Art commission: A statue in Oakland isn’t the only way to honor Black women

Commissioners want more options for the site of the former Stephen Foster statue.

Before the Stephen Foster statue's removal, pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose memorial could replace it surrounded the base.

Before the Stephen Foster statue's removal, pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose memorial could replace it surrounded the base.

Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Plans for the city to honor Black women with public art shouldn’t be limited to a statue at the former site of the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland, the Pittsburgh Art Commission said Wednesday.

In March 2018, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office announced a plan to honor an African American woman in the spot where the controversial Foster statue stood and said the project would be led by the city’s new Women in Public Art Task Force.

However, the task force’s plans for each step of the project still need approval from the art commission, which has final approval for art on or above city-owned property. So, on Wednesday, Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto and a member of the task force, went before the art commission to ask that a request for proposals (RFP) — which would collect ideas from artists — for the statue project be approved.

Per the draft RFP, artists were required to propose a statue honoring a Black woman or women based on community input that would go at the site of the former Foster statue. The artwork must be a permanent “traditional public art installation” that included an explanation of the site’s history.

After hearing Powell’s plans for the RFP, commissioners stressed their concerns about the location of the project and its required format, saying it was too limited and didn’t take into account previous feedback from the commission. Members voted to postpone approval of the RFP and have the task force edit it before returning before the commission.

Powell told The Incline after the meeting that she’s excited to continue the project and grateful for the commission’s insight. However, she’s not sure how difficult it will be to sell the idea of something other than a statue to the rest of the task force.

Kilolo Luckett, the commission’s acting chair, said after the meeting that the commission was really looking for a broad process that was open to more than one medium of art so that the process wasn’t misleading and commissioners could be accountable and provide feedback.

In her presentation, Powell, who is also a Who’s Next honoree, said there is no city-owned art that celebrates specific black women and this project is a way to honor the legacies of people of color, especially women who were written out of the narrative. She added that a permanent statue would show that the city values women of color.

Last spring, the task force launched an online feedback form and hosted five community meetings to collect input on the project, including seven possible honorees and additional ideas.

Powell said Wednesday that a statue would allow for Black women to be commemorated in the same way that white men are.

However, members of the art commission said that plan was limiting and stressed that they wanted to see more artist input as well as more possibilities for location and different types of public art that’s not a statue.

“There are so many other things you could be doing,” Luckett told Powell, adding that the task force is missing out on other ideas because they are “focused on a Black woman in this location.”

Other commissioners agreed, stressing that the phrase “traditional” implies that other types of art aren’t as impactful.

Luckett advised the task force work with more local artists to strengthen the RFP and include more voices in addition to the community input already collected.

The 12-member task force includes representatives from the city as well as those whose work focuses on women and inclusion. However, Luckett pointed out that women who specialize in public art were missing.

Powell said artists did attend the community meetings and she welcomed more of their input.

The art commission’s concerns at Wednesday’s meeting mimicked their concerns from the last time the task force presented in June.

At that meeting, members of the commission said they support public art honoring women, especially women of color, but were concerned about doing so at the site of the former Foster statue, saying the conversation might be more about the Foster than about the new art and who it honors.

Commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper editor, the statue shows a Foster (who was white) above a black, banjo-playing man in tattered clothes who is believed to a character from the Foster songs “Old Uncle Ned” or “Old Black Joe.” It was contentious for decades, and discussions grew in late summer 2017 after violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va. that were, in part, sparked by the planned removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee there.

After weeks of debate, discussion and public input in fall 2017 about the controversial Stephen Foster statue in Oakland ended with the Mayor Bill Peduto’s decision to remove the statue, which followed the recommendation of the art commission. The Foster statue was removed in April, and its fate has yet to be determined despite a recommendation from the commission that a new home be found within a year, Luckett told The Incline.

However, Powell and the task force stressed it would be meaningful to use that site. Plus, they stressed there is community support for the project. On Wednesday, Powell addressed the concern about the location again and said she knows the site is “fraught with emotion.”

There was “a candidly racist statue in a main thoroughfare,” she said, but added that this wasn’t “a one-for-one replacement.”

Having the statue there along with an explanation of the site’s history would be a way to acknowledge that history and encourage conversation, she said.

She added that while the task force plans to think about art in different ways as it adds more projects, the group felt this would make the most impact as its first project.

However, commission members weren’t sold.

As a response to Foster, it seems the location is a driving force of this project, commissioner Mark Baskinger told Powell. He added other drivers for the artwork, such as honoring women of color, could be put first and that would then determine the location rather than the other way around.

Powell told the commission that once the RFP is open, the entire project is expected to take several years.