Updated at 9:30 a.m.
If officials recommend the relocation of Pittsburgh’s controversial Stephen Foster statue, Pitt and Carnegie Museums weren’t interested in housing the piece as recently as August, emails obtained by The Incline show.
Pittsburgh’s Art Commission could make a recommendation as soon as today to Mayor Bill Peduto on whether the statue — which some say is flat out racist — should be taken down, relocated, or altered and kept where it is in Oakland.
In an Aug. 15 email sent from Pamela Connelly, vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion at Pitt, to Ray Gastil, Pittsburgh’s director of city planning, Connelly corrected Gastil, writing, “We will note that none of the organizations at the meeting, Pitt, Carnegie Museums, are interested in the statue being relocated to their facilities at this time.”
The government emails obtained by The Incline through a Right-to-Know request indicated that the meeting was held between the city and an informal group of advisers on the statue’s future. The city redacted other emails involving predecisional deliberations or any that reflected the lawyer-client or attorney work privilege.
Connelly went on to write that while the statue is on city property and doesn’t belong to the university, its “impact on the [university] community and the importance of the issues” led to Pitt’s involvement in the early discussions about what to do with it. A message left with her office was not returned Tuesday.
Asked to confirm Connelly’s claim about Pitt not wanting the statue, Pitt Spokesperson Joe Miksch said, “While there may have been informal conversations on this topic, the University has not taken an official position on the fate of the statue.”
At Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Spokesperson Jonathan Gaugler said, “I can’t comment on if we want it, because we haven’t been offered it.”
He went on to describe a lengthy and complex acquisition process for new pieces, adding, “It’s not a very straightforward or quick thing.” Gaugler also said that Carnegie Museums have provided no input on the Foster statue thus far as part of the city’s official review.
Pittsburgh officials have said their review of the Foster memorial began before fatal clashes in Charlottesville, Va., surrounding the planned removal of a confederate monument there. But an email from Gastil to representatives of the mayor’s office showed a heightened sense of urgency to formulate a plan for Pittsburgh’s Foster statue in the days that followed.
“Vice chancellor Connelly has scheduled a phone call for tomorrow,” Gastil wrote Aug. 15, “basically to review next steps so we have an action plan asap. Recent events have made that go faster.” The violence in Charlottesville played out three days prior.
The emails mostly revealed the city’s efforts to coordinate a public response on the heels of Charlottesville, and with questions about the appropriateness of Pittsburgh’s own divisive symbol beginning to mount.
“My recommendation is that we move swiftly to an appointed review entity, which may draw on the original group, but will go beyond it and have the authority to make recommendations to the city,” Gastil wrote of the Foster statue and the city’s Art Commission.
“Please note that I also informed the Art Commission that we had met with the group called together by Pitt, and that we anticipated that they would have a role in evaluating decisions regarding its future.”
Connelly, in one of her emails to Gastil, confirms it was the statue’s “demeaning racial imagery” and the related concerns of Pitt faculty and students that led her to convene a group discussion on the subject. That discussion, in part, helped propel the city’s re-evaluation of the artwork.
“There was no ‘call for the statue to be relocated/and or relocated [sic],’ there were concerns about racist imagery. Also, slavery was not really the issue as the depiction was likely post slavery,” Connelly wrote.
The Foster statue has been the subject of similar concerns for decades.
It was commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper editor who imagined Foster, “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo,” per a 2010 City Paper article.
After being repeatedly vandalized at its previous location in Highland Park, the statue was relocated to its current location near the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Pitt’s main campus in Oakland. According to Gastil, the city’s Art Commission also had a role in reviewing the statue’s 1940 relocation from Highland Park to where it now stands.
Today’s hearing — and what’s next
In the days and weeks since Charlottesville, the city has continued to solicit input from experts and the public, with the second of two public hearings to be held at 2 p.m. today inside the John P. Robin Civic Building, 200 Ross St. (Downtown).
The first public hearing was held at the same location earlier this month. It included public comments from those in favor of keeping the statue where and as it is, many arguing that its depiction of a besuited Foster seated above a black banjo-playing man in tattered clothing has been wrongly politicized and misinterpreted. Others said that the subtext of slavery is impossible to separate from the statue itself.
The commission is expected to issue its final recommendation after today’s hearing, and the matter then goes to Mayor Bill Peduto for consideration.
Earlier this month, Katie O’Malley, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office, explained that the mayor has final authority over the disposition of the statue, adding, “He will be making an informed decision based on any recommendations and data received.”
Peduto has previously said he favors relocating the Foster statue to an educational setting of some kind. His office did not respond to questions about where the statue could be relocated if Pitt and Carnegie Museums decline the piece, should the Art Commission choose to recommend that course of action.
In an emailed response to The Incline on Tuesday, Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said, simply, “The Mayor looks forward to receiving the Commission’s recommendations on the statue, and will review them once presented.”
It’s unclear, though, what the Art Commission will recommend this time, as it considers whether to remove the statue entirely or to relocate it again. Also unclear, at least according to Connelly’s email, is whether anyone will have it.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to correct the phrasing of a quote from Pamela Connelly in the 15th paragraph.