At MFA we believe that visual art sparks conversations in communities – and that conversation makes the community stronger.
Whether you see art in a gallery or on the street, the artist is conveying a thought, a meaning, a purpose to the viewer.
Well conversations about public art went from a whisper to a roar this week. This is a conversation that the community needs to have – and it is long overdue.
Public art, often walked past, largely ignored by those it is designed to serve, entered unbidden into our collective consciousness this week. It arrived in our own front yard at MFA 2am yesterday when, mere steps from the front door of Circle Gallery, a statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney was removed from the front of the State House and driven away.
We first want to emphasize, in no uncertain terms, that we stand for inclusion, diversity, and parity in representation and stridently stand against bigotry, racism, and hatred in any form – any commentary that we have on the value and validity of artwork comes secondary to that guiding principle.
So what is the purpose of public art?
As a 54-year-old visual arts organization, MFA looks toward the larger narrative. This pressing issue raises a myriad of different questions, but particularly germane to the artistic sector – Do these pieces hold artistic merit? If so, does that artistic merit alone engender the right to prominent display?
When thinking about the statue that sat in front of our gallery for 145 years, you could certainly look at Taney’s figure and imagine some of the artist, William Henry Rinehart’s interpretation. Taney sits bowed forward, grasping a scroll and clutching a copy of the Constitution, a perpetual scowl across his face. Is he contemplative, even contrite, in the wake of delivering the majority opinion for what is widely regarded as the most egregious self-inflicted wound in Supreme Court history? We don’t know and the artist’s actual inspirations and intentions are lost to time.
We do know that this piece has a different context to consider than some of the other pieces of public art being discussed. Unlike many of the laudatory Jim Crow era Confederate Statues installed to alter the historical narrative, Rinehart’s piece is a memorial to Maryland’s only Supreme Court Chief Justice until the sitting John Roberts. Its installation, just 7 years after Taney’s death, was not necessarily meant to rewrite history, but rather to celebrate a Marylander who ascended to great heights.
However, we also know that public art does not exist in a vacuum – it is inherently suasive – both by virtue of the artistic interpretation and by the meaning that we ascribe to it as a culture. While we cannot dissect many of these artists’ motivations, we know through extensive scholarly study of visual communication that statues do not merely exist as passive, aesthetic decoration or basic historical reminders. As professor and scholar of visual communication M. Christine Boyer writes, these statues in “celebratory public spaces” are “civic compositions that teach us about our national heritage and our public responsibilities.” In other words, the statues hold real, actionable weight toward our formation as a society and that which we choose to memorialize, magnify, and literally hold above ourselves.
So now what? Would that we had an answer and that it were straightforward. While as individuals we may rejoice in the removal of these statues, as an organization dedicated to promoting art for the public, we implore that the removals must not be the end of a long debate, but instead the beginning of an even longer conversation. What is it that we do want to laud praise on as a society? What are our priorities?
Ultimately, we believe that art should promote discussion about what is important, what is just, and how we want to be – and we’re certainly all doing that now. But we must remember to stay true to the conversation that art promotes, rather than talking about art simply for art’s sake. We must understand that where we as a society hope to be is not a fixed point – dialogue can, and should, change as we learn.
We hope you’ll join us in conversation.