What responsibility does the city have toward works of public art — even after they've gone out of style?
That question is at the heart of a debate over whether to restore Frederick MacMonnies's "Civic Virtue," which once stood in front of City Hall but in 1941 was banished to Queens, where it resides outside of Borough Hall. Although the monument is by a major 19th-century American sculptor and was commissioned by the City, it has always been controversial because of its allegorical depiction of Virtue, represented by a rather chunky nude male figure, triumphing over temptation, represented by two female sirens at his feet.
That the statue is in disrepair is above dispute: It's dirty, and its marble is crumbling. The argument is over whether to do anything about it.
The district manager of Queens Community Board 9, Mary Ann Carey, wants the statue restored. In June, she sent letters to Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, as well as figures in the New York art world, asking for support. At their June meeting, the members of the Kew Gardens Civic Association voted overwhelmingly in support of restoring the statue. In recent weeks, the president of the Fine Arts Federation of New York — a consortium of arts groups including the National Sculpture Society, the Municipal Art Society, and the Architectural League of New York — Tomas Rossant, sent letters to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, advocating that the sculpture be conserved.
Ms. Marshall, however, is no fan of "Fat Boy," as the statue's detractors call it. She has called the statue sexist and said she has no interest in restoring it — in fact, she wishes it were somewhere else. Mr. Benepe, meanwhile, says that he would like to see the statue restored but that the Parks Department doesn't have the money — between $1 million and $2 million, according to a Department estimate — required to both restore the marble and make its fountain function again.
A professor of visual culture at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a former member of the Art Commission of the City of New York, Michele Bogart, said that "Civic Virtue" raises a larger problem: "What's the city's obligation to its public art collection, and how in the present do we deal with monuments that are perceived are problematic in some way?" she asked. While she accepts that the Parks Department doesn't have the money, she believes that if Mr. Benepe were to come out strongly in support of restoration, private donors, civic groups, or even City Council members with their discretionary funds might offer to bankroll the conservation project.
"Civic Virtue" is far from alone in offending modern sensibilities. The monument in front of the American Museum of Natural History shows Theodore Roosevelt on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African man on foot. The effect is of Roosevelt as a father figure, leading the more "primitive" races into the future. "The sculptor, James Earle Fraser, said it was meant to show [Roosevelt's] ‘friendliness to all races,'" the architectural historian, and Sun contributor, Francis Morrone said.
The history of "Civic Virtue" is an object lesson in shifting tastes and social views, and the perils of doing government-commissioned work. If MacMonnies had been alive in the 1980's, he no doubt would have commiserated with Richard Serra, whose "Tilted Arc," installed in Federal Plaza, was so disliked that it was finally removed.
Ironically, given its allegedly sexist portrayal, the funds for "Civic Virtue" were bequeathed to the City by a woman, Angelina Crane. In 1909, the City commissioned MacMonnies, then one of the most prominent American sculptors, to build a sculpture with a fountain. MacMonnies's choice of theme was a reflection of contemporary urban anti-vice campaigns, directed against prostitution (often characterized as "white slavery") and venereal disease, as well as of interest in good government and the cleansing of corruption.
MacMonnies's major mistake, perhaps, was that he took so long to complete the work. By the time it was installed in front of City Hall in 1922, women had gotten the vote, and feminist groups protested the depiction of male virtue stomping on feminine vice. In the 1930's, thestatue'sreputationtook another dive, when it gained two high-profile enemies: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who complained that the statue mooned him in his office at City Hall, and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Moses immediately began scheming to relocate "Civic Virtue" elsewhere. He got his wish in 1941, when statue was moved to Queens.
A director at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York and an expert in American sculpture, Alice Duncan, said the statue has many flaws but, as an art historian, she would argue that it should be preserved. "It's a wedding cake," she said of the statue's Beaux-Arts flourishes. It would have been out-of-date even for 1909, she continued, but by 1922, "[i]t's more than just the women's suffrage movement; the Armory Show happened, World War I happened," she said. "This is a 19th-century object."
To Ms. Carey, the district manager, the statue's neglect is particularly distressing because it feels like a geographic snub — City Hall turning its back on Queens. "In addition to him deteriorating, there is so much garbage around the statue, right in front of Borough Hall, it's a disgrace," she said. Looking the other day at a picture of people boating in Central Park, with a beautiful sculpture and fountain in the background, she became angry. "I said, ‘People in Queens would love something like that. Why do we always get stuck with the garbage?'"
Ms. Carey sent one of her letters to the director of the Queens Museum of Art, Tom Finkelpearl, who also used to run the City's Percent for Art program, which supports public art. In an interview, Mr. Finkelpearl said that, while he does consider the statue's imagery sexist, he thinks there's nothing wrong with artworks stirring debate. "Sometimes you'll see a sign on him saying, ‘This sculpture doesn't represent women well.' I think it's great; that's people responding to public art."
But as for spending public money to restore the statue, he said, that's another matter. "To me, it's a really interesting historic monument, but I'm not of the opinion that it has to look brand new," Mr. Finkelpearl said. "I think it's kind of perfect the way it is."