A Philadelphia-based creative studio is helping to shape the future of our public histories.
Of the hundreds of monuments in Philadelphia, only one full statue on public land is dedicated to an individual historic person of color. Artist Branly Cadet’s A Quest for Parity, unveiled in 2017 at City Hall, is a bronze figure of Octavius Catto, the civil- and voting-rights activist who was murdered by a white gunman in Philadelphia on Election Day 1871, when he was just 32.
It is the lives of historically significant but under-acknowledged people like Catto that animate the work of Paul Farber, cofounder and director of Monument Lab, an independent art and research studio that collaborates with artists, local governments, cultural institutions, and the public to rethink monuments’ role in American culture. A historian and longtime Philadelphia resident, Farber founded the Lab with artist Ken Lum in 2012; both were teaching courses on monuments at the University of Pennsylvania, where Farber is a senior research scholar at the Center for Public Art and Space and Lum is chair of the fine arts department. The Lab took shape as discussions with students about the politics of Philadelphia’s monuments moved from the classroom to the city’s parks and civic plazas.Karyn Olivier, “The Battle is Joined,” installed in Vernon Park in 2017. ( Photo: Steve Weinik.)Monument Lab engages with Philadelphians by setting up temporary civic studios in public spaces, such as Vernon Park. (Courtesy of Monument Lab.)
A protean entity, the Lab has functioned as a creative studio, curatorial think-tank, artist collective, social justice organization, and civic agency. It has generated more than 30 projects, including exhibitions, site-specific commissions, an international symposium, a fellowship program, and programming locally as well as in St. Louis, Newark, Memphis, and elsewhere. Engaging with members of the public—who are rarely asked what they think about public art—is a priority, and so is collaboration with artists, who “see things others don’t yet, and are often asked to participate in official public processes too late or not at all,” says Farber.
One of Monument Lab’s most expansive projects brought both of those groups together in a dialogue. In 2015, the Lab asked Philadelphians “What is an appropriate monument for the city of Philadelphia?” and invited them to submit their ideas and sketches. The same question was posed to a group of 20 artists, who reviewed the public submissions and created prototype monuments, all temporary, that were installed throughout the city between September and November 2017. The prototypes, focused on social justice and solidarity, included Tania Bruguera’s Monument to New Immigrants, a clay sculpture of a child holding a teddy bear, and Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to All People, an eight-foot replica of an Afro pick with a handle in the form of a raised Black-power fist.The Octavius V. Catto monument by artist Branly Cadet, at City Hall in Philadelphia. (Photo: © 2018 Alec Rogers for the Association for Public Art.)
Thomas’s sculpture was situated across the street from City Hall, not far from the bronze figure of Octavius Catto. Both were installed just months after violence had erupted over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia—a flash point in the national conversation around monuments. The work of Monument Lab, and that of individual practitioners and grassroots organizations who have long advocated a reckoning with the symbols and systems of power, assumed a new urgency. Determining the shape of future monuments and the values they express will be underpinned by a full accounting of the existing landscape.
To assess that landscape, Monument Lab is compiling a National Monument Audit. Led by Farber and researchers Laurie Allen and Sue Mobley, the audit team is gathering existing records from state and local agencies in addition to other sources, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ongoing count of Confederate monuments. The audit, supported by a Mellon Foundation grant, is scheduled to be completed with data available to the public in spring 2021.
More than a simple numerical total or taxonomy, the audit is a deep dive into monument records—who originally sponsored a given monument? Who is subsidizing its upkeep?— that will also reveal which works of art, memorials, or landmarks a community has chosen to recognize. “We don’t need an audit to tell us some obvious things—we know that the monuments landscape skews toward white men,” says Farber. “What we don’t have is the way the dots are connected and how the landscape was constructed.”A visual inventory of St. Louis’s symbols and sites of memory, gathered by the public and local researchers. (Courtesy of Monument Lab.)
Farber and his team hope the National Monument Audit will serve as an invitation for community members to revisit local monuments with a renewed sense of purpose. The big-picture goal, he says, “is to expand on our work making generational change in the ways art and history live in public.”
With Monument Lab helping to lead that effort, we may reach a point when Octavius Catto is not an outlier, but rather one figure in a more just and equitable commemorative landscape.