The NYC Parks Department has reversed its decision to censor a sixteen-foot sculpture in Riverside Park that a local artist hopes will compel parkgoers to challenge hate in all of its manifestations.
Artist Aaron Bell's Stand Tall, Stand Loud, which was unveiled this week in its censored form, will be altered in the coming weeks to reflect the artist's original design—a human form topped with a noose twisted into a symbol that indicates a banned activity.
The decision was reached after a meeting between Bell, his attorney, and the Parks Department on Tuesday, as first reported by A Walk In The Park.
Bell conceived Stand Tall, Stand Loud for Model to Monument, a joint NYC Parks-Art Students League of New York competition that selects eight works each year for display in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and Riverside Park South on the Upper West Side. The theme for this year's competition was "The Public Square"; artists were encouraged to consider the role of public spaces in sparking dialogue, according to the Art Students League website.
"[My piece] will serve as a reminder to the diverse flow of visitors that we each should encourage and strive to make tolerance and understanding a daily minimum requirement," Bell wrote in an artist statement obtained by West Side Rag.
Bell (L) at the dedication of his sculpture on Thursday. At right is a poster of what the installation will look like in a couple of weeks (via Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates).
Bell, who is black, added that the noose was conceived as "the embodiment of all forms of hate found in society"—towards "LGBT communities, religious communities, racial and ethnic communities," as well as "corrupt members of police departments and corrupt governments... bullies and egocentric politicians."
The sculpture is inscribed at its base with this Martin Luther King., Jr. quote: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."
A model of the second iteration of Bell's sculpture, featuring a line through the noose. Parks rejected this version (via).
In a move that seemed to blatantly defy Bell's message, city officials rejected his proposal outright last November. That version of the statue was topped with a noose, according to images supplied by the Parks Department. Bell then pitched a revision with a line through the noose, which was also rejected.
The NY Times reports that Jennifer Lantzas, who coordinates public art projects for city parks, e-mailed Parks staff expressing her concern that "the image of the noose could be problematic for the borough."
Echoing the sentiment, Parks spokesman Sam Biederman told the paper via e-mail that Bell's project was rejected because its proposed site, near West 68th Street in Riverside Park, "is adjacent to an area regularly programmed with passive recreational activities such as yoga, Pilates and senior movement."
As first reported by West Side Rag, Bell alleged in May that the Model to Monument committee hadn't granted his requests to explain or defend his concept.
The Parks Department said at the time that all proposals had been reviewed by a departmental panel that included Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, and that works were subject to peer critique and revision. Factors that influenced the panel's decisions, they said, included safety and durability, as well as—quite broadly—general suitability.
In a partial reversal, Parks accepted a third version of the sculpture with no noose element—the one erected this week. Bell chose to depict a large mouth, instead, despite his reservations. "The mouth is simply a resolution to satisfy members of the Parks Department," he told the NY Times.
Parks spokesman Sam Biederman now says the department has approved a fourth version of the sculpture, with a bolder line through the noose.
"Earlier this week Mr. Bell approached us with a fourth version which included the noose with a diagonal line more clearly placed," Biederman wrote via e-mail. "Our art staff believed this final version (with the noose) depicted its message clearly and powerfully. It will be placed in the park in the coming weeks."
Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, who says he spoke with Bell last night, strongly denied that the agency’s issue was related to the size or placement of the line. "The Parks Department has had the noose with the slash design since February," he said. "The press department's repeated attempts to claim otherwise is shameful." Bell could not immediately be reached for comment.
The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter [PDF] to Commissioner Silver earlier this month, stating that his department's decision raised "serious first amendment concerns":
Art that expresses thoughts and ideas that are not to the taste of every single member of a community are nonetheless fully protected by the First Amendment. Aaron Bell’s work, which addresses the important issue of racially-motivated violence, does so through imagery that enjoys full constitutional protection—a protection that is not lessened by the possibility that the work and its message may make some viewers feel uncomfortable.
"NYC Parks is pleased to have come to an agreement with Mr. Bell, who shared with us a vision of his piece that suits the site and conveys its message clearly and powerfully," Beiderman stated.