Arts and Culture

Metro Council member Kevin Kramer remains steadfast in his commitment to returning a statue of King Louis XVI to the corner of W. Jefferson and 6th streets outside Metro Hall, despite a plea from the Commission on Public Art to pump the brakes on committing the city to do so.

Kramer is the primary sponsor of a resolution filed early November, insisting the mayor “repair, restore and reinstall” the King Louis XVI statue.

“We repair damage that’s done through vandalism,” he told WFPL. “We would certainly remove graffiti from our buildings, we would certainly repair damage done to public assets.”

The statue was damaged during downtown protests for racial justice starting back in late May when its hand was broken off. But the statue has also been gradually deteriorating from exposure to the elements. 

“I don’t think the goal of that movement was the destruction of public property, and I think when we accept the destruction of public property as a goal, I think it makes it much more difficult for people to embrace the message,” Kramer said. “So I think it’s a huge mistake, to somehow suggest that the statue is the problem.”

The resolution had been on the Nov. 10 agenda of a Government Oversight and Audit Committee meeting, but it was held over because of a “pretty full” agenda, according to Kramer.. 

In anticipation of the committee meeting, Metro Louisville’s Commission on Public Art had prepared a statement regarding the condition of the damaged statue.

“We are actively investigating options for the statute’s conservation and restoration,” the statement sent by COPA chair Chris Reitz read. “To date we have not received an estimate, nor identified a conservator that will provide an estimate, due to the poor condition of the statue. One conservator believed the damage may be beyond ​reasonable repair.” 

Kramer filed the resolution to draw attention to the issue and to “change the narrative,” starting from a place that “it’s our intent” to return the statue. But it wouldn’t lock the city in if restoration is not feasible, he said.

The resolution, as currently written, asks Mayor Greg Fischer to “pursue federal funds including but not limited to CARES funds or other third-party funds for these repairs.” If those funds are not “secured timely,” the resolution states that the mayor must use metro public dollars.

“I am certainly not unreasonable and recognize that we should certainly get our head around how much it’s going to cost to fix this and bring in experts,” he said. ”But drawing the conclusion so quickly because of the vandalism that was done maybe this isn’t the time to repair the damage, comes as a bit of a disappointment to me.” 

But Louisville Forward and Metro Louisville public art administrator Sarah Lindgren have consulted specialists.  Several of them, including an initial conservation assessment conducted by Louisville firm Falls Art Foundry, have recommended the city seek more input on the statue’s placement. The firm also said it would be best if the porous marble statue didn’t return to the outdoors.

During COPA’s regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 9, Lindgren told commission members that Falls Art Foundry was “unable to give us any kind of cost estimate about cleaning or repairing the statue because the condition is severe enough that it was beyond their capacity within their company.”

Lindgren told commissioners they’ve since reached out to regional conservators, including one in Nashville who referred her “to yet another group of specialists.”

“It has had some damage that was repaired 20 years ago,” Lindgren said of the nine-ton marble statue, now in Metro storage. “And now more recently, we have some breakage, as well as we’ve had a series of spray paint, vandalism, washing, spray paint washing, and that continued cleaning has really sort of made those previous repair lines pretty vulnerable.”

It was during that meeting that commissioners determined it best to alert council members to how bad the damage is, that it might not be “stable enough” to be cleaned and reinstalled, and that the process to clean and repair will be “labor intensive” involving the possibility of out-of-town transport, according to Lindgren. That could all add up to a lot of money. 

The COPA statement sent to Metro Council last week asked council members to allow them more time to look into this issue as “a vote in favor of repairing the statue could be a vote for an excessively costly restoration process that may turn out to be not feasible or even impossible to carry out.”

The city has cleaned other Metro-owned statues damaged over the past several months, such as the George Rogers Clark statue at the Riverfront Plaza.

The statement put forth by the commission also said that “repeated vandalism to the statue” demonstrates that public opinion is not unified on this matter and council members should consider 2018 guidelines developed by the mayor-appointed Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee. The mayor formed the committee amid debates about a statue of John B. Castleman in Cherokee Triangle — city crews removed that statue in June, but there is an ongoing legal battle

 “In 2018, Metro underwent a long and painstaking process to develop guidelines for evaluating artworks in the public collection,” the statement said. “This work included considerable public input and discussion and resulted in guidelines for determining if contested monuments should remain in the city’s collection and displayed publicly. We recommend these guidelines be considered during decisions about artwork in the public collection.”

Kramer felt strongly that people’s issues with the statue are finance-based, that the opposition to its return is mostly about how much it might cost. 

“I do believe very strongly that we need to bring this community back together and embracing vandalism will not do that… the value of restoring it to the community may be greater than the value of the statue once it’s restored.”

For him, this is a different conversation than the ones that were had around the Castleman statue, removed in June, the Jefferson Davis statue removed from the State Capitol Rotunda in June, and a Confederate monument taken down from a spot near the University of Louisville campus several years ago

But some community members have said their concerns are about the substance of the statue as well as the likely high price tag for repairs. 

Both the statue and the man it represents have complicated histories.

Louis XVI was the King of France when the French Revolution brought down the monarchy, and his own people had him executed, beheading him on charges of treason. The city of Louisville became his namesake because of his financial and military support during the Revolutionary War, a move that is believed to have caused economic turmoil at home in France. 

The statue itself passed through many hands before being installed in Louisville in 1967

“I’m wondering if, taking all of that into context, does that really justify the investment of restoring, preserving and and using that statue as a symbol of what best represents Louisville,” COPA member Ramona Lindsey told WFPL in September. “And so I think that’s a question that needs to be answered when we think about where do we go from here with the statue.”

The resolution remains on the Government Oversight and Audit Committee agenda, which continues to be full, Metro Councilman Kevin Kramer said. He doesn’t feel “any sense of urgency that we should insist that this particular topic be heard” ahead of others, so it’s possible it might not be discussed before the new year. 

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.