City made the right call with $500K donation for statue of slain civil rights leader

Actor Robert Branch portrays civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto at a City Hall ceremony. Mayor Nutter announced the city would contribute $500,000 toward erecting a statue honoring Catto.

Last week, Mayor Michael Nutter announced that the city will contribute $500,000 over two years to help build a statue of civil rights leader Octavius Catto, who was murdered in 1871 while trying to vote in a local election. The move ticked off Victor Fiorillo, who wrote on Philly Post that the donation was a big mistake.

And in addition to the fat union benefits, unconscionable D.R.O.P. payments, and the huge contracts that go to political cronies and the good old boys, we need to look long and hard at all of these “small” expenses—no matter how feel-good they are or how many votes they guarantee—because they add up.

He goes on to say that he'd rather put the $500,000 into keeping swimming pools, or some other cash-strapped kids program, open.

Should taxpayers reconsider spending on smaller, "feel-good" items like public art projects? We tend to think that public art, along with libraries, parks, and recreation centers, are a big part of why our city is a nice place to live. We certainly don't want these projects to break the bank, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be funded at all.

As for the merits of this particular statue, Murray Dubin, a former reporter for the Inquirer who coauthored a biography of Catto, makes an important point: The statue of Catto could help make public art in Philadelphia more inclusive.

“We have more public statues than any other major city in the country,” says Dubin. “But not a single African-American is remembered in a public statue in Philadelphia, which is just crazy.”

Think about that for a second. According to the latest U.S. Census, African-Americans are the biggest ethnic group in Philadelphia, with 44.2 percent of the population. And there is not a single statue honoring an African-American historical figure.

Fiorillo wants the supporters of the statue to raise all the money privately. That’s a fine idea, but it misses an important point. City taxpayers, including African-Americans, have already shelled out millions for public art, including many statues of white men. A contribution from city taxpayers to build the Catto statue sends the message that the entire city values inclusiveness. Spending $500,000 over two years -- a little more than .006 percent of the city budget -- seems like a worthwhile trade-off to make our public art more representative of our diverse population.

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