Months after Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster statue found itself thrust into a roiling national debate about racially charged public symbols and what to do with them, the city’s Art Commission today recommended the statue be removed and relocated after more than 100 years on public display.
The decision came at the end of the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting and after weeks of debate about the statue itself.
“It’s the recommendation of this commission to remove the statue from its current location and to have the Department of Public Works take possession, with future disposition to be determined,” commission chairman Rob Indovina said in making a motion.
The eight commission members present voted unanimously in favor of that motion. Only a two-thirds majority was required to make a formal recommendation.
A second motion was then made recommending that the statue be removed within six months and a new recipient identified within a year of that. It also passed unanimously.
In September, the Art Commission and city launched a weeks-long solicitation of expert and public input on the matter with the goal of landing on one of four options: take no action, leave the statue where it is and introduce interpretive signage, relocate the statue or remove the statue.
The matter will now be referred to Mayor Bill Peduto, who will decide what happens next. His office said today there is no timetable for his final decision. Peduto previously told TribLive that he favored moving the statue to a more “appropriate” location.
Prior to today’s vote, Indovina narrowed the commission’s focus a bit, saying their determination was largely limited to whether they felt the statue was an appropriate example of public art. Indovina said he believed it was not.
“Part of our purview is determining the appropriateness of something in the public realm and this particular sculpture and subject are not appropriate to be located in the public realm.”
After the meeting, Indovina was asked about the public debate that has swirled around the statue — and, by association, the Art Commission — in recent weeks.
He smiled and called it an example of democracy in action.
“I’m in favor of removing the statue from public view,” Commission member Kilolo Luckett said before the vote. “If you want to contextualize it, there are institutions here that can do that, but having it in public view is sending the wrong message to people who live in Pittsburgh and people who are visiting. This is not the message we want to send regardless of how we want to memorialize Foster, there are other memorials.”
Institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museums were reluctant to take the statue as recently as August, government emails obtained by The Incline show.
The statue itself depicts Foster (who was white) looking regally appointed above a black, banjo-playing man in tattered clothing — believed to be a character from the Foster songs “Old Uncle Ned” or “Old Black Joe.” The statue, which sits near the University of Pittsburgh campus on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, was commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper editor.
According to a 2010 City Paper article, that editor imagined Foster — the so-called “Father of American Music” and a native Pittsburgher — “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.” (Foster’s work is also closely associated with blackface minstrelsy.)
The statue has been a bone of contention for decades since then. But the debate surrounding it had quieted before being reignited on the heels of violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., in August. Those clashes were set in motion, at least in part, by the planned removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee there.
In Pittsburgh, critics of the Foster memorial invoked their own comparisons to the General Lee monument, calling the Foster statue’s imagery offensive and a celebration — whether intentional or otherwise — of a deeply troubling chapter in American history. Supporters of the statue said that same imagery had been misinterpreted and wrongly politicized.