Public Art vs. the Public in Indianapolis


Friday, August 19, 2011

A work of public art is causing a stir in Indianapolis — and it hasn’t even gone up yet. The dispute involves a monument of a freed slave that was supposed to be placed in downtown Indianapolis. The work, “E Pluribus Unum,” is by the celebrated African-American artist Fred Wilson

Wilson based his figure of the freed slave from the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial, made in 1902. Positioned at the base of the older monument, the man is shirtless, sitting down, and holding up a flag. Wilson, who is known for recontextualizing existing art objects, tells Kurt Andersen that he wanted to replicate the figure but give him a prominent place of his own nearby, “so that he is a person, he is a man, and he can represent something else, something positive.”

But some in Indianapolis’ African-American community don’t see it that way. In the last year, opponents have organized, protesting the work at civic meetings, in the media, and recently at the State Capitol. One opponent is longtime state representative Bill Crawford, who says that Wilson’s statue — intended to correct stereotypes — instead perpetuates them.

Artist Fred Wilson and State Representative Bill CrawfordArtist Fred Wilson and
State Representative Bill Crawford

"As long as we keep looking back to what we were,” he tells Kurt Andersen, “we are never going to be what we ought to be and what we're going to be." He argues that the public should have a larger say in the matter of how they are represented. “Public art can be challenging, but it cannot be in your face without asking [the public's] opinion.”

The private foundation that is backing the statue recently announced that it will not be placed at the original location. Although they’re looking for another site, they acknowledged that the statue may never be installed. 

"Of course it doesn't make me happy that people are upset with this particular sculpture,” Wilson says. “But I am really thrilled that people are in dialogue about imagery, the city, and how race is infused in that dialogue … In the end, the people of Indianapolis really have to come together, and I'll abide with whatever comes down the pike."

What do you think about the controversy? How much input should artists have to get from the public when they make public art? Is there a work in your community that you find offensive? Tell us in a comment below.


Slideshow: Fred Wilson's “E Pluribus Unum”

Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial
Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation

The Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial, which sits in the heart of Indianapolis, was the only monument in the city featuring a person of color until 2010. The sculptor Fred Wilson wanted to give the African-American figure a prominent place of his own nearby, “so that he is a person, he is a man, and he can represent something else, something positive.”

E Pluribus Unum
Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation

A detail of a rendering of Wilson's project, "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One). The statue reappropriates the African-American figure from the Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial. Rather than evoking a history of enslavement, Wilson wants his statue to tell a story of triumph and progress. The figure would hold a flag representing the African Diaspora.

E Pluribus Unum
Courtesy of the Central Indiana Community Foundation

A rendering of "E Pluribus Unum" as it would stand in front of the City-County Building in downtown Indianapolis, the proposed location for the project.


Bill Crawford and Fred Wilson

Produced by:

Derek John

Comments [17]

DeCesare from Balty

Correction: It looks like Man/Woman only exists in Baltimore. But still. Ugh.

Aug. 26 2011 02:34 PM
Barbara DeCesare from Balty

Hey, Bobert from Baltimore! I was just logging in to make that same comment about the Penn Station art.

It's offensive because:
1. the city paid $750k for it
2. it's not particularly interesting, though it is huge
3. it's not original to our city; there are several others junking up cities around the nation
4. it's literally blocks away from MICA, the art school, and looms over the campus as if to mock intelligent, original art.

Aug. 26 2011 02:25 PM
keith brown

The whole point of appropriation art is to take something out of its context and use it in a different way (in this case, the artist took a piece from another art work- in which the symbol for the african was a portrayal of weakness) and gave it new meaning. This is a great artistic gesture that is far deeper than whether the statue is wearing shoes or not! The artist took back that symbol and put it in a new context to be re-examined. Thats a beautiful gesture which can only be done from a position of power. Which ironically is the very thing the protestors are saying is not portrayed here. The real issue here is the limited way we perceive art.

Aug. 22 2011 08:08 PM

hi 360,
I thought this was a great piece of journalism. Compliments to Kurt on his interview with Rep. Crawford in which he managed to improve the dialog by tempering the rhetoric--[ Sinister -evil to patriarchal] without relativizing the fundamental disagreement. GREAT WORK.
thanks, wl

Aug. 22 2011 04:19 PM
Robert Davis

The city of Washington, Georgia, is involved in a similar controversay to the Indianapolis statue. The town is going to dedicate a square to Black patriots of the American Revolution and include a statue representation of what Black soldier Austin Dabney might have looked like. Local White people want to know why the square and the monument could not commeorate all of the area's Revolutionary War heroes of both sexes and all colors. I am writing a scholarly article on the legends and reality of Austin Dabney's life.

Aug. 22 2011 04:19 PM
Robert Davis

Ifyou really want to be offended, look at the General Sherman statue across from the White House. Ithas an eagle atop a Confederate corpse!

Aug. 22 2011 04:13 PM
bobert donahue from Baltimore

I think the ugliest pile of crap called "public art" I've ever seen has to be in front of Penn Station, Baltimore. Say what you will about the proposed sculpture in Indianapolis, at least it generates a conversation that doesn't revolve around how ugly, pointless, and out of place it is.

Aug. 22 2011 01:30 AM
Frederick Hayes from Brooklyn, NY

Mr Blaiwas, You are right, arguments about what is offensive and what is not are integral to what becomes public art. But, you have to have those arguments with the community you are working for. All art on some level that manages to find an audience public or private makes compromises. What may be offensive to one community, is a compromise to another.

Aug. 21 2011 04:22 PM
Anne Martineau from Salt Lake City Utah

In Salt Lake City there is a a park in the shadow of the gigantic phallic appearing Mormon Church Office Building
In this park there are bronze statues of mormon pioneer people. The way this is put together is so telling in terms of historical AND current mormon sexual politics. There are all sorts of bronze statues of men and boys playing and doing the important work of building "Zion" aka. Salt Lake City and one (yes only one) statue of a woman and one girl working in the garden and tending a baby. This is a semi public work of art but there is a larger story behind this. In 1999 the Mormon church purchased a public street from Salt Lake City. Believe it or not they purchased Main street, truly a main pedestrian thoroughfare.
Despite critical public outcry the powers that be (Mormon city council members) and the Mormon church made this happen. This had the effect of shutting down public protest, shutting down civil liberties such as people holding hands or kissing on main street, smoking on main street or anything that the Mormon church wished to eliminate all on a previously well known public street.
The plaza is truly beautiful piece of public/semi public art
but it is a slap in the face of the portion of the public who are non mormon or feminist or gay or homeless or who are friendly or advocate for the general non mormon public OR who just don't believe that a very large very wealthy church should own any city's main street. Anne Martineau

Aug. 21 2011 04:02 PM
Peter Blaiwas

Arguments about what does and does not constitute an offensive work of art are an integral part of regarding any work of art. I am most offended by public art that is so inert as to not offend anyone. And I am talking to you, Boston.

Aug. 21 2011 02:37 PM
Frederick Hayes from Brooklyn, NY

As a fellow artist who has also done public work I know how contentious working with the public can be. That's the main reason why certain artist refuse to do public art particularly if they have to meet with the public. I worked on a project and had several meetings with community leaders about a theme based Light Rail Platform design around Afro-Centrism. I along with two other artist presented our ideas base on the community's input months later as we were approaching the deadline before the next phase of the project and there were still those who did not agree or complained about the Afro-Centric theme. Fortunately, though we did have the backing of the city Supervisor for that district and was able to proceed. Also, I think that as an image Fred's sculpture is a much more powerful symbol than designs embedded into a platform. Because of it's symbolism along more of an effort should have been made to dialogue with the African American community of Indianapolis. Minorities communities in general are very sensitive to the how they are represented in public. That representation must always be ideal or abstracted in such a way as not cause a stir. This is not to say it should be formulaic, although most pubic art leans in this direction. It has to be something that comes from the artist normal way of making things, but this normality has to take into account the people of whom it is for. Public Art is a compromise with the public, in your studio or in privately funded institutions such as the one's Fred often works with you can do pretty much what you want.

Aug. 21 2011 01:05 PM
jeff from charlottesville, va, usa

In Charlottesville, Virginia there is a statue: the Lewis and Clark Statue. It is in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in the university/downtown area. It depicts (in typical heroic posture) the 2 famous explorers. But it also depicts a apparently cowering Sacajawea kneeling submissively behind them. I (and others) find it offensive, even disgusting. Albemarle county, however, (where Charlottesville is located) is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation and has a long tradition of institutionalized elitism going back to the days of slavery and Jefferson - a tradition that is still clung to today. So a statue that obviously denigrates both women and native americans remains firmly ensconced at a place of honor in Charlottesville. Some suggest that it is a part of history and should be honored as such. But it can be part of our history without dominating (and apparently representing) Charlottesville's present. I do think that public art should serve as motivation for positive, socially responsible sentiments. Sometimes what is (or is not) "socially responsible" can be debated. But sometimes it is clear. If the sentiments celebrated by a statue a clearly the sentiments of a prior age that are no longer appropriate, then put that piece in a museum and make the space available for something that is appropriate.

Aug. 21 2011 11:38 AM
carolita from nyc

as an artist and cartoonist, I am pretty much forced every day to recognize that stuff I do will result in people loving what I have to say, or hating what I have to say (or worse, not caring). That's life. You try something, you get shot down sometimes. You also sometimes realize, wow, that was a bad idea, and, after the fact, understand why your "brilliant" idea went over like a lead balloon. Sure, artists and the public should be in dialogue. Long gone are the days when patrons of the arts could just commission whatever they want and impose it on the public.

Aug. 21 2011 11:18 AM
Chaka freeman from Dcl

As long as we speak of "races"as opposed to the human race we will continue to bicker about images. When we see humanity as what it is,
one species then we will begin to live as one wholeinstead of many divided

Aug. 20 2011 02:19 PM

looks like a pretty crappy statue if you ask me.
The first one at least had some style to it

Aug. 19 2011 09:21 PM
Randy Perraglio from Espanola New Mexico

Public art will never please everyone,it's not meant too.I have a building in my town where I allow local graf artists to paint.It is a living breathing piece,something new everyday,but there are still people who view it as a negative and try to lump it into something negative.The artist has to please himself(herself) before anyone else.

Aug. 19 2011 02:31 PM

Would have liked to hear more from the artist instead of the focus on an obvious 'hater. What does the artist see when looking at his proposed new work? There's a disconnect between what this man does brilliantly as an artist and what some people are trying to do to his work. There have to be more people out there supporting what the artist hopes to accomplish. You took the easy road and sided with the people yelling the most. I want to know more.

Aug. 19 2011 01:35 AM

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