“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Friday, April 25, 2014


In the following essay, we will attempt to trace the history and character of monument-making in Richmond and how it might affect the proposed memorial to Maggie L. Walker, one of the city's great pathfinders. 
Urbanismo attended a public meeting on April 5 at the historic Third Street Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was presented by the City of Richmond’s Public Art Commission.  Two separate meetings were scheduled, each intended “to provide input on commemorative public art in Jackson Ward honoring the life and accomplishments of Maggie L. Walker.”  About thirty people attended the second meeting, held on a Saturday morning. 

Maggie Walker’s memorial will enrich the city’s collection of monuments, but only if it is designed to support and transform the larger civic realm. According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, traditional monuments embody “a single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials.” Even more important, monuments are effective to the degree that they are “made to serve civic life.” As understood in Richmond and in the cities of the past from which it took its pattern, monuments assist in ordering the city, making legible its structure and origins, both literally and figuratively. Traditionally, a city without appropriate monuments could make no claim to be a place of civility or a center of virtuous political life. While the term “monument” is frequently applied to significant works of public architecture, here we are referring to amenities at the urban scale which have as their principal role the orientation of the citizen in both time and space.

Installation of the equestrian statue of Washington in 1858.

The Maggie L. Walker memorial can be placed within the category of monument typically identified as “public art.” Provision of public art, mandated in certain situations by city authorities, can prove to be a source of controversy in a republic with a weak sense of common purpose. The history of most of the public sculpture in Richmond since the mid-nineteenth century shows that the conflicting expectations of those with an interest in the work of art often leads to political difficulties in its realization. It also shows that citizen groups working together can, in spite of inevitable conflict, produce work that positively reinforces local civic life and organizational patterns. Richmond’s Public Art Commission has recognized the inevitably local character of public art with this statement: “Great cities of the world inspire, uplift, instruct and heal with their particular brand of great art [our italics].” This local character results, not only from regional materials and shared traditions of artistic expression, but from the way that the community has, over time, incorporated memory into its urban fabric. The Richmond tradition of outdoor public statuary began with a monument to Virginia’s role in the nation’s founding, first proposed in 1817. After years of inaction, a committee of citizens proposed a competition for the monument, which was held in 1849. The popular and successful monument was not only a tribute to George Washington as military and political leader, but an elaborate allegory linking Virginia with the national polity. 

Among the most recent monuments to participate in the tradition is the effective and powerful Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square. The monument, completed by artist Stanley Bleifeld in 2008, depicts eighteen figures, some historical and some representative, placed on four sides of a stone plinth and telling the story of the long struggle for equality. The sculptural ensemble avoids the sentimentality that characterizes some of the sculptor's work in other cities and takes a place among the very best monuments of recent decades. 

Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, Capitol Square, Richmond, 2008
Partly as a result of its mid-nineteenth-century role as “national capitol,” Richmond acquired an extensive and more urbane collection of public art, surpassing other state capitals of comparable size. The armature of memorial statuary extending along Monument Avenue from the old city into the projected suburbs to the west was the serendipitous result, not of public planning, but of the intentions of the Allen family, who wished to enhance the value of their property for development. These sculptures, most of which were privately organized and subscribed, vary widely in the degree to which they match memory with fact. Since that time, a wide variety of public art has been added across the city, but the city remains characterized by its collection of heroic outdoor statuary. Some are undeniably successful, but one or two of them cross the line into what James Branch Cabell, in dismissing the public art at Jamestown, described as “a collection of serio-comic sculpture” [Cabell, Let Me Lie, 51].

Maggie Lena Walker occupies an outstanding place in the list of great Virginians. As a child of former slaves, she showed a path forward in business and education among Richmond’s black population. She played an important national role based in her energy, political wisdom, and organizational powers. She promoted high standards for self reliance and education within the Richmond community. As the gifted leader of the influential Independent Order of St. Luke, she broke new ground as a black woman when she founded and managed the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Mrs. Walker is regarded today as one of the most important leaders in post-War Virginia and the nation. A high school is named for her and her house is maintained by the National Park Service as a national historic landmark dedicated to her achievements. At one time a small motion picture theater (incorporated into today's Virginia Rep on Broad Street) was renamed after her.

Maggie L. Walker, plaster bust,
commissioned by the 

Independent Order of St. Luke in 1934 [NPS]
In spite of her many honors, Richmonders have noted for decades that there is no monument to Maggie L. Walker on the city’s streets, as there are dedicated to so many who opposed the improvements she championed (there is a monument to her in front of Maggie L. Walker High School, based on the plaster bust of 1934). In Richmond, a city of monuments, the most important memorials to heroic individuals typically take the form of statues. Supporters of recent efforts to realize a Walker memorial have usually referred to the monument as a statue, with the primary intention of the perpetuation of the memory of her personal achievement as a recognizable individual beyond the current era. Although one private organization's effort to put up a statue to Maggie Walker at the intersection of Broad and Adams streets was supported by City Council in 2010, the cause is now entirely in the hands of the official Public Art Commission using public funds mandated for art.

The meeting was organized and professionally led using a popular consensus building format designed to guide groups into “ownership” and to detach individuals from any conventional viewpoints, including those that favor lifelike, representational statuary, consistently presented to the participants as the “traditional” option among many equally significant kinds of public art. Members of the Richmond Public Art Commission made presentations, one on the process for obtaining a monument and one on the various ways in which it is possible to memorialize an individual. 

Anne Fletcher (Corporate Art Administrator at Capital One) explained that a figural or narrative monument was one choice among many that would be appropriate as a memorial to Maggie Walker, including gateways, gardens, plazas designed as integral sculpture installations, and non-representational “place-making” art that can even be whimsical. We were asked to keep our minds open on the form and location of the monument, relying instead on the artists who will be asked to submit proposalsLisa Freiman, Director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art, had told the group at the previous meeting that "the best works of art are ones where we don't control the artist, rather we allow them to interpret the history into art." It became clear during the question and answer period that one of the tasks that the Commission had assigned itself was the creation of a much larger definition of “monument” than that held by some members of the community, including a few more vocal members of this audience. These individuals voiced their concern and expectations in the question and answer period about the way that decisions would be made about the location and appearance of the monument. 

Public meeting held at Sixth Mount Zion
Baptist Church on April 1, 2014 [Public Arts Commission]
The Public Art Commission is not alone in the manipulative use of the facilitated small-group meeting, nor is its minimizing of traditional statuary entirely unreasonable. Conflict can be divisive over location and content, as was witnessed in the execution of the Arthur Ashe Monument, which was privately promoted and funded. Figural sculpture can be, and often is, poorly executed. According to Michael J. Lewis, “monuments and memorials today are discursive, sentimental, addicted to narrative literalism, and asking to be judged on good intentions rather than visual coherence."  We sometimes seem, as a nation, to have lost the ability to imbue civic art with clear, serious, and appropriate meaning. Giving unlimited scope to the artist can work against the goals of the community in sponsoring a memorial. In the words of art historian James E. Young, "even as monuments continue to be commissioned and designed by governments and public agencies eager to assign memory and meaning to complicated events, artists increasingly plant in them the seeds of self-doubt and impermanence."  

The city has, in any case, embraced public art as an device for economic and cultural improvement and seeks every opportunity to minimize conflict by avoiding debate. From this point of view, the overlay of a Modernist understanding of public art over the diverse expectations of the community reduces the likelihood of badly conceived art by raising the level of the conversation from the merely local to the international.  

Skyrider, a suspended sculpture at Main Street Station 
sponsored under the city's public art funding program
In the case of this project, we were informed that professional artists from around the world will be asked make proposals which will be evaluated by the Public Art Commission and the monument's Site Selection Committee. In effect, the members of the commission, with the protection afforded by their professional facilitator, successfully uncoupled the critical faculties of their audience and imposed an approach to art and remembrance very different from the traditional concepts shared, not only within the larger community, but with heroic individuals like Maggie Walker herself. In the words of Douglas Dunlap, a member of the Commission, "It's a commemorative piece of art and the reason why we're not using the term "statue" is because at the end of the day, once we go through our site selection process and the community engagement process, what we've said is we want each person coming into the process to come in with an open mind" [RVA March 24, 2014].  

The meeting continued with a tabulation, using an electronic button pad, of a series of tightly controlled questions designed to channel participants’ thoughts in directions away from the conventional. These questions concerning opinions were designed to elicit agreement with the Public Art Commission’s primary goals of producing “world-class” art works that will stimulate the city’s “community and economic development.” The questions helped transform the participants into supporters by the unswerving direction of their concerns. “On a scale of one to five should the memorial be more narrative or more poetic?” “Should the monument be more forceful or more subtle?” “Which aspects of Maggie Walker’s achievements should be emphasized?”  This was followed by a series of discussions held among groups divided and placed at small tables.

Maggie L. Walker, marble bust,
commissioned by local councils 

of the International Order of St. 
Luke in New York for the order's 
annual convention in 1925. This 
portrait sculpture touched Mrs. 
Walker deeply. She wrote in her
diary that "to live to be so 

honored is a joy inexpressible" 
This radically open-ended scenario was designed not to collect ideas, but to dispel alternate visions, generate consensus, and garner support. Members of the public, several of whom brought from their life experiences very clear ideas of the nature of a monument (specifically a statue representing the transcendent figure of Maggie Walker), were required to suspend their judgement of what constituted an appropriate monument. They were asked to concentrate, instead, on the meaning that they would like to see presented by the monument, whatever its form. When several people asked questions betraying conventional expectations, they were made to understand that their assumptions were simplistic, if only because they had been expressed outside of the Commission’s pre-established processes.    

One of the marks of the traditional city is a shared understanding among residents of the form and uses of urban features like architecture and public art, what Italian architectural theorist Gianfranco Caniggia has referred to in another context as “our common heritage of specific focussed knowledge.” Instead of this formerly shared understanding, he said, “we possess substantial uncertainty, masked in apparent freedom to do many different things or anything.” In the face of this radical uncertainty, planners and leaders turn to outside experts, who produce “highly personalized, scarcely interrelated objects.” While we, as a society, have largely rejected traditional academic artistic formulations, we have not lost the notion of the artist as a prophetic source set outside the shared values of a community. Caniggia understood the modern era to be a period of “crisis” in which traditional urban criteria are no longer available to decision makers, resulting in arbitrary cultural products that, by their poor fit, can cause sustained damage to the urban environment. 

The “crisis” in the local understanding of the role of public art means that those for whom it is intended are excluded from its production. The works that are realized appear as arbitrary consumer products disconnected from the ongoing dialog that characterizes civic life. Furthermore, the loss of a common language involving civic and artistic topics has been accelerated as bureaucracies adopt an opaque process (now quite widely used) to achieve the effect of a consensus that can be tabulated and manipulated to reduce discord and achieve visible results. 

Urban Scale Richmond takes as its focus the rediscovery of the rules, both explicit and implicit, that have guided the building of the city and give to its art and architecture a unique character. One way to achieve this result (and to reduce the diminution of local conventions and the disempowerment of citizens) is for planners to actively reconstruct the city’s operative patterns. The way in which monuments proceed from a nexus of community expectations is an important part of those patterns. By engaging critically with local issues,  it will be possible to confirm and stimulate healthy growth and change in the city. 

The way in which monuments are procured has an effect on the quality of their “fit,” although there is no consensus on the best way to control the process. Design competitions have been used since the eighteenth century to solve the interpretive disconnect between a monument’s promoters and the artist who must make it. The design control is exercised by means of a process of selection undertaken by representatives of the community from a roster of possible solutions. This remains the best means for achieving a critically successful monument, although history is littered with competition winners who later lost their position to political or financial pressure. The most complicated part of making a monument is in connecting it in some tangible way, not only with local tradition, but with the expectations of the various constituencies for which it is intended. This is only achieved through careful consideration of location, materials, scale, form, and viewer expectations. Urbanismo hopes for the best!

“In an age that denies universal values, there can also be no universal symbols, the kind that monuments once represented. The monument is a declaration of love and admiration attached to the higher purposes men hold in common...An age that has deflated its values and lost sight of its purposes will not procure convincing monuments.”              

                                       Lewis Mumford, 1949

See Gianfranco Caniggia and Gian Luigi Maffei, Interpreting Basic Buildings and Carroll William Westfall, Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism to trace the sources of some of these ideas.   The James E. Young quote is from “Memory/Monument” in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff eds, Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd ed. U Chicago P, 2010, 236. Michael J. Lewis addresses issues concerning monuments in “The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials,” Imprimis (41:4) April 2012]

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