A different approach to honoring ethnic and racial pride on this Columbus Day

With Chicago’s three main Columbus sculptures on lockdown, this year’s holiday feels like a good time to reconsider the merits of all the city’s public monuments.

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City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.

The Christopher Columbus statue removed from Grant Park last summer is among 40 public memorials being reviewed by a city commission.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

It’ll be a different Columbus Day this year, given the holiday’s big Chicago parade and many other celebrations have been called on account of COVID.

But as we see it, this year’s holiday is a good time to consider the difficult — but quite necessary — task going on now of re-examining the content, history and intent of Chicago’s public monuments, particularly given that its three main outdoor sculptures honoring the controversial explorer are still hiding out in protective storage after becoming flashpoints in last summer’s protests.

After taking down the Columbus statues, Mayor Lori Lightfoot commissioned an advisory committee to assess the city’s vast public art inventory and make recommendations on the future of the works.

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We supported this move when it was announced, and we’re glad to see progress is being made. We’re told the city has identified 40 works that “could merit a deep public discussion” — that’s fancy talk that means the art could be problematic.

The potentially suspect works include a bas relief panel on north Michigan Avenue’s DuSable Bridge that depicts U.S. Army Ensign George Ronan preparing to sink his sword into a Potawatomi during the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

The army lost the battle and Ronan was killed, but the panel’s images — as detailed as they are — don’t make that point clear.

Could works like this also find themselves sent into deep storage? Not necessarily, according to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Officials said a counter-monument could be added, as well as additional interpretive information. That means the Columbus Three could possibly come out of hiding but with new signage and information added.

The DuSable bridge panel certainly needs some kind of recontextualizing if it is remain in public view.

The work also shows a slain Native American lying at the feet of Ensign Ronan, and — amazingly — an angel floating above, positioned to indicate that God was on the side of the white settlers and their protective army, even in defeat.

“Our public spaces and art should reflect a true representation of our history and all the people that make up that history,” Cultural Affairs Deputy Commissioner Erin Harkey said.

In addition to recommendations, the process will produce guidelines on how to develop a public art collection that better represents Chicago’s entire population make-up.

That would indicate more depictions of women and people of color.

Last summer’s protests shined a bright light on the full array of Chicago’s deeply-rooted and long-standing inequities. The time has come — it’s way overdue — to right these wrongs.

Addressing the city’s public art might seems like a small step compared to, say, police reform or the need for more equitable economic development across the city.

In reality, they are separate parts of the same problem. And all of them must be addressed if we are to build a fairer Chicago.

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