Three years after the George Floyd protests, little progress has been made in the movement to address public art in Chicago that memorializes controversial historical figures. Now, as Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson readies himself for office, advocates and artists hope the incoming administration will usher in a new era for the city’s monuments and memorials.
Following the 2020 uprisings, Chicago — as in other U.S. cities — saw a movement to address works of public art memorializing slaveholders, segregationists and colonizers. Mayor Lori Lightfoot created the Chicago Monuments Project to grapple with the history of these monuments while also figuring out how to make public space for new artworks.
Last August, the project’s advisory committee of artists and scholars released its report, complete with recommendations on what to do with statues like the Christopher Columbus monument in Grant Park that came down after activists and police clashed at the site during the 2020 protests. Lightfoot declined to endorse the recommendations and said more time and study was needed to make decisions.
Recommendations included removing the monument of fascist leader Italo Balbo and adding information to a statue of the first U.S. president and enslaver George Washington. Many of these types of monuments were brought to Chicago during and after the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Artist Maria Gaspar, who was part of the advisory committee, said she was disappointed by Lightfoot’s lack of action.
“It was a lack of respect, of understanding what artists and arts and culture workers do,” Gaspar said. “I’m excited about the incoming mayor because Brandon Johnson has been supportive of the arts for a long time. I’m hopeful he looks at art not just as superficial … but as an integral part of our everyday lives.”
One of the report’s recommendations is that the Columbus statue should remain down.
As a Cook County commissioner, Johnson had previously proposed legislation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Still, Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), is hopeful that the incoming mayor will “[adhere] to his heartfelt statements on election night, that he will be a mayor for all people and will be respectful to our communities.”
Onesti said the JCCIA’s goal remains bringing back the Columbus statues and instituting a security plan to protect the monuments while preserving the memory of the Italian. The JCCIA has ongoing litigation against the Chicago Park District to return one Columbus statue to its former location at Arrigo Park in Little Italy.
A Johnson spokesperson did not respond to WBEZ’s request for the administration’s plan for the Columbus statues and other public art addressed in the Chicago Monuments Project. A spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events declined an interview until the new administration is in place.
But taking down public art isn’t the only action advocates want. They’re calling for new public art that better represents the city.
Attorney Joey Mogul leads the volunteer group Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) and expects the incoming mayor to finally bring to fruition the memorial dedicated to survivors of police torture under the late disgraced police commander Jon Burge.
The memorial is part of legislation that passed in the Chicago City Council in 2015, but Mogul said the Lightfoot administration “dragged their feet for years despite our concerted efforts to meet with them and work with them to make this happen.”
Johnson’s public safety plan calls for “full funding and construction” of the Burge Torture Survivors Memorial. Nearly four years ago, a CTJM panel chose the winning design for the memorial: A 1,600-square-foot winding hallway featuring names of torture survivors.
“It is in fact part of [Johnson’s] platform where he indicates that he wants to prioritize public, socially engaged art that uplifts our city’s histories,” Mogul said. “I have all expectations that we’re going to finally follow through, break ground [and] build this memorial.”
Mogul said CTJM has raised half a million dollars to build the $2.15 million memorial in the 20th Ward on the city’s South Side.
Anthony Holmes, whom Burge suffocated and electrocuted, said many police torture victims died waiting for the memorial to come to life. The 76-year-old said many survivors who are still alive voted for Johnson and hope that the new mayor will help fulfill what was agreed to under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“This is something that’s gonna last … The memorial stands for us, it stands for what we went through and what we’re going through, and I hope that nobody will have to go through these same things no more,” Holmes said.