What Should Replace the Christopher Columbus Statue?
A new public artwork could reveal “the soul of who we are.”
For more than six decades, the statue towered over Broad Street. It stood tall through blustery Januarys and sizzling Augusts. It survived social, political and demographic change. It seemed impervious to protests, liberal indignation and a cultural backlash. It was, rightly or wrongly, one of Central Ohio’s most significant and enduring works of public art.
Today, however, the 22-foot-tall effigy of the city’s namesake is hidden away, exiled as a result of 2020’s racial awakening. When thousands flooded the streets in the spring and summer to speak out against inequity and police brutality, the largest city in the country named after Christopher Columbus was forced to finally reckon with the meaning, legacy and perception of its most problematic monument. “For many people in our community, the statue represents patriarchy, oppression and divisiveness,” said Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther in June as he ordered the removal of the monument from the south side of City Hall, its home since 1955. “That does not represent our great city, and we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past.”
But the job didn’t end the day a crew of art preservation experts and construction workers hauled away the 3.5-ton monument to an undisclosed location. In fact, the work has just begun. In addition to ordering the removal of the statue, Ginther called for a new public artwork to replace it. He wants something that better reflects the city’s values, beliefs and vision for the future and that “demonstrates our enduring fight to end racism and celebrate the themes of diversity and inclusion.” This next, more complicated endeavor requires deep thinking, input from a wide range of voices and a careful, meticulous selection process. If removing the statue was a 50-yard dash, finding its replacement is a triathlon.
The Columbus Art Commission, which oversees public art on city property, is leading this effort. Since Ginther’s predecessor, Mike Coleman, formed the commission in 2007, it’s never taken on such a big project, says Diane Nance, who’s chaired the panel since its inception. To be sure, the pandemic has slowed things down; in November, five months after the statue was removed, the commission still hadn’t set a timetable for opening the search for new ideas and choosing a proposal. But Nance and her colleagues do have big ideas. They talk about launching a national call for proposals, gathering insights from a broad community survey and spending $1 million on the project, a price tag more than twice as expensive as any previous artwork funded by the city. “We want it to be aspirational,” Nance says. “We want it to represent a smart, fair and open city.”