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New York City Is Asking Its Residents for Input on Controversial Statues

A seven-question survey allows respondents to propose action regarding existing works, suggest new monuments

In August, protesters defaced Central Park's statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century doctor who performed surgery on enslaved women without their consent (Wikimedia Commons)

J. Marion Simsa 19th-century doctor who performed the first successful artificial insemination, invented the speculum and developed a surgical technique for treating a severe childbirth complicationis widely known as the “father of gynecology.”

But this August, protesters defaced a statue of Sims in Central Park, spray painting the word “racist” on the monument and covering its eyes in red paint. The reason behind the vandalism? Sims’ test subjects were enslaved women who underwent experimental surgery without their consent—or anesthesia.

Amid widespread debate over the role of public monuments in contemporary America, New York City is asking its residents for input on controversial statues like the one of Sims. Artnet’s Brian Boucher writes that a new online survey, launched as part of the Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers, asks New Yorkers to consider how the city can approach the contentious issue while promoting openness and inclusivity in public spaces.

Mayor Bill de Blasio created the commission this August in response to the white supremacist rally over the proposed takedown of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia,​ which resulted in deadly violence.

Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker are serving as the commission's co-chairs. Additional members include Ron Arad, designer of the World Trade Center Memorial, and Harry Belafonte, a civil rights activist and performer.

Responses will play a critical role in shaping [the] commission’s work of developing guidelines that can be applied broadly to art on City property, with the ultimate goal of putting forth a thoughtful way to promote more inclusive, welcoming public spaces for all New Yorkers,” Finkelpearl says in a statement.

The seven-question survey, which is open for submissions until 11:59 p.m. on November 26, includes questions such as: 

“What do you think is the role of public monuments in our city’s public spaces?”;

“How might you best add context and tell a more complete story of a particular monument?”;

“If a particular monument is preserved, altered or removed, what do you think the effect will be in the future?”

The survey does not refer to specific monuments, but respondents can propose the re-contexualization, relocation or removal of an existing monument. Enterprising individuals can also suggest an entirely new monument for the city.

According to Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon, commission members will read all survey submissions as part of their 90-day review.

About Meilan Solly
Meilan Solly

Meilan Solly is an intern with the American Society of Magazine Editors. She is a senior in the College of William and Mary/University of St. Andrews Joint Degree Programme. Previously, Solly interned at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and served as editor-in-chief of The Saint, St. Andrews’ student newspaper.

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