Wading into the debate over Oakland’s controversial Stephen Foster memorial, Mayor Bill Peduto recently said he favors moving the statue but not destroying it, explaining he’d like to see it relocated from its perch on public property outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to a more “appropriate” location.
There was no immediate word on where that new location might be, although his spokesman later told The Incline the mayor would personally prefer to see the statue moved to an educational setting of some kind. A group of experts is currently reevaluating the statue amid public criticism of its depiction of a besuited Foster — a native son and famed composer — above an enslaved person in tattered clothing playing a banjo.
This criticism was renewed on the heels of a neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and bolstered by the ensuing nationwide evaluation and eradication of public artworks and Confederate monuments. But outrage over the Foster memorial predates this latest round of national soul-searching, and officials say they were reevaluating the statue before the violence in Charlottesville took place. There are also those who argue against moving the Foster memorial and those who say its imagery is being misinterpreted and wrongly politicized.
In an interview with TribLive, Peduto offered his personal take on the fate of the city-owned statue.
“I think that right now as we look at it there would be a more appropriate location for it … than being in a public park,” the mayor said. “Saying that, my judgment will be based upon the facts around it and not around just what my opinion is.”
Those facts are being gathered by experts tasked with reviewing the Foster statue’s appropriateness for public display. The same process is currently underway in cities like Philadelphia, where officials are grappling with how to handle controversies swirling around their own monuments to polarizing public figures.
It remains to be seen if the reevaluation push launched by Peduto’s administration will succeed in prompting action where previous attempts have failed.
The mayor’s spokesman Tim McNulty confirmed Peduto’s support of moving the statue, but stressed the issue “first needs hard study by experts at the Art Commission and elsewhere.”
McNulty said there has been talk of having the city’s Historic Review Commission or a state body look at the statue, but that the six-member Art Commission is taking the lead.
He expects the matter to be formally introduced to the Art Commission at its next meeting in late September, adding, “They will be doing research into the statue, as well as tak[ing] public testimony in one or two public meetings in October.”
A final recommendation by the commission could be announced at its November meeting.
Renee Piechocki, outgoing director of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art and one of the experts tapped to provide input on the Foster statue, told The Incline she supports the mayor’s decision to bring this issue before the city’s Art Commission. Piechocki also said she supports removing the Foster memorial and always has.
“I’ve always been in favor of removing the sculpture,” Piechocki explained. “I feel that what you put on public property is a reflection of what you value and I don’t feel this is a sculpture that appropriately represents what Pittsburgh values. You don’t need to celebrate someone’s memory by putting out racist or derogatory depictions of another person.”
Piechocki continued: “I think having the decision about this sculpture made by people who have expertise in the field of art and design is a good decision on the mayor’s part. It also gives the public the opportunity to share their thoughts because [there will be] a public hearing. I’m very grateful that Pittsburgh is going through this thoughtful process. I still support the sculpture being removed and I plan on attending the public hearing(s).”
The Art Commission typically meets on the third Wednesday of each month. Repeated attempts to reach some of the officials and other experts involved in the reevaluation process were unsuccessful as of Monday.
Meanwhile, editorials like this one in the Post-Gazette concurred with Peduto’s “move the statue, don’t destroy it” position. Separately, Joe Wos, a pop culture historian and cartoonist in Pittsburgh, suggested moving the statue or at least adding a plaque or supplementary materials explaining the circumstances behind the rendering.
“I think [context] is what’s missing from this. It can become a teachable moment,” Wos told The Incline earlier this month.
In an editorial for the Post-Gazette, Jo Ellen Parker, president and CEO of Carnegie Museums, took a similar tack, writing that she favors moving the Foster monument to a place where it can be studied and better interpreted.
“Contextual materials might explain the history of racial stereotyping in American art, or the role of Stephen Foster in creating the popular music industry or the romantic views of the slaveholding South that were influential during both the Jim Crow and civil rights eras,” Parker wrote. “Such a circumstance would allow viewers to confront and study a painful aspect of our history without honoring racist imagery.”
For supporters, a removal or relocation of the Foster statue would be equally unpopular outcomes, with some arguing that critics have misconstrued the intent behind the monument in a rush to politicize the debate.
“Foster was not a racist,” Jim Wudarczyk, a local historian from Lawrenceville, where Foster was born, told TribLive. “The statue represents a white man who is listening to a downtrodden slave singing. He’s learning from the slave, not only from the words but his humility. It’s the white man who is learning a lesson from a black man.”
As one might expect, not everyone shares this interpretation.
And while supporters of the statue view it as a celebration of the man — dubbed “the father of American music” — and his accomplishments rather than the legacy of slavery, opponents argue that Foster’s work with blackface minstrels and his crass musical depictions of blacks mean both are inextricably linked.
For others, the issue is less with Foster’s backstory than it is with the statue’s portrayal of “Uncle Ned,” the banjo-playing black man nestled at Foster’s feet. Critics say this representation remains both outdated and out of step with Pittsburgh’s public values in 2017.
Peduto, for one, seems to agree.