The empty base of the Lee-Jackson Monument in the Wyman Park Dell. after former Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered its removal, along with three other city-owned statues, in 2017. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Baltimore’s Confederate monuments won’t be traveling to California after all.

Planning director Chris Ryer on Thursday sent a letter to a Los Angeles-based art curator, Hamza Walker, notifying him that the city has decided to decline his offer to borrow four city-owned monuments for use in a proposed art exhibit that aims to put Confederate monuments in a broader context.

Walker is the executive director of a non-profit arts organization called LAXART. He is working with noted artist Kara Walker, no relation, on plans to bring together toppled Confederate monuments from around the country and display them in juxtaposition with newly created works of art that “respond” to the original works.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is the proposed setting for the exhibit. Walker said he first contacted Baltimore officials two years ago, which was before the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced and roughly one year before Brandon Scott became mayor.

In his letter, Ryer thanked Walker for his interest and said officials in Baltimore gave his request serious consideration.

“We have spent much time thinking over the request and believe that your exhibit is a worthy endeavor,” Ryer wrote in part. “However, at this time, Baltimore has decided not to participate in LAXART’s exhibit. Thank you for your time, and we wish you the best moving forward.”

Approximately 160 Confederate statues and monuments have been taken down around the United States in recent years, largely in response to citizens who say the works glorify people who owned slaves or supported slavery and that they shouldn’t be on public property. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered Baltimore’s four Confederate monuments to be taken down in middle of the night on Aug. 16, 2017, and they have been in storage ever since.

The monuments that Pugh took down include: the statue of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson in Wyman Park Dell; the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Bolton Hill; the Confederate Women’s Monument near University Parkway and Charles Street, and the statue of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in Mount Vernon. The Taney statue drew opposition because he issued the majority opinion in the Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, denying freed slaves citizenship in 1857.

Walker has been contacting cities, colleges and individuals around the country, seeking to borrow works of art for the LAXART exhibit, tentatively called MONUMENTS. In a letter sent last June to the mayor of Charleston, S. C., and subsequently made public, he indicated that Baltimore had agreed to lend four works and that the exhibit was tentatively slated to open in the fall of 2022.

“To date we have confirmed that Baltimore will lend us the four monuments they removed from around the city in 2017,” he wrote to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg on June 3, 2021. “We are in negotiations with the Briscoe Center for American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin; currently, we are awaiting approval of the University’s recently appointed President. We have also put in requests with Richmond and Durham.”

Earlier this month the City Council in Charlottesville, Va., voted to lend to LAXART a Stonewall Jackson statue that was taken down in that city.

‘Chain of command’

Last week, Bloomberg News published an article that mentioned LAXART’s exhibit and Walker’s plans to use monuments from Baltimore and other cities. More articles followed, including one on Dec. 10 in Baltimore Fishbowl.

Ryer’s letter about Baltimore’s decision was sent six days after the Baltimore Fishbowl article appeared with the headline, “Baltimore’s Confederate statues, removed from public view in 2017, are headed to Los Angeles.”

Ryer said in a phone interview that “the Mayor’s office made the decision” to decline Walker’s offer: “It came directly from the mayor.”

The planning director said he didn’t know what will happen to the monuments now that sending them to California isn’t an option. Stefanie Mavronis, deputy director of communication for Mayor Brandon Scott, did not respond to a request for information.

Walker didn’t answer questions about his reaction to Scott’s decision or how it will affect the exhibit. In a phone interview earlier this week, before Ryer’s letter went out, Walker said he knew Baltimore has a different mayor from when he first contacted the city and that his request had to be reviewed on a number of levels.

“Chain of command,” he said. “Anybody who watched The Wire knows that. It’s all about chain of command.”

‘Allies in the project’

In the interview before Scott made his decision, Walker provided an update on his efforts to borrow monuments from around the country and why he wanted to include Baltimore’s monuments.

Walker said he hopes to bring about 16 works to Los Angeles –“if we got all our wishes” – and then commission at least seven or eight new works for the exhibit. He said he has been in discussions with six or seven municipalities about borrowing monuments, plus two colleges, a museum and one family that possesses a monument he’d like to include in the exhibit.

In every case, Walker said, the monuments’ owners have questions, given the nature of what he wants to borrow. “This is all unprecedented,” he said. “Every city is working their way through how to handle this, even those kinds of things like identifying to whom paperwork for the loan would be submitted, what is the legal entity…It’s just a question of identifying who in the city is the person who’s going to sign off or what department is going to give authorization.”

Walker said the municipalities that agree to make loans don’t receive compensation but they are acknowledged in the catalog for the show and recognized in other ways, and LAXART pays for the costs of transporting the monuments and insuring them.

Walker explained that LAXART’s request to borrow monuments from Baltimore and other cities would not require the cities to sell, or de-accession, any city-owned works. He likened his request to borrow the monuments to a request from a curator in California to borrow a Matisse painting from the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, for a show on the West Coast.

He said this week that LAXART is now aiming to open the MONUMENTS exhibit in the fall of 2023, not 2022 as stated in his letter to the mayor of Charleston, and that the site would be the Geffen building at Museum of Contemporary Art.

In essence, the lenders become “allies in the project,” and without their consent the exhibit would not be possible, he said.

“We can’t do this without the participation of these various municipalities. That’s what’s going to make this show.”

‘The Baltimore quartet’

Walker said he was particularly interested in Baltimore’s monuments because he went to high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, has several generations of relatives in Baltimore, and was familiar with the monuments and Pugh’s decision to take them down. He refers to the Baltimore monuments as the “Baltimore quartet.”

Beyond that, “they’re great examples” of works from the era, each different from the others, he said.

“Taney, Stonewall and Lee are the known historical [figures]. Two of them are allegorical, which is interesting. There are historical reasons and art historical reasons. They’re prime examples of the Confederate century.”

While some cities’ Confederate monuments are relatively generic, either geometric shapes such as obelisks or figures depicting anonymous soldiers at rest, “Baltimore’s are not,” he added. “The Frederick Ruckstull one in particular [the Confederate Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument from Bolton Hill] has a whole backstory in terms of who Frederick Ruckstull was” and the views he had about degeneracy in art.

‘Mining the Museum’

Walker said there’s another reason why he wanted to feature Baltimore and its monuments.

He said the MONUMENTS exhibit was largely inspired by a 1992-1993 installation by artist and MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society, now the Maryland Center for History and Culture, entitled “Mining the Museum.”

In that exhibit, Wilson extracted and unearthed objects from the museum’s own collections – like a miner digging for gold – and reshuffled what he found to highlight the history of Black and Indigenous Marylanders.

Wilson set out to address the biases many museums have, often omitting or under-representing oppressed people and focusing on “prominent white men.” The result was an exhibit that confronted and challenged perceptions about history, culture and race and introduced new viewpoints about colonization, slavery and abolition — by reassembling artifacts the museum had all along.

The idea behind MONUMENTS – bringing together monuments that were created to honor leaders of the Confederacy and juxtaposing them with works by contemporary artists born long after slavery was abolished – is similar to what Wilson did with his landmark exhibit in Baltimore in the 1990s, said Walker, who added that he sees Wilson as a ‘kindred spirit.’

“Fred’s exhibition is historic. It’s a canonical exhibition,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeking to do this time around as well.”

‘A green light from City Hall’

Walker said that after two years of talks with officials in Baltimore, he believed all parties had reached an agreement in principle to send the monuments to California – that he essentially had a “green light from City Hall” even though he still had to work out certain details.

Walker admitted this week that that he didn’t have any documents showing that Baltimore officially agreed to his loan request, and he could not point to any public agency in Baltimore that had signed off on the request or even had a public meeting about it, the way Baltimore’s Public Art Commission held a hearing this year on the possibility of moving Jonathan Borofsky’s controversial ‘Male/Female’ sculpture from in front of Penn Station.

One of the remaining steps was to meet with the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency that has a Deed of Easement that covers 15 outdoor bronze monuments in Baltimore, including three of the four Walker wanted to borrow. The only one not covered by the Easement is the Taney statue.

Walker said he made a presentation on Dec. 9 to the Maryland Historical Trust as part of his quest to borrow the Baltimore objects but hadn’t heard back. “It was very cordial, very pleasant,” he said. “Everybody was very well informed.”

Director Elizabeth Hughes said in an email message that the Trust took no action after the Dec. 9 presentation because “the Deed of Easement held by MHT that encumbers these monuments contemplates action by MHT only after a request is received from Baltimore City.”

Hughes said the board has a “Monument Relocation Working Group” that was prepared to make a recommendation to the full panel at its meeting in January, but in order to take any action the Trust would need the city to make a request rather than LAXART. “To date, the City has made no such request.”

Does the Maryland Historical Trust have any thoughts about what the city should do with its Confederate monuments, if the LAXART exhibit is not an option?

“The historic preservation Deed of Easement held by MHT that encumbers these monuments requires the City to maintain and preserve the monuments, along with a dozen others location throughout the City, and make them accessible to the public,” Hughes replied.

“MHT recognizes that the City does not want the monuments to be returned to their prior locations and has since August 2017 been working collaboratively with the City – through the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation – to identify new locations for the monuments. This process should continue.”

Commission on ‘contested’ subjects

Ryer said Walker’s request to borrow the Confederate monuments is one of several subjects or issues that have prompted city officials to consider forming a new permanent commission to help advise the mayor’s office on divisive matters pertaining to the public realm.

He said the city receives a number of proposals that need approval from public agencies before they can be implemented but get contested for one reason or another, and there has been some uncertainty about who should be involved in making decisions about them. He said examples of contested issues may range from naming parks and public buildings to ceremonial street signs to relocating or de-accessioning city-owned works of outdoor art.

At least four city boards or agencies currently have a role in making decisions about changes in the public realm, including the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which is part of the Planning Department; the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) and its Public Art Commission; the Department of General Services, and the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Others include the Department of Transportation, the Department of Real Estate and the Baltimore Development Corporation. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, with its plans for billboard-sized signs along Pratt Street, and the Waterfront Partnership, with its various projects and initiatives around the Inner Harbor shoreline, also propose changes to the urban landscape, even though they aren’t public agencies.

Ryer said former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young showed little interest in changing established procedures, but the Scott administration is open to improving the decision-making process if that’s possible.

“We’re trying to set up a permanent commission for these kinds of divisive monuments and building names and park names and things like that,” Ryer said. “The Young administration wouldn’t touch it, but the Scott administration has said ‘That’s an interesting idea. Why don’t you explore it further?’”

Although the mayor has the final say in making decisions, Ryer said, the commission is envisioned as a forum where citizens could discuss issues that may not be getting enough discussion today, and that dialogue could inform the decision-making process. He said the working name for the commission is “Commission to Review Baltimore’s Contested Monuments, Signage, Outdoor Art and Place Names.”

“The idea would be to have public discourse and people can come in and testify and give their opinions,” Ryer said. “We’re basically focusing on setting up this commission as sort of a systemic way of addressing these types of issues.”

Ryer said City Council legislation recently was introduced that could lead to the formation of a new independent commission, and the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee held an informational hearing about the idea this week.

Ryer said the new commission might be modeled on the ad hoc commission the city created several years ago to make decisions about what to do with its Confederate monuments, before Pugh took them down. That commission included private citizens with expertise in history and art and was staffed by employees from CHAP and BOPA.

Ryer said he can see a need for more direction and clarity, especially when it comes to naming buildings and public spaces. Because of decisions made over the years “every park in Baltimore has three names,” he said. “It is somewhat chaotic.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

5 replies on “Baltimore decides not to send its Confederate monuments to California”

  1. Having read the above article Sending Maryland’s moved Confederate statues to CA, I am now convinced that the city government’s agencies are a joke and the citizens of the state should have a vote to place or to store their property. The statues belong to the citizens. with that said, I would recommend mandatory American History and Constitutional Law courses for all personal in city hall

  2. Thank you for writing this. When I first read about this I was upset, but continued to read for more insight, trusting Baltimore. I got why they were going to send the statues, but still felt sad. This made me so happy this morning. Thank you for reporting on this, everything matters.

  3. The destruction of my Proud Confederate Heritage is not enough for you. You should turn these historical relics over to others and not desecrate them. What goes around comes around.

    1. The Confederacy stood for keeping people in bondage not Southern Heritage. Lee, Jackson, et al killed American soldiers to keep the profits from slavery flowing and for their states rights to enslave. You would not have monuments at Auschwitz-Birkenau where Jews were murdered. We cannot celebrate American traitors and murderers no matter how valiantly they fought killing Americans.

  4. Fine examples of historical military men. Should have never been removed if people weren’t so ignorant.

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