The Louisville Commission on Public Art held an open forum Wednesday afternoon for community members to weigh on an ongoing public art review. The review was initiated by Mayor Greg Fischer after a Cherokee Park statue of John Breckinridge Castleman — who served in the Confederate Army — was vandalized in August.
The purpose of the review is to survey public art around the city — the committee estimates about 400 pieces will be examined — and determine whether any could be interpreted as “honoring bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”
But on Wednesday, the conversation centered mostly around the Castleman statue.
A strong majority of speakers at the forum were in support of the statue staying put in the Cherokee Triangle, calling it a neighborhood landmark and its subject a man to be honored for his contributions to the city after the Civil War. The crowd was also majority white and it appeared that no speakers were people of color.
There were some dissenting voices.
“I lived in old houses in Old Louisville for 40 years; I write plays about historic people and care about history,” said Nancy Gall-Clayton. “But statues that venerate the Confederacy, especially statues of men that were erected during the Jim Crow-era, like the one of John Castleman, don’t belong in public places.”
Commission member Chris Reitz is the gallery director and head of the Critical and Curatorial Studies program at the University of Louisville.
He said while only one person during the forum called for establishing guidelines for public art, it’s a very important part of moving the discussion forward.
“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.”
Reitz continued: “I think the committee is going to have to think very seriously about what some of these terms — like memorial, history public — mean.”
Additionally, some attendees — including Cathy Shannon, the commission’s only black member — said it would be difficult to insure the commission gets an accurate depiction of what the community wants unless the forums are more diverse in race and age.
“I appreciate Mayor Fischer wanting to even visit taking down these monuments because they are atrocious for many people.” Shannon said. “They represent the worst time in this country and it is time to move them.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, the commission said additional forums will be held at different times and in different neighborhoods to ensure that anyone who wanted to have the chance to speak could be heard, with dates and locations of upcoming forums to be announced soon.
Chair Anna Tatman said the Commission on Public Art will take at least several weeks to offer recommendations on an individual basis.
In the meantime, members said they will weigh all the options regarding the Castleman statue — including preservation, removal and adding more historical context.