, a local preservation activist, described the commission’s decision as “hypocritical,” after officials expressed reservations about placing the public artwork inside a private museum.
“I have a feeling this will be the future of a lot of public artworks and monuments,” Mr. Fine said. “They will just be given away to private entities.”
New York City has struggled in the past to deal with monuments that are dedicated to divisive historical figures. Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to remove “symbols of hate” on city property after a 2017 protest by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., over plans to remove a Robert E. Lee statue turned into a deadly riot.
After being subject to intense criticism for his comments, Mr. de Blasio decided to retreat and set up a commission to decide how to address statues like the one of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, one of Theodore Roosevelt at American Museum of Natural History, and one of Dr. J. Marion Sims at Central Park at Fifth Avenue 103rd Street.
Only Sims’ statue has been removed. Vinnie Bagwell, a Black sculptor, was chosen to create a new statue called “Victory Beyond Sims,” a bronze angel holding a flame. The Public Design Commission approved a long-term loan to an undetermined cultural organization of the Roosevelt statue, but it remains in its place.
For Council members who say working under the gaze of Jefferson is uncomfortable and even emotionally painful, the statue’s removal can’t come soon enough.
The Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus joined forces with the Progressive Caucus in demanding that the statue be removed prior to the Council’s next meeting on Nov. 23.
“If they want to treat this relic as some type of work of art, so be it,” said I. Daneek Miller, a councilman from Queens and co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. “The removal needs to be expedited.”
Source: NY Times