New York City officials announced this week that they’ll erect five monuments depicting women in the boroughs where they once lived, nearly doubling the number of statues of female historical figures in the nation’s most populous city.
The statues — of Billie Holiday, Helen Rodríguez Trías, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Shirley Chisholm, and Katherine Walker — will culminate a months-long effort to address the lack of women depicted in public art, the New York Times reported.
“We pledged to do better by the leaders, achievers, and artists who have not gotten their due in the histories written by men,” Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, said this week.
With International Women’s Day having been celebrated on Friday, the question arose: should Philadelphia, a city that has more statues of Benjamin Franklin than it does of female historical figures, consider its own monument gender gap?
Some advocates in Philadelphia have for years decried the lack of women and people of color reflected in public statues. But there are some efforts underway to improve their representation.
First, a look at what we already have.
Among the city’s 1,500 public sculptures, there are just a few of women who actually existed. On Kelly Drive, there’s a statue of Joan of Arc, and at 15th and Cherry Streets in Center City, there’s one of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr. Both died before Philadelphia was founded.
Usually the women you see in Philadelphia’s statues are fictional or a representation of a mood or virtue.
For example, a nude woman — sitting in a manner that may be physically impossible — is cast in bronze in the statue Floating Figure, in the Society Hill Townhouses courtyard. The allegorical work Law, Prosperity, and Power near the Mann Center includes three people, two of them women, though the man represents “power.”
There’s also a five-foot-tall bronze statue in Rittenhouse Square of a girl holding a duck.
Some leaders in Philadelphia’s public art community are addressing the gender and racial inequities. Workers in 2017 installed a statue at City Hall of Octavius V. Catto, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent civil rights leaders. It was the first time a monument honored a specific black Philadelphian on the city’s public landscape, and the first time a statue was erected on the City Hall apron in nearly a century. (The funds for the statue were raised by a private group.)
The process behind the Catto statue took years. Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator at the Association of Public Art, said it’s critical to understand that a new piece of public art takes significant force and financing.
“Especially in terms of permanent artworks, not only is it costly, but there’s a long process,” she said. “There’s a huge leap from having the idea to doing something and then actually carrying it out.”
In 2017, the artist Sharon Hayes called attention to the lack of women depicted in public art in Philadelphia with her work If They Should Ask, a temporary installment in Rittenhouse Square showing a pile of pedestals with notable Philadelphia women’s names etched into them. The work was part of Monument Lab, a public art and history initiative aimed at getting people to think about who and what should be reflected in the city’s public art.
Last year, City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the city to erect a statue of Philadelphia native Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and to practice law in the state. Alexander became a nationally recognized organizer and walked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
But Margot Berg, the city’s director of public art, said there hasn’t been movement on commissioning a statue of Alexander. Council’s resolution is on the city’s radar, she said, but no funding is earmarked for the project.
She said the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy is “seriously looking to depict more women and people of color in Philadelphia’s public art collection.” Most of the funding for those projects comes from Percent for Art, a decades-old initiative that requires site-specific public art in new construction and renovation projects costing more than $1 million.
That’s why Smith Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, which has undergone a major renovation, will this spring become home to a life-size bronze statue of a middle school-age black girl playing basketball. The statue isn’t of a specific historical figure, but it will be the first statue depicting a young black girl in the city’s historic public art collection.
“There are many specific individuals, women and people of color, who over the course of this country’s development have had a major impact on our lives,” Berg said. “And we do agree that the inclusion of statuary and monuments to women and people of color is long overdue in Philadelphia.”
Bach said the Association of Public Art, a private nonprofit, sees commissioning art by women and people of color as a “parallel issue” of equal importance. She also said it’s time to consider other ways to commemorate the past beyond statues.