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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Controversial public art project is discontinued


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After much controversy and public debate, “E Pluribus Unum,” a proposed art project created by New York-based artist Fred Wilson for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, has been discontinued.

“As it turned out, this proposed art piece caused many people a great sense of anxiety and pain and for that I apologize,” said Brian Payne, president and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF). “It was our intention in approaching Fred Wilson and other artists of color in doing a project for the cultural trail to engage the best American artist in the country and to be fully inclusive and diverse in our artist selection.”

After making the announcement at a news conference this week, members of the audience began to applaud the decision.

The Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper was among the first to report that the statue, a reproduction and “repurposing” of a former slave whose image is currently found on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the center of Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis, would be reimagined by Wilson and placed along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail near the City-County Building.

Members of the community objected and spoke out against it, most notably in a spirited town hall meeting at the Madame Walker Theatre.

Payne and other stakeholders in the project hosted several community meetings to allow the public to let their voices be heard. Payne said that over 90 percent of participants in the meetings were against “E Pluribus Unum,” which prompted both the CICF and Indianapolis Cultural Trail Inc.’s board of directors to not move forward with the sculpture. Mayor Greg Ballard also supported the decision.

Alicia Barnett, community collaboration manager for CICF moderated the community meetings and said that when trying to figure out the best way to conduct the meetings, she wanted a process that would allow people to express themselves in a safe place.

“They were designed to be small conversations, small groups of people sharing their viewpoints within a small space,” said Barnett. Many meetings consisted of no more than 20 people. Many participants shared family stories of slavery and racial discrimination.

“Our organization was never against the development of the city’s cultural trail, it’s sponsors or supporters. However we organized for the sole purpose of opposing “E Pluribus Unum,” said Imam Mikal Saahir, who was at the press conference representing a group called Citizens Against Slave Image (CASI). “The city should not be in the business of housing images portraying any group negatively for the sake of artistic expression.”

One of the major themes that emerged from the discussions was that there is a significant difference between public art and art placed in museums. A person opposed to the statue said that in public art, viewers cannot choose to engage with the work and it is much more difficult to grasp the public’s time for educational and historical context to explain the artist’s viewpoint. They felt that the cultural trail was not the appropriate venue for such a “political and polarizing image” especially in relationship to other art pieces on the trail.

Another theme was that the proposed figure promoted a biased, late 19th century negative image of African-Americans and did not honor the progress and present achievements of Blacks.

Wilson did not attend any of the public discussions and when he was told that his project would be discontinued, Payne said that he was disappointed and wanted to understand the context of the public meetings.

Payne also said that Wilson has not profited from “E Pluribus Unum.” He was initially given close to $5,000 up front and much of that was used for sub-contractors in helping Wilson actualize his concept. If the project had been realized, he would have collected about $30,000.

“We have a responsibility to what we say, show and perpetrate in our art. It’s important for us to remember our past, but it’s sankofa – you take from the past what is good, not forgetting what has happened. You learn what to do differently so that we can teach future generations what is empowering and good for us,” said Deloris Drane a local artist who objected to “E Pluribus Unum” from it’s beginnings.

Moving forward, Payne said the remaining funds from the initial $2 million raised for public art along the trail, which is approximately $175,000, will be used for a new art piece possibly on the trail. About $75,000 has already been spent on realizing design concepts and coordinating the public input process.

Toby Miller, director of the Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network, a standing committee of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, and others involved in discussions against Wilson’s project will be spearheading the community process for creating a new art piece. Payne said that CICF will play a supportive role, but does not believe he, as a white male, is the best person to lead such a project.

“I don’t know how long, but it’s going to take some time to get the right people together and lay out a clear process where everybody in the community can have some faith in. To lay out a solid timeline (in what’s to come) is a bit premature,” said Miller.

While many applaud the announcement of discontinuing “E Pluribus Unum,” others wonder if true creativity will be stifled for the sake of race relations.

Blacks and whites who have been involved in the fate of this project both agree that valuable lessons have been learned because of these public discussions and that it is no longer about an art piece, but about communication between all races for a common goal.

“It was definitely sensitivity training on both sides. I can honestly say that Brian Payne listened, we listened and raised our voices, but we came together as a community to decide what needed to be done about the statue,” said Reginald Jones, also a member of CASI.

At Recorder press time, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail is almost complete. This announcement has not interfered with that completion.

For more information, call the Central Indiana Community Foundation at (317) 634-2423 or visit cicf.org. For more information on “E Pluribus Unum” or Fred Wilson, visit fredwilsonindy.org.


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