On August 13, the John Breckinridge Castleman statue in Cherokee Park was vandalized with red paint. This came in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and as Louisville residents urged community leaders to take a closer look at what our city monuments were actually honoring.
Castleman played a key role in establishing Louisville’s park system, but also served in the Confederate Army. On Wednesday, the Castleman statue — which has not been moved, modified or given the greenlight to stay— was found vandalized yet again with red paint.
Seven months have passed between these two events, and since a White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, first prompted a national discussion about Confederate monuments.
Some cities have dealt with these monuments by swiftly removing them overnight.
In nearby Lexington, Mayor Jim Gray announced right after Charlottesville that he would be taking steps to remove his city’s Confederate monuments. A public meeting was held shortly thereafter during which the attendees overwhelmingly supported this proposal. Two statues were then removed from downtown Lexington during the night and are now in a nearby historic graveyard.
So what moves has Louisville made since August to address its controversial public artwork?
The short answer is two public meetings.
The First Meeting
Soon after the first time the Castleman statue was vandalized, Mayor Greg Fischer directed the city’s Commission on Public Art, or COPA, to survey current artworks. They were supposed to determine whether any could be interpreted as “honoring bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”
The commission took comments via an online portal or through mail. And on Sept. 6, there was a meeting to hear comments from the public.
Nearly all of the comments from that meeting centered on the Castleman statue and whether it should stay, go or be modified in some way.
At the time, Commission member Chris Reitz said only one person during the forum called for establishing actual guidelines for the city’s public art.
Reitz is the gallery director and head of the Critical and Curatorial Studies program at the University of Louisville. He said he felt having these guidelines was a critical part of moving the discussion forward — and ultimately prompting action.
“Not only criteria for evaluating these monuments, but also for having this discussion,” Reitz said. “While the conversation today was very civil, I felt as if we were speaking past each other very often.”
After the meeting, the commission said additional forums would be held at different times and in different neighborhoods to ensure that anyone who wanted to have the chance to speak could be heard.
But then communication from COPA and the city stalled until December.
At that point, Fischer announced additional steps to explore Louisville’s “history and values through public art and monuments.”
The first step was establishing yet another body — a mayoral advisory committee. They’re tasked with recommending principles that Louisville’s public art needs to meet.
About a month later, the members of that committee were announced. Two of them represent COPA.
The Second Meeting
The Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee held its first public meeting Wednesday night. Unlike the Sept. 6 COPA meeting, there was no open microphone for public comment; rather, attendees were encouraged to speak with the committee members one-on-one.
Still, much of the discussion sounded familiar.
People were still specifically concerned about the Castleman statue. In a follow-up discussion among committee members, they stressed their role was not to decide the fate of a single piece of artwork, rather principles for Louisville’s nearly 400-item canon.
And Chris Reitz reiterated his same sentiment from the September COPA meeting.
“We need to develop criteria so that moving forward the city has a plan for how it memorializes things, how it maintains its history, what it values,” he said.
The committee will announce the dates and locations of future meetings, which are all open to the public, in the coming weeks. In the meantime, they’re assessing the comments they’ve already received, as well as compiling documents outlining the public art plans of other cities.
But for those who anticipated a quick decision on the Castleman statue, the committee won’t have their recommendations for Fischer until July.