City officials have begun reviewing San Francisco’s statues and monuments to decide on their fates amid renewed calls for racial justice.
Authorities are considering whether to keep or remove 94 memorials and monuments in the civic arts collection, artwork created to honor a person or an event. The review is being conducted in response to a directive issued by Mayor London Breed last month after the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue and the destruction of several other statues by protesters in Golden Gate Park.
“This is a really important and I think very exciting opportunity to look at our old memorials and what we want to see represented in The City in the future,” said Dorka Keehn, a commissioner at the San Francisco Arts Commission, at a meeting last week.
City staff are gathering information about the artwork: The background of the artist, how the artworks were acquired and the ways communities have responded to the monuments. And the Arts Commission will develop a set of criteria to help officials assess each statue, Keehn said. The guidelines will be considered by the Board of Supervisors to implement a citywide ordinance,
According to Rachelle Axel, a spokesperson for the Arts Commission, any pieces that are removed could be stored or loaned long-term, gifted to another cultural institution or sold publicly. The commission will vote on the items as it has jurisdiction over the statues.
The City’s statues have come under renewed scrutiny in the midst of ongoing protests about police brutality and racism. Last month, a city crew removed a statue of Christopher Columbus near Coit Tower under Breed’s direction after word spread of a protest that aimed to topple it. In Golden Gate Park, during a day of Juneteenth protests, people knocked over statues of Father Junipero Serra, Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key, and vandalized others.
These statues are among those now being evaluated.
“The toppling of these statues is evocative of the decades and generation-long dissatisfaction with the status quo of living in the U.S., but also more broadly in the western world,” said James Zarsadiaz, an associate professor of history at University of San Francisco.
“Part of the reason why cities are so important to social movements is because of the collective mass of people,” he continued. “When you have a space or place where people can gather even during the pandemic, it brings attention to major political or social issues.”
Other artworks under review also include figures such as William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and George Washington.
City officials will also analyze the costs of removing and storing artworks that are deemed inappropriate. The price tag for the removal and storage of the Columbus statue alone is $110,000. It is currently in temporary storage, which costs about $500 a month, according to Allison Cummings, senior registrar at the Arts Commission.
While people have expressed interest in seeing the Columbus statue, the public cannot access it as the location is confidential for security reasons, Keehn said.
She added that the Arts Commission is working with the Human Rights Commission and the Recreation and Parks Department to organize discussions with community members.
“There are no angels among humanity. And I think we can have an open and honest debate about any figures …,” said Gregory Downs, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. “Memorials certainly change. That’s a part of human history. The hope that I have is that those processes — whether it’s changing names or removing memorials and especially making new ones — amplifies our ability to seriously think about our past.”
Sirron Norris, a San Francisco-based artist who has worked on public murals, said it’s crucial for the public to have the opportunity to speak outside of the two-minute time allocated for speakers during a commission meeting.
The public also needs to be informed about The City’s research on the statues, he added, in order for people to have productive discussions.
He urged Breed to join the discussions about the fate of The City’s statues.
“This isn’t just about art or the Arts Commission. This is about San Francisco. This is our moment of being leaders in this world,” Norris said.
Zarsadiaz said that the discussion and voting process should include people of different ethnicities, generations and political beliefs. People with various professions such as environmentalists, preservationists and educators should also be involved.
“You [need] to have a diverse group of people by race, class, gender and generation because everyone has a different understanding of who and what are important to remember,” Zarsadiaz said.
He added that The City’s statues should include figures who should be given much more priority in the history of the United States, people like W.E.B. Du Bois, a civil rights activist who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Yuri Kochiyama, a lifelong activist who was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in the U.S.