Theory and Public Art in Charlottesville, VA

Originally written for ARH 2460: Art Since 1945 with Christa Robbins at the University of Virginia, Fall 2017

Each and every major city has a form of art which exists in front of banks, plazas, or other spaces community members occupy: public art. The dynamics of public art has shifted in style and popularity from the 60’s to the present day. In Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity, Kwon identifies the three main models of public art: art-in-public-places, art-as-public-space, art-in-public-interest. These models describe the basic form of art and how it engages with its external environment. To further explain the function of public art, Kwon describes the paradigm of integrationist public art versus interventionist public art. While public art that interrupts the community and environment to confront the public can be described as “interventionist art,” “integrationist art” contrasts, connecting to the environment and to the community in order to engage people meaningfully. In Charlottesville, the public artworks of the Robert E. Lee statue and the Catherine “Kitty” Foster Memorial Site attempt to deal with the city’s historical past while integrating and intervening with the community, and advocating different goals, visually and socio-politically.

Kwon’s notion of classifying public art into two main categories (interventionist versus integrationist) clarifies the work’s main goal in relation to the community it is for. Works of the interventionalist category attempt to disrupt the public and engage them on a social issue. Kwon’s example of interventionist public art is Serra’s Tilted Arch which “literalized the social divisions, exclusions, and fragmentation that manicured and aesthetically tamed public spaces generally disguise” (Kwon, 74). The problem of social division held in the site of Tilted Arch, within the Federal Plaza (a site where business separates classes), is confronted through the art, physically dividing the public in their environment. On the other hand, the category of integrationist public art engages a community and their environment through less assertive means. Kwon seems to distinguish two types of integrationist art that arose through the transformation of popular public art. There is the integration of art installations to the site, and there is the integration of the works to the community of the environment. Kwon’s key example of the artist, John Ahearn, is explained to have focused an “emphasis on the social stems from the belief that the meaning or value of the artwork does not reside in the object itself but is accrued over time through the interaction between the artist and the community” (Kwon, 95). The artwork is socially integrated into the community through the artist and community’s interaction which build value. Therefore, the interventionist and integrationist models engage the public, but in contrasting ways.

Within the Charlottesville community, the statue of Robert E Lee has brandished a set of values which integrated the dominating culture’s views. The statue depicts the Confederate general, Robert E Lee, decorated in his Confederate uniform, hat in hand, sword in sheathe, perched on a horse, all bronze placed on a granite pedestal. Inscribed into the pedestal reads “Robert Edward Lee: 1807- 1870,” as well as a sculpted relief of a bald eagle and olive leaves. The bronze statue of Lee in the traveler pose has turned a greenish-blue color due to oxidation. Lee towers around “26 feet tall” with a pedestal of around “8 feet” (United States Department of the Interior National Park Service). Today, the statue stands covered in a black plastic bag, completely obscured from the view of the public, surrounded by a plastic orange fence and a sign posted on each side of the statue saying “City Personnel Only- No Trespassing.” The statue is placed in the center of Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), a courtyard built one block away from the Historic Downtown Mall, a main community gathering space. There are a variety of trees and benches in the park, as well as a few paths, all leading in a curvy manner to the statue. Now, some community members avoid the park, some homeless people sleep on its benches and field, some use the site as a shortcut across the block (not looking at the black bag), and others stare at the black bag, heads shaking. Historically, the statue was planned to be built in 1917 (paid for by Paul McIntire) and finally finished in 1924, built by Henry Shrady (United States Department of the Interior National Park Service). The statue was said to be erected to promote dominant white values of trying to “resist Reconstruction’s drive for equality, for enforcing school and neighborhood segregation, denying votes and civil rights for African Americans” (Shapiro). This statue is just one testament to the complex racial history of Charlottesville.

On the University of Virginia’s grounds, Cheryl Barton’s Catherine “Kitty” Foster Memorial Site attempts to engage the University’s history. Located on a slight hill on the South Lawn of UVA, next to Nau and Gibson Halls, the Catherine Foster Memorial Site is comprised of a steel beam “shadow catcher” which casts the plan outline of Catherine Foster’s house. The thin steel frame of the installation creates a nine-square grid about 15 feet off the ground, and thicker steel is placed in a house-like outline among the nine-square. Below the steel frame is a long bench, on a concrete ground. Next to the memorial, there are the unmarked graves, surrounded by a stone wall, and paths that meander up to the memorial. On the other side, there are glass boxes that reveal the preserved ground of original cobblestones. Like the Lee statue, the memorial is placed next to a busy road, within a community (this time a college campus). This memorial site was erected in 2011 to honor Catherine Kitty Foster, a free black woman who bought the land back in 1833, naming it “Canada,” a University neighborhood for African Americans (United States Department of the National Park Service). The steel frame casts the shadow of Kitty’s house, while the viewer’s shadow is also cast among the house, connecting the past racial history to the present. While the site attempts to correct the injustices that blacks faced in the Jim Crow, Reconstruction era by honoring a free African American who faced such discrimination, the site is created in such a way that college students can pass by, without so much as a glance, lest a reflective thought about the University’s racial history. The site lacks the monumentality and prevalence of the Lee statue.

Shrady’s Lee statue fills Kwon’s interventionalist paradigm, where Barton’s Foster Memorial fits the internationalist model. Since 2012, officials, community members, and NAACP leaders have been advocating for the removal of the Lee statue, but it wasn’t until February of 2017 that the vote of city council approved the removal (Fortin). Much like the Serra’s Tilted Arch, the Robert E. Lee statue had a rather large public outcry because the statue intervened with a majority of public opinions (as the statue championed a racist symbol of oppression to African Americans). Later in the summer of 2017, leaders of the KKK and the alt-right protested the removal of the statue, bringing riots and hate across Charlottesville. The black plastic bag covering the statue highlights the highly disruptive nature of the work to the public. Unlike this highly controversial Lee statue, the Foster Memorial site has had a smaller effect on the audience of the work. The memorial is integrated into the site of the original Foster home. Furthermore, this piece of public art sits passively on a slight hill, not demanding any attention from the public, like the massive monument of Lee. Although the Kitty memorial attempts to confront the University and its inhabitants of the racial injustice of the segregated past, the work seems to only quietly honor the dead, drawing no attention to the real issues. While the Foster memorial relies on signage to explain the intentionality of the work is, the Lee statue bears no explanation or signage, yet still interrupts the community and the entirety of the United States. People from all over the US, including the President of the United States, have had debates on how to handle the interventionist public artworks of Confederate statues, citing the example of Charlottesville’s very own Robert E. Lee statue. While Shrady’s public art reaches a national level of attention, Barton’s memorial can barely capture the awareness of college students who, unknowingly, walk by the works every day.

The public art pieces of Charlottesville have varying levels of site specificity. Barton’s Catherine “Kitty” Foster Memorial is extremely site specific to the University of Virginia due to the connection to the physical past location of Canada, the African American neighborhood by UVA’s famous Lawn. This installation could be placed nowhere else but the original site of Foster’s home or the site would have little meaning. On the other hand, Confederate statues have been erected all over the Southern United States. When McIntire erected Robert E. Lee in the middle of the Charlottesville community in the 20’s, Lee’s monumentality championed the supremacy of the culturally dominating whites over blacks (Shapiro). So, Shrady’s statue was site-specific because the message of the work was direct to members of the Charlottesville community (yet still could have been placed in any southern community to advocate for the same message). These two works’ varying levels of site specificity contributes to the scope of attention they receive. Meaning, because of the Foster Memorial’s direct site specificity, fewer people are affected by the work (due to a lack of awareness), while the Lee statue has a less direct specificity to its site and gains the publicity of the nation due to the current racial climate. While these two works affect different sites, members of the public, and social messages, they both do illustrate Kwon’s paradigm of public art theory, in relation to the difference between how integrationist art functions compared to interventionist art. The function of public art heavily relies on community response to the works based on their social and visual goals, as well their site and public relation.

Works Cited

Fortin, Jacey. “The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm.” The New York Times, 13 August 2017. Accessed 16 November 2017.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. MIT Press, 2002.

Shapiro, Gary. “The Meaning of Our Confederate Monuments.” The New York Times, 15 May 2017. Accessed 16 November 2017.

United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form” (For the Catherine “Kitty” Foster Memorial), 1 April 2016. . Accessed 16 November 2017

United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form” (For the Robert E. Lee statue), 19 June 1996. \. Accessed 16 November 2017