Grant Park Advisory Council establishes subcommittee to review statues and monuments

By Ryan Rosenberger, Staff Reporter

Statues depicting historical figures such as Christopher Columbus are being removed across the country in the wake of protests as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Peter Hvizdak/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP

Amid the recent discourse surrounding statues and monuments memorializing controversial historical figures in public spaces, several statues have been removed by governing bodies or knocked down by citizens across the country.

A Chicago group is planning a more measured approach to evaluating statues and monuments, hoping a review process can prevent removal based on “what the mob says.”

A Frankfort, Kentucky, statue honoring Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, was removed from the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda upon orders from the governor, and a Christopher Columbus statue in St. Paul, Minnesota, was torn down by protesters. These are just two recent examples of statues that have been carefully removed or in some cases violently toppled to the ground in an attempt to stop honoring people who supported the Confederacy or were owners of enslaved people.

In Springfield, Illinois, House Speaker Mike Madigan is calling for the removal of a portrait of politician Stephen Douglas, whose family owned slaves. Madigan will be introducing a resolution to hang a portrait of former President Barack Obama in its place in the House Chamber at the capitol, according to POLITICO.

A newly-formed subcommittee of the Grant Park Advisory Council in Chicago is proposing an alternate solution in properly removing certain statues or monuments in the park.

Headed by Jim Wales, vice president of the Grant Park Advisory Council, the subcommittee is intended to prevent the “violent takedown” of statues and monuments in Grant Park.

The subcommittee is looking to implement a review process for all statues and monuments currently standing that are contested by the public, and any new proposal of statues or monuments would also undergo a review process.

“What we wanted to do was create a situation where if something is being contested, it shouldn’t be torn down simply because that’s what the mob says,” Wales said. “It should be reviewed. [We should look at] the historical aspect of it.”

The subcommittee will consist of 11 members, including experts in art, history and cultural affairs. The panel also includes a number of Chicago residents.

Members of the subcommittee include Charles Bethea, head curator at the Chicago History Museum; Ed Torres, an architect who used to work for the Chicago Park District; and Walker Johnson, who has “worked on many architectural treasures in the city and all over the country,” according to Leslie Recht, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council.

Their first meeting is set for Wednesday, July 15, and Wales said the first thing on the agenda is to review the Columbus statue, which is located at the south end of Grant Park.

Recht said she hopes the subcommittee will be beneficial, as people tearing down and defacing monuments is “not very effective.”

“It’s much better to have a review of what sculpture is in a park [or] what sculpture could be put in a park, rather than having mobs of people tearing things down and defacing things,” Recht said.“I don’t think that’s the right way for these things to be done.”

The review process will include a historical analysis of statues, monuments and exhibits, and the impact on what Wales calls “diverse populations,” followed by a meeting where the public will have the opportunity to weigh in.

“What we need to look at is the placement of the exhibit, ‘Is it challenged by a legacy of racism, prejudice or inequality?’” Wales said. “We’re going to look at the historical analysis of the exhibit as it pertains to a specific person, group or specific historical event—we’ll consider what is being memorialized.”

The subcommittee will be taking written commentary from the public as well, Wales said.

A recommendation from the subcommittee will then be given to the rest of the advisory council, who will deliberate and present their final thoughts to the City of Chicago or the Park District, depending on who owns the statue.

Wales said recommendations fall into five categories: no action necessary, recontextualisation, relocation of the statue, new temporary or permanent work and removal of the statue.

Recht said a common concern people have about some statues and monuments is they are presented without context.

“If you have a sculpture of Christopher Columbus … or some monuments that [Benito] Mussolini donated years ago, some people are saying that having those in Grant Park with no context is not appropriate,” Recht said. “They need context for people to understand why they’re there, what the various aspects are, both positive and negative, that relate to those particular sculptures or monuments.”

Mechtild Widrich, associate professor in the Art History Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said throughout history statues have been put into place by demographics of people who have “controlled the historical narrative of that time.”

She said statues should not be viewed as something that are “immovable” because they can exclude certain parts of the population.

Widrich said the notion that removing a Columbus statue or a confederate flag would erase history is “nonsense” because history can be taught in museums and educational settings.

She said public spaces should be open and inclusive to all people.

“Do we want a public sphere where only one group has a say? Or do we publicly acknowledge that we have a diverse society?” Widrich said. “[Everyone] should feel welcomed, represented and invited to be active in public space.”

The first meeting will be held over Zoom Wednesday, July 15, at 6 p.m., and people can register here to view the meeting.

Updated Friday, July 24 at 10:30 a.m. 

Early in the morning Friday, July 24, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the removal of Columbus statues in Grant and Arrigo parks, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Lightfoot’s decision follows a large protest on July 18 where over 1000 protesters attempted to remove the Columbus statue from Grant Park and clashed with police officers.

The statues’ removal, while publicly denounced by several alderpersons such as Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) and Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), was met with praise from protesters and Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward).

“It’s coming down because of the activism that has led to this moment,” Ald. Sanchez wrote in a tweet on Friday. “Indigenous, Black and Brown people have been fighting for so long to see this happen.”