Reginald (Reggie) Jones, a 72-year-old community activist, vaguely recalls the first time he noticed what was, for most of the 20th century, Indianapolis's only representation of an African American in public art. It's an image of a shirtless, shoeless former slave, holding a set of shackles in his raised right hand, crouching at the bottom of one of the crowded sculptural tableaus garnishing the base of the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
"I remember when I was a kid, I used to go down to Monument Circle and kind of crawl all over those statues," Jones says. "I knew what it was, but I didn't know what it represented."
Apparently neither did anyone else. But what a difference a few decades makes. Today that ex-slave represents a lot of things, many of them utterly at odds with each other. To some it symbolizes a hope and celebration for moving forward; to others it calls back memories of inequality. And many see it as a cautionary tale of how a gleaming cultural asset can be scuttled by "popular opinion."
How did one statue, a very small part of a much larger monument, come to be freighted with so much meaning? It began in 2009, when renowned artist Fred Wilson was engaged by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) to create a work for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Wilson, an artist of international renown and winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1999, proposed making a copy of the ex-slave, putting him on a pedestal, giving him a flag representing the African Diaspora and placing him in front of the City-County Building. The goal of the piece, called E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for Out of Many, One, was to repurpose the oft-overlooked figure and turn him into a symbol of empowerment.
"I thought that by taking him out of context, he became a man and became something else other than just what was placed on him by the tropes of being in the monument," Wilson told visual arts blogger Tyler Green.
That was the plan, anyway.
Wilson hoped to kindle a discussion about art and race. He got his wish. It just wasn't the discussion that he, or anyone else, expected.
At first the design for E Pluribus Unum got about as much attention as any other piece of Indy-area public art. Which is to say, very little. But all that changed on September 16, 2010, when the Indianapolis Recorder published a letter from Indianapolis city councilman Leroy Robinson. He excoriated the piece, saying (among a great many other things) that building it was the equivalent of erecting a giant lawn jockey.
Things went downhill from there. As the weeks rolled by, the complaints -- mostly but not exclusively from the African-American community -- increased in both number and volume. The work's City-County Building location was criticized because it placed E Pluribus Unum in front of the jail. The decision to recycle the image of an ex-slave, instead of honoring any of a laundry list of memorial-worthy African-American Hoosiers, also caused offense. Even the figure's lack of a shirt and shoes rubbed some people the wrong way. The provocatively named group Citizens Against Slave Images formed to battle the proposal. Public forums held to discuss the work turned into incendiary confrontations.
Not everyone was opposed to the project. Malina Simone Jeffers, local cultural entrepreneur, says, "Fred's project was smart and thought provoking. It would have been a beautiful piece, especially lit at night, that caused reflection on the history of our nation and our city. I love how E Pluribus Unum showed thought differences even within the black community. We were not all opposed to the project: the location, yes, but to the project - no." She was not alone among the voices supporting Wilson's project, but in the end, the angry voices were louder. On Dec. 13, 2011, CICF threw in the towel.
"As it turned out, this proposed art piece caused many people a great sense of anxiety and pain and for that I apologize," said Brian Payne, CICF president and CEO, in a press release at the time.
E Pluribus Unum was history, but a process for its replacement began almost immediately -- a slow, laborious effort that will name a finalist this fall. They will, of course, provided everyone with a hand in the process (and there are lots and lots of hands) can agree on what constitutes an acceptable follow-up. Which is by no means a sure thing.
"This time we're working very hard to make the process transparent," says Arts Council of Indianapolis president and CEO Dave Lawrence. "To make sure that there's nothing that can be perceived as a surprise."
The key word is transparency. The CICF budgeted $175,000 for E Pluribus Unum's replacement then brought in a new team to spearhead the search: the Cultural Arts Committee, overseen by the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC) and the Arts Council of Indianapolis. GIPC (and its Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network) became involved back in E Pluribus Unum's most turbulent days, to help CICF set up public meetings to explain the piece. The committee is co-chaired by Bill Shrewsberry and Arts Council president and CEO Dave Lawrence.
"We've partnered with the Arts Council of Indianapolis to use our expertise in the public arts process," says Matt Hendrix, executive director of GIPC. "It was a collaboration that just made sense."
This May, the committee released a request for proposals -- an RFP that doesn't mince words about what's expected this time around. "The artwork should represent the Indianapolis African-American community in a thoughtful, creative, and positive manner," it says. The call isn't limited to a specific medium, but it is limited to a specific sort of person. You have to be at least 18, you have to live in the United States (extra points if you're a Hoosier) and you have to be African American.
Given the expectations heaped upon Indianapolis's first African-American-themed piece of public art for the 21st century -- and the havoc those expectations wreaked on the previous candidate for the job -- it's easy to feel sorry for whoever gets the gig. Perhaps they could sculpt a hot potato. Or maybe a can of worms?
At least one person in the national arts community couldn't care less -- arts blogger, E Pluribus Unum supporter and dedicated CICF-hater Tyler Green. In his view, the city should be ashamed for knuckling under to the hoi polloi and stopping the piece, which he once described as "the smartest, most ambitious public art project currently under consideration in America." Needless to say, he's not overly invested in the replacement search.
"The work Wilson came up with for the commission was extraordinary, and that's why it was worth paying attention to," Green says. "I don't have the foggiest idea what they're up to now."
He thinks that the public veto of such a well-known artist will create lasting fallout -- if not for Indianapolis, then at least for the CICF. "You just can't treat people who do high-level work that way and expect it not to have ramifications on your organization's future relationships with people in the field," Green says.
Christopher West, owner of the art consulting firm Christopher West Presents and former curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, thinks the real damage isn't to Indianapolis's cultural reputation. It's the fact that the chance to host a major work by an internationally renowned artist was lost.
"These opportunities don't come along very often," West says. "If somehow you miss out on an opportunity, it's taken away from the cultural fabric of the city. When you miss out on something like that, it's kind of a big deal."
The RFP went out only after the Public Art Selection Committee (composed of artists, art advocates and some of E Pluribus Unum's bitterest opponents, including Reggie Jones) spent a great deal of time hashing out just what sort of work they wanted. It wasn't the easiest conversation in the world, but issues that involve race rarely are. It certainly made for some very lively meetings.
"You should try chairing one," Shrewsberry says. "There's been some pretty good discussions, which is good. I don't mind that. But it gets tough trying to let everyone speak and two people are going back and forth between each other and the other ten of us are just sitting there watching."
The danger isn't that all those cooks will spoil the soup. It's that too many cooks (and opinions, and compromises) will turn E Pluribus Unum's replacement into a big bland bowl of bleh.
But that's just one of the pitfalls of public art, says Richard McCoy, principal at McCoy + Associates, which consults on (mostly) public art preservation and historic issues. If you ask for the regular folks' input, there's always a risk that you'll get it. Nevertheless, he's fairly sanguine about the chances of developing a viable project that satisfies more than just Unum's opponents. Though he admits that a committee isn't the greatest way to find it.
"The best art projects I've been involved with usually involve a curator who has a good vision, and an artist who has a good vision," McCoy says. "And then those ideas come together with someone who can sponsor it. I think it (the Unum replacement) is potentially successful, but it's not the traditional way for a great artwork to be made."
He takes some comfort in the fact that at least the art-by-committee process is pretty much standard procedure -- be it in 21st-century Indianapolis of 16th-century Florence, for that matter. As McCoy points out, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is the product of a committee. However it's also no one's idea of groundbreaking, eye-catching work.
"I'm not one who's an art snob that says we always need to have artwork by international artists in Indianapolis," McCoy says. "But I'm also one who thinks you better have some. I think we need to have a lot more public art in the city and I think we need to have a lot more that represents the wide variety of communities and different angles to the history of Indianapolis."
That pretty much sums up why E Pluribus Unum got into so much trouble. Ideally there should be numerous pieces of African-American-themed art dotting Indianapolis. Big pieces.Little ones.Bad ones.Kitschy ones. Good ones. Perhaps even a great one. If that had been the case then a new piece, even with a controversial theme, wouldn't have attracted so much attention. Indeed, it's easy to imagine Fred Wilson's flag-waving ex-slave simply getting lost in the mix. But E Pluribus Unum stood alone, attracting thunderclouds of expectations and criticism and resentment. The flag it held might as well have been a lightning rod.
"His piece became a symbol of the racial challenges and cultural challenges that we've experienced not only currently, but going back generations," Miller says.
Besides the statue on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and a representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park installed in 1994, it would have been the only African American public image in town. Unum, in some circles, was seen as a high-handed attempt to install a piece of African-American art without discussing it with local African Americans first.
To avoid such surprises in the future, the committee picking Unum's replacement held numerous public meetings to maximize buy-in. So far it seems to be working.
"One of the main differences is that the community is reporting that they're feeling like they're more involved on the front end, and that they're able to embrace the entire process," says Toby Miller, director of GIPC's Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network. "The chance to discuss public art and to be educated about what it is and what it isn't. What we've heard is that the way we're prosecuting this has put the 'public' back in public art."
Oddly, one of the biggest helps was the simple fact that community anger over E Pluribus Unum actually led to its cancellation. To put it mildly, that's not the way things usually go in Indianapolis.
"I've never seen a Caucasian apologize the way he (Payne) did, and then say, not only do I apologize, but I want to go forward with your inclusion," says Garry D. Holland, videographer and activist. "And that was, I think, a defining moment for this city. To be able to say that and do that and not just go forward with the agenda, which they usually do."
Not surprisingly, the committee wants to keep the whole "public input" thing going during the selection process. The Arts Council and GIPS will put together a Public Art Selection Committee (composed of artists, art advocates, curators and activists) that will review the submissions and pick as many as five semifinalists, each of whom will get $1,000 to create a scale model of their concept. The models will then be shown around Indianapolis, after which the selection committee will take a look at the public commentary, examine the pieces for merit, and make a selection. If all goes as planned, the finalist will be named in November, with the work created, installed and dedicated by late summer of next year. If things go according to plan.
Which they might not. But then, this is public art, and controversial public art at that. Indeed, given the number of pieces commissioned for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, it's a minor miracle that this was the only serious dustup. "We didn't want to do just decorative pieces," Payne says. "We had bigger ambitions. We had big ambitions for the trail and big ambitions for the public art. Sometimes when you have big ambitions you fail. Does that mean you should only have small ambitions? I don't think so."
He asserts that though E Pluribus Unum was never created, it nevertheless accomplished its primary mission -- making people aware of minority roles in public art -- quite handsomely. Though Payne could have done without getting shouted at, he thinks things went off pretty well, considering. And he's not alone in that view. Not at all.
"I think it served its purpose," Jones says of the ex-slave. "Probably more people went down to Monument Circle and looked at that statue and became aware that it was there. They'd never paid any attention to it before. It raised our consciousness of art, and of what those images represent to us."
Though losing a piece by Fred Wilson is hardly something to feel good about, the sad saga could come to a happy close if another quality work can be found to take its place. But a happy ending is by no means assured. For instance, what happens if the RFP entries come in, get winnowed down to five semifinalists that are shown to the public, and the public hates them all?
"I've thought about that," Shrewsberry says. "To put a piece out there just to say we did something, I would not be in favor. If people think it's not quality and not representative and not iconic for Indianapolis, then we'll all have to sit down and make a decision as to whether we go through this again or decide never to do it. I don't know those answers and I won't make a prediction."
"We've had that discussion," Miller adds. "What if the community rejects everything? What's the stopping point? I think the difference here is that, it's not necessarily that we're fighting against pushback. We're embracing it and using it as instructional."
But neither of them chooses to dwell on the worst-case scenario. Not yet, anyway. "We've had enough negative," Shrewsberry says.