Arts and Culture

The Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee held their final public meeting Wednesday and put final touches on recommendations for principles that the city’s current public artwork should meet.

Those recommendations will be submitted to Mayor Greg Fischer by June 30, though committee members indicated they would be complete by Thursday and subsequently posted online.

The committee was established by Mayor Greg Fischer in December, and it was charged with developing a set of principles for evaluating Louisville’s existing public art and monuments. These principles were also intended to determine “whether to alter, preserve or remove public art and monuments that may be interpreted as honoring bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”

The draft, which was reviewed and altered by committee members during Wednesday’s meeting, had been last updated on June 5. At the time, the recommendations for principles included:

  • Monuments are not history: Monuments are one of the ways city government can highlight select historical figures and events and make them accessible to the public. This means that monuments in public spaces become sanctioned versions of history. They reveal some parts of history and hide others, while imposing on us notions of who we are and where we come from.
  • Our monument landscape reflects the history of monument making, not necessarily the full history of Louisville, this must be rectified: There have historically been a great number of reasons to build monuments. In the post-Civil War era, for example, monuments to Confederate soldiers were erected both as a way to placate and as a way to perpetuate systemic racism, bigotry, and slavery. This is historically significant. But in our lived experience monuments do not serve such purposes. They are instead primarily tasked with representing a shared history to the public. Those in positions of privilege and power have largely determined that history and “the public” that it addresses. Thus the city must occasionally revisit its monuments in order to adjust our landscape and ensure it reflects a shared vision of our history.
  • Our monuments must reflect the demographics and composition of our city as a whole: Louisville needs to align its artwork and monuments in public spaces with the vision of our city as a progressive, compassionate, and equitable community. Public spaces must be inclusive.
  • Monuments must be accessible: This means that they city should strive to make monuments as physically and programmatically accessible as possible to all of Louisville’s communities, and consider the application of Universal Design principles. It also means that they must be contextualized for the general public in a way that is inclusive and encourages active engagement.
  • History is complex. Some historical figures and events provoke pride. Others shame. Public interpretation of history should not shy away from the latter in favor of the former: One of the problems with monuments to historical figures is that they are not particularly well suited to nuance. A bronze figure towering above a city street gives the impression that the city celebrates the entire life of a figure depicted. But no life is beyond criticism, and some of the most impactful Louisvillians (in terms of our city’s landscape and institutions) are also very controversial figures. The city should not shy away from these problems.
  • The criteria for removing a monument, as well as the criteria for installing a new monument, must be rigorous: Removing a longstanding public fixture, no matter how contested, is not a small matter. In some cases, adding more nuanced historical context to challenging works may be considered as a first step. Additional historical context, in the form of didactic signage, counter monuments, or other adaptations must meet the following criteria: a public process is included in the project development; comprehensive research is conducted on the original monument and made accessible to the public; additional context reveals divergent historical narratives; scale and impact reflects or exceeds the original monument; located appropriately so that the original monument cannot be viewed without the added context. Removal is the best option when it is no longer feasible to reconcile the monument’s message with the values of the city.

The draft goes on to say contested monuments should be be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Is the principal legacy of the subject depicted in the monument fundamentally at odds with current community values?
  • Is the subject a potential rallying point for racist or bigoted groups?
  • Does the object celebrate a part of history that a majority of Louisvillians believes is fundamental to who we are and what we believe?
  • Is the monument physically accessible to all Louisvillians and visitors? Does it make nuanced, complex history accessible to its publics?

Several recommendations for revisions were offered by committee members, including a paragraph stating that monuments or artworks that celebrate the Confederacy were not in line with Louisville’s values. That revision was accepted and will be reflected in the final draft.

Another element of the document that was incomplete as of Wednesday’s meeting was a committee letter addressed to Fischer.

“We’re just simply saying that the principles and criteria that we have articulated in our formal document provides the mayor with guidelines for evaluating the Castleman statue,” said committee member Tom Owen after reviewing the draft of the letter. “And that he should act.”

While the committee was tasked with reviewing all of Louisville’s public art, much of the discussion at subsequent public meetings centered on the John B. Castleman statue in Cherokee Triangle.

Castleman served in the Confederate Army, which has caused many to advocate for the statue’s removal. Others have argued that the monument is an integral part of the neighborhood landscape and cite Castleman’s work with Louisville’s city parks.

The statue has been vandalized a number of times: in 1996, August 2017, February 2018 and, most recently, April 2018.

In response, a “letter” was installed in front of the statue which read, in part:

“The current site conditions will not be addressed until after this process [of establishing principles for the city’s public art] is complete. Louisville Metro Government remains committed to a public process with community input. We urge you to participate in public meetings. Write a letter. Get involved. Let your voice be heard.”

When the final draft of recommendations is posted, it will be available here.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.