From the Editor: The Columbus Conundrum
The editor letter from the January 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly
Our cover story explores perhaps the biggest artistic question facing the city right now: What should replace the Christopher Columbus statue on the south side of City Hall? When Mayor Andy Ginther ordered the removal of the problematic monument amid the racial justice protests in June, he also enlisted the Columbus Art Commission to replace it with a more inclusive public artwork. City leaders haven’t made much progress on this task yet, but I hope our feature gets them thinking. In it, we include six local artists’ proposals for this big artistic opportunity.
But the replacement question isn’t the only one facing the Columbus Art Commission. The panel, which oversees all public art on city property, also must decide what to do with the banished statue in the long term. Since June, the 3.5-ton effigy of our city’s namesake has been hidden away in an undisclosed city storage facility. Could that banishment become permanent? It’s possible but unlikely, says Lori Baudro, the public art coordinator for the city of Columbus. “It’s probably going to be re-sited somewhere in the city in a less prominent location than City Hall,” she says.
Baudro and the art commission plan to create a committee consisting of art experts, city officials, community members and others to explore this question. The group will have a lot to consider. Though a new location may be lower profile, it also shouldn’t be insulting to those who still admire Christopher Columbus. And city leaders need to protect the statue, which stood in front of City Hall for more than six decades. “It’s a lightning rod,” Baudro says. “We don’t want to put it out someplace where it’s going to be vulnerable to physical damage.”
But perhaps the most interesting question is how to present the statue; the bare-bones plaque of yore is no longer adequate. “I think there will need to be a lot of interpretive content that accompanies this piece wherever it goes,” Baudro says.
Indeed, there is a lot to unpack—the flawed figure memorialized by the statue (who also happens to be the city’s namesake), of course, but also the story of Salvatore “Sal” Spalla, the driving force behind the monument. Spalla came to this country from Italy at the age of 5, worked in his family’s grocery store in Sandusky, served in the U.S. Army during World War II and graduated from Ohio State University and what later became Capital University Law School. Christopher Columbus was his hero, and he relentlessly pushed for a monument to honor the Italian explorer (and, by extension, all Italians).
“We shall ever cherish and be guided by its meaning,” the late Columbus Mayor M.E. “Jack” Sensenbrenner said of the statue, a quote that was included in a plaque at its base. Now, the city needs to explain how that meaning has changed.