Following the Boston Art Commission’s unanimous vote during a virtual hearing on Tuesday, June 30, the city has announced it will remove bronze figurative elements from the controversial Emancipation Group statue that depict a freed black slave crouching at the feet of Presidents Abraham Lincoln from its current location in Park Square.
The commission’s vote to remove the statue is pending the engagement of an art conservator to advise on and supervise its removal, and place it into temporary storage; the commissioning of detailed documentation of the piece, along with photographs, a 3-D scan and a detailed history, to deposit into the Art Commission’s archives; the creation of a public event to acknowledge the piece’s history, and to inform the public of its removal; the initiation of a process to “re-contextualize” the existing piece in a new publically accessible setting (e.g. a museum); and the addition of temporary signage on site to interpret the piece prior to its removal, as well as permanent signage there afterwards.
The commission is scheduled to meet again on July 14, at which time it will discuss the call for artists and public process for creating a new work of public art for the site. Previously the commission heard from the public on the matter during a June 25 meeting and took written testimony via email as well. (The city also solicited public input through an online survey, which has received around 645 responses to date.)
“As we continue our work to make Boston a more equitable and just city, it’s important that we look at the stories being told by the public art in all of our neighborhoods,” Mayor Martin Walsh said in a statement. “After engaging in a public process, it’s clear that residents and visitors to Boston have been uncomfortable with this statue, and its reductive representation of the Black man’s role in the abolitionist movement. I fully support the Boston Art Commission’s decision for removal and thank them for their work.”
The piece, which is a copy of a statue created by Thomas Ball in Washington, D.C., was a gift to the City of Boston from local politician Moses Kimball, and it depicts President Lincoln with his right hand resting on the Emancipation Proclamation while his left hand is raised in a gesture of benediction above the crouched figure of Archer Alexander, who assisted the Union Army, escaped slavery and was recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act. An inscription on the front of the piece reads: “A race set free/ and the country at peace / Lincoln / Rests from his labors.”
Despite the determination, Mark Pasnik, the commission’s chair, said the statue’s removal wouldn’t come immediately, however.
“We have to follow our guidelines and couldn’t remove it tomorrow,” Pasnik said. “It’s a process that would take some time so the piece can be documented according to our guidelines. It might take several weeks for that to happen.”
Karin Goodfellow, director of the Art Commission, said the estimated cost to remove the statue from its present location is around $15,000, and that temporary storage of the piece is expected to run between $300 and $400 each month. “I think we can manage to locate those funds,” she added.
The commission’s vote to remove the statue followed more than two hours of public testimony, including remarks from former State Rep. Byron Rushing, who spoke in favor of keeping it where it is.
“I believe the statue should remain where it is,” he said. “History and the history of controversies that revolve around [then statue] should be told in the most public ways possible.”
Added Rushing: “ I ask the commission, regardless of what it decides about the placement of the statue, to determine immediately about its public interpretation…and above tell its story and tell it factually. Don’t move this statue until you know its history.”
City Councilor Kenzie Bok believes the statue should remain in the city’s collection but not at its current location.
“I think it’s important that statuary gives people an effective experience, but this is an uncomfortable one, specifically for the black people from Boston,” Councilor Bok said. “I think it’s possible to learn history of what the statue trying to achieve and context around it…but not enough to keep statue [where it is]. It should be in a public place with proper historic context…and something that replaces it needs to be in the context of emancipation and black liberation.”
Local artist Tory Bullock, who started a petition calling for the statue’s removal that has garnered more than 12,000 signatures, said he has grown to appreciate the piece’s artistic merit, although he still doesn’t believe it should be displayed in public.
“I respect this piece of work, and that is not something I can say I did at start of this process,” Bullock said. “I respect the artistry, I respect the history, but with all that respect, it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t belong in a public setting.”
The statue is also problematic, Bullock added, since it depicts the half-dressed Alexander, still in shackles, seemingly genuflecting to President Lincoln.
“If it was a kinetic sculpture, yes, he’s about to stand up, but this is a frozen sculpture, so he’s kneeling,” he said.
Erin Genia, a City of Boston artist in residence, also believes the statue is detrimental in its current location.
“I think we should have a museum specifically for these types of monuments, but get them out of public places where they’re so damaging to people,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ekua Holmes, the commission’s vice chair, said she was moved by the testimony of those who made such a compelling case for the statue’s removal.
“Public art is storytelling at the street level. As such, the imagery should strike the heart and engage the mind,” Holmes said. “What I heard today is that it hurts to look at this piece, and in the Boston landscape we should not have works that bring shame to any groups of people, not only in Boston but across the entire United States.”