Philadelphia public art project ponders the meaning behind monuments

October 9, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
From Benjamin Franklin to Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia is a city rich in public art and monuments. As the nation debates the meaning and fate of Confederate statues, the city is also questioning who should be honored and memorialized. Jeffrey Brown reports on how a city-wide project called Monument Lab is using art to spark public discussion on what is an appropriate monument for today’s Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is a monument? And who or what should be honored? These are the questions many Americans are asking in the wake of recent protests over Confederate statues.

They are also the questions one art exhibition is trying to answer.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Philadelphia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Benjamin Franklin is here, of course. William Penn sits atop City Hall. And people line up for a shot with the fictional, but ever popular fighter Rocky Balboa.

Philadelphia is a city of statues and monuments, history everywhere. But why is one person honored and another not on the pedestal? A citywide project called Monument Lab is asking those questions and more.

At Washington Square Park, we met Jane Golden, head of the mural arts organization that’s putting on the exhibition.

Is there a problem with this?

JANE GOLDEN, Founder, Mural Arts Philadelphia: No, I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we need to broaden our definition of what a monument is. And we need to make sure that everyone’s story is heard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Golden’s organization commissioned 20 artists to make works that respond to a not-so-simple question: What is an appropriate monument for today’s Philadelphia?

Each will stand for nine weeks, and laboratory kiosks are set up for the public to comment and create their own designs. The project was conceived three years ago, but now, after the violence in Charlottesville this summer, it opens amid a national debate about monuments and history, one that’s embroiled Philadelphia as well, where there have been calls to take down a prominent statue of Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police chief both loved and hated for heavy-handed police tactics.

JANE GOLDEN: In some ways, monuments have been glorious and are uplifting, and, in some way, very clearly, they have failed us and our society. This is what is coming to fruition now, so I think this exhibition is incredibly timely.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s also stretching the idea of what a monument might look like.

Rowhouse stoops constructed of materials salvaged from abandoned buildings become symbols for neighborhood life. And then there’s this sculpture of an Afro pick by Hank Willis Thomas.

HANK WILLIS THOMAS, Artist: Well, I have always been inspired by public art and wanted to find ways to put things in the public space that haven’t been seen in public before. And an Afro pick like you see behind me is something that is part of everyday life for a lot of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another absence, women. In a city of some 1,500 monuments, just a handful honor historical women, including Joan of Arc.

In Rittenhouse Square, the city’s beautiful downtown park, Sharon Hayes took that as her theme. She cast pedestals and inscribed names of women throughout the city’s history that could have been honored. But the pedestals themselves remain empty.

SHARON HAYES, Artist: For me, the empty pedestals are a pointer, a kind of indicator of the absence that, for me, feels as impactful as then the presence of all of these names of people who contributed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who decides, right? This is sort of what it comes down to. Who decides what should be in our parks?

SHARON HAYES: One of the things that I think could come out of this moment that we’re in, where there’s such public contestation about monuments, is that we find sort of more equitable processes, sort of more equitable ways to…

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean, a vote, or, because that…

SHARON HAYES: More like a town hall.

JEFFREY BROWN: A town hall?

SHARON HAYES: I think a town hall.

JEFFREY BROWN: What if the town hall changes next year? I mean, every time you put it to a public consensus, that changes.

SHARON HAYES: Well, this is the conundrum and a kind of challenge to all of the fundamental principles we understand about them, that they’re permanent, that they’re fixed, that they’re unmovable, that they’re our history.

JEFFREY BROWN: In North Philadelphia’s Germantown, the question of change and impermanence is raised in a different way. There, in Vernon Park. artist Karyn Olivier, a local resident, took a monolith dedicated to a Revolutionary War battle, and wrapped it in mirrored acrylic, creating a literal reflection of the neighborhood as it is now.

KARYN OLIVIER, Artist: I think the fact that it’s a temporary monument works for this piece in particular, because, in three months, it’ll be gone, and now you kind of have to reckon and interrogate what was there. And now, what does that monument now mean?

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of this is when you take — unwrap it?

KARYN OLIVIER: Yes, because now this monument that everyone presumed they knew, because, marginally, on the periphery, they see it every day, now they have to go up to it and say, well, what does this mean? What does that mean to me today?


KARYN OLIVIER: So, like, in a way, I’m also protecting this monument. It’s a fortress around it as well.

So, it’s playing — it’s to me that paradox. It’s invisible at moments. I’m protecting it. It’s enclosed. It’s reflecting you. So monuments speak about people, at the end of the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Philadelphia’s City Hall, sculptor Mel Chin took a more playful approach to his serious subject of American democracy, the individual me and the public we.

Chin set up two high pedestals for people to become monuments themselves. And he and I, two statues come to life, talked about it.

I am celebrated?

MEL CHIN, Artist: You are celebrated. In the age of Instagram and selfies, you are — you predominate. You’re there, except I’m to your right. I’m also me.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean? Why put two?

MEL CHIN: The other monumental document that was created here was the Constitution, and it says we, we, the people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whose history’s being celebrated? You have to see this in that context also.

MEL CHIN: Why not the people? And when you celebrate a person or an individual, do you leave out others? This is what this project is intending to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All fine, but skeptics might wonder if this is just imposing a particular social activism into our public life.

Somebody could say, and probably will say, why are you putting that in my public space?

JANE GOLDEN: Oh, sure. There’s always a curatorial strategy.

However, how this is different is, there is a component for public discussion. It’s not just these are here passively. You have something to say? Then go into the laboratory and create a design. Come and take part in the public programs. Be part of the conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Philadelphians can now decide for themselves.

The Afro pick and other works in the Monument Lab project will be packed up in a few months. As for the Rizzo statue, the city set up a Web site for proposals and will hold public hearings. A city commission will ultimately decide its fate.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot to think about there.