An important — and long overdue — conversation is taking place in Chicago, and you are invited to participate.
The Chicago Monuments Project is a city initiative to grapple with the often unacknowledged — or forgotten — history associated with Chicago’s public art collection. Various accounts, especially on social media, have inaccurately described this project as an effort to tear it all down. This could not be further from the truth. As the project’s co-chairs, we must clarify that this is a discussion, and no decisions have been made.
Chicago joins cities across the country reckoning with the omissions and over-simplifications present in their public art collections, and each is tackling this evaluation process differently. We felt that in Chicago this dialog must include the city’s residents. These are public artworks in public spaces, and public engagement is imperative to ensuring that we build collections that better reflect our history, communities and stories.
An advisory committee of community leaders, artists, architects, scholars, curators and city officials was assembled this summer to lend their experience and expertise to this effort. This broad coalition will engage with a wide range of communities and world views to ask questions and bring the perspectives required to do this work on behalf of all Chicago’s people.
Almost all the 41 objects under consideration were created between 1893 and the late 1930s. Their origins can be traced to the World’s Columbian Exposition, which constructed an image of Chicago that aligned with the dominant culture of the day. Chicago’s wealthy funded these monuments based on mythologies of the city’s founding that posed white explorers, missionaries, armed forces and settlers against the indigenous tribes and nations of the region.
The monuments under consideration may surprise some people. The portrayal of military figures and national leaders is complicated because the history of the nation itself is complicated in ways that too often have not been fully examined.
This is especially the case with the removal of indigenous peoples from Southern and Western lands throughout the 19th century. Revisiting that history with any sense of intentionality involves reassessing the legacies of leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant whose policies drove those processes — no matter how deified they have become over time.
Lincoln’s legacy as a statesmen and anti-slavery figure stands side by side with his historical role as an escalator of Indian removal. American Indian removal continued under Grant, who broke peace treaties for westward expansion while also standing as the celebrated general who battled to free enslaved people and save the union. In the spirit of discussion we ask, “Shouldn’t we cultivate an attitude of balanced regard in thinking about our national leaders?”
In addition to the review of who our monuments honor, we must also look at who is missing. Invisibility is its own kind of injustice. Women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals are notably underrepresented as well as the themes of labor, migration and community-building.
We ask everyone to join the conversation — to share their input, but also to listen and to learn from each other. People from various backgrounds and communities bring different experiences and perspectives to this conversation, and all of these voices must be heard.
This is not simply a binary choice between keeping or removing, it is an opportunity to brainstorm ways to add context, to add voices and to create new work together.
Through the website, you can submit feedback on these selected monuments, raise questions about others and suggest new monuments. You can participate in an upcoming series of speaker events or a virtual drop-in conversation with members of the advisory committee. Additionally, community organizations are encouraged to submit an application to host and facilitate conversations about this project, and artists are invited to share project ideas for new monuments that rethink the place, purpose and permanence of monuments in our public spaces.
Simply put, this is hard work and a difficult conversation. All Chicagoans are welcome to participate with respect and consideration. Please visit chicagomonuments.org.
Mark Kelly, Bonnie McDonald and Jennifer Scott are co-chairs of the Chicago Monument Project Advisory Committee. Kelly is commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. McDonald is president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois. Scott is a public historian and curator.
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