Stephen Foster statue

These are Pittsburgh’s memorials and statues of women (Hint: There aren’t many)

There are no statues of specific women here.

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Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Nearly 1,500 online responses and five community meetings later, Pittsburgh’s Task Force on Women in Public Art is determining next steps in the search to replace Oakland’s Stephen Foster statue.

In March, the city announced plans to honor an African-American woman in place of the now-removed Foster statue. Mayoral spokesperson Keyva Clark wrote in a press release:

There are very few monuments in Pittsburgh dedicated to the many women leaders who have left their mark on the city. At present, there are no African American women represented.

This tribute could not only be a first for women of color, but a first for all women depicted in Pittsburgh’s public art and memorials.

Where are the women?

Currently, there are no statues of specific women in Pittsburgh, said Tony Cavalline, arts, culture and history specialist in Pittsburgh city planning. That means if the task force decides on a statue of an individual black woman, it would also be the first portrait statue of a woman in the city.

In general, current depictions of women in Pittsburgh public art are either allegorical or part of a family setting, said Rachel Klipa, manager of community engagement for the Office of Public Art, who maintains Pittsburgh Art Places, a database including both publicly and privately owned art on public display.

More men than women in public art isn’t unusual, said Kirk Savage, a professor in history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. It goes back to the patriarchal structure of society and that men were in positions of power to be military heroes and leaders in public office.

Kilpa noted that there is public art by women artists across the city, listing several displays by accomplished women artists such as a handrail by Ann Hamilton by at the Allegheny Riverfront Park and Downtown’s Agnes Katz Plaza by Louise Bourgeois.

Last week, the city released a new inventory of war monuments and memorials, as well as a corresponding searchable GIS map. There are roughly 70 on Pittsburgh property listed in the inventory. Yesica Guerra, Pittsburgh’s public art and civic design manager in the Department of City Planning, told The Incline that both are living documents and she expects more city-owned works to be added. See the city inventory here:

A review of the city inventory and Pittsburgh Art Places yielded this list of women represented in public art owned by the City of Pittsburgh. The list doesn’t include works owned by the Sports & Exhibition Authority.

Neither the city’s inventory nor the Pittsburgh Art Places are exhaustive lists, as they’re constantly growing and changing, Kilpa and Guerra said, so there may be more art of women in the city. The city also launched a searchable map of the memorials and contemporary art is being added.

Historic memorials

Two memorials and/or plaques specifically honor women in Highland Park:

  • The Alexander Negley and Mary Ann Burkstresser Memorial (learn more on page 33 from the above document)
  • A plaque honoring the Daughters of American Revolution and the founder and first regent of the Pittsburgh chapter Mrs. Nathaniel B. Hogg (page 34)

There are also two tree plaques near the Frick Fine Arts Building dedicated to groups of women: “the mothers of the defenders of our nation” and “the wives of the defenders of our nation.” (pages 46-47)

Depictions of women in war memorials

Two statues include depictions of women:

  • The World War I Medical Hygiene Society memorial at Phipps in Oakland includes Hygeia of Greek mythology (page 60)
  • A WWI memorial at 46th and Butler in Lawrenceville depicts a female figure (page 35)

Other art

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Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline

A replacement for Foster

In April, a city crew removed Foster’s statue, which had been on display for more than 100 years, following years of debate about the statue’s imagery and racial undertones. Critics pointed to its offensive and outdated depiction of a black man in tattered clothing seated at Foster’s feet.

As the city moves to fill the monument’s spot, it’s unclear what will happen to Foster’s statue. The city is working to find a home for it, but multiple entities are not interested in hosting it, including the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh.

The city’s plan to replace the statue with a tribute to a black woman was announced before the Foster statue was removed and allowed for community input. In that callout, the city suggested seven black women for the tribute.

But task force member Lindsay Powell, a policy analyst in the mayor’s office and Who’s Next politics honoree, said community input is a top priority.

“We had really great feedback from the community and want to keep what the community wants,” she said.

While the task force is still going through feedback, Powell said it’s clear that the community wants to be involved in the decision making. The city task force will attend the Pittsburgh Art Commission’s June 27 meeting to present their findings and talk to the commission about next steps, she said.

While the search for a new statue is a initiative from the mayor’s office, Guerra said she and Cavalline will help guide the process. The art commission has final approval.

The statue's removal began just after dawn. Surrounding the statue's base were pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose statue could replace the Foster tribute.

The statue's removal began just after dawn. Surrounding the statue's base were pictures of black Pittsburgh women whose statue could replace the Foster tribute.

Renee Rosensteel / For The Incline

What’s next

It’s not set in stone that the city task force will move forward with a statue that is the likeness of one person, Powell said.

In the Office of Public Art, which helps commission public art, there’s a focus on temporary public art, Klipa said. It’s easier to maintain, plus it can have community engagement and reflect the current time.

Cavalline and Guerra agreed that more recent public art dedicated to an idea or topic. For example, “The Workers,” which depicts steelworkers as in the Southside Riverfront Park, honors the city’s history but not a specific person, Cavalline said.

Powell said community feedback included ideas that would honor multiple women such as artwork dedicated to the musical legacy of black women in Pittsburgh. (Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at Heinz History Center, previously recommended renowned jazz musician Mary Lou Williams to The Incline.) 

The genre of portrait statues started to fall out of favor in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, even though a lot were going up at that point, Savage said. People started to discourage them, in part because they aren’t artistically attractive, but making them never stopped, he said.

He even argued that there is a revival for portrait statues. Groups who never had a say before — like women or minorities — want monuments to a specific person. The statues of white men aren’t going anywhere, so putting up statues of minorities is a way to to start “balancing the record,” he said.

People want to see the city recognizing them and people like them and “one of the most powerful ways is through the portrait statues,” Savage said.

Cavalline added that the lack of women portrait statues in the city is a reflection of the times, because most statues of a specific person are at least 100 years old.

Permanent statues of specific people aren’t as common now, added Guerra. “History changes … it really changes now.”

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