Over the weekend, the Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee released their official recommendations regarding principles and criteria that our city’s entire canon of public art should meet.
And the new final recommendations from the commission are thorough and forward-thinking. They include principles and pose questions centered around whether pieces of public art reflect the values of our city as a whole.
Nowhere in the actual report is a specific monument mentioned; the city owns about 400 pieces, and this commission was tasked in January with creating criteria that could be applied to all of them.
But a one-page letter from the seven-member committee to Mayor Greg Fischer offers additional insight into what deliberations actually looked like in practice — a public process consumed by the controversial John Breckinridge Castleman statue in the Cherokee Triangle.
Debate about the Castleman monument was sparked last August when the statue was vandalized with paint. This happened a day after violence erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In response, Fischer had the city’s Commission on Public Art hold a public meeting in which the community could discuss whether any of the city’s pieces honored “bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”
Despite efforts to discuss all of Louisville’s public art, 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.
Some said Castleman was integral to developing Louisville’s public park system and should be honored. Others said he was racist, pointing to Castleman’s service in the Confederacy and his documented wish for his casket to be draped with both the American and Confederate flags.
At the time, commission member Chris Reitz (who later become a member of the Public Art and Monuments advisory committee) said only one person during the forum called for establishing actual guidelines for the city’s public art.
“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.”
Several months passed and there was no word on what would happen to the Castleman statue.
Then, Fischer announced the organization of an advisory committee, which was tasked with creating those recommendations for all the city’s public art.
But while the committee tried to keep conversations on-track, Castleman was a dominant theme at the six subsequent public meetings.
Even committee members referenced the statue as the city’s most concrete example of contentious public artwork. This was especially true after it was vandalized two more times throughout the process: once more with paint, and another time the base of the statue was spray painted with the words “racist” and “traitor.”
Throughout all this, Fischer has been pretty silent — despite mayors in other cities, like Lexington’s Jim Gray, making swift decisions about their city’s contentious statues.
Instead, Fischer has pointed to the committee’s work, like he did in an interview with WFPL prior to the mayoral primary.
He said, at the time: “So they will be coming back with some policy recommendations so that we have set guidelines to look at all our public art in our city and see if there’s any type of offensive, racist art out there.”
Now, the committee’s work is done and Fischer has his policy recommendations.
In a letter addressed to the mayor, committee members urged a timely response. One paragraph of the letter read:
Through the Committee’s meetings and review of public input, we observe that the community is intensely focused on the John Breckinridge Castleman Monument and that there are a wide variety of sentiments about the Monument. Further, the community is eager to reach a resolution for the Monument. As a Committee we did not address in our report the current controversy surrounding the John Breckinridge Castleman Monument as we believe the purpose of the Committee’s work is to develop principles and criteria that apply to today’s controversies as well as those we have not yet encountered. With this report we have provided a foundation and as a Committee we encourage and support the Mayor in making a timely response regarding monuments that are the focus of community concern.
Committee member Tom Owen summarized the statement like this: “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, and that he should act.”
Because, as made apparent by this process, it doesn’t appear the city can truly assess its full collection of public artwork until a decision is made about this contentious statue.
When asked for a statement from Mayor Fischer, a city spokesman said the mayor was currently reviewing the recommendations and there was no set timeline for a response.