The Fearless Girl statue won a unanimous vote this week by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to remain in her post across from the New York Stock Exchange, at least for the next three years. The Public Design Commission, which oversees the city's public art pieces, will now review the location and hold a hearing in 2022, a process that typically would have been done before the statue's installation — but with Fearless Girl, it's complicated.
When it first arrived in New York City in 2017, the statue came with a whiplash of reactions. At first, the small figure standing defiantly across from the Charging Bull — hands on hips, with a dress that almost looks like a cape — was applauded on Wall Street and worldwide as a symbol of women's empowerment and gender equality.
That was artist Kristen Visbal’s intention, but critics argued the statue was a tool of “fake corporate feminism,” presented as a one-week marketing stunt by multi-trillion asset management company State Street Global Advisors, which itself was called out for gender discrimination in the workplace.
With State Street's name attached, the piece had taken on a new identity as a reflection of companies emptily posturing around modern values while internally still operating by the good-old-boy playbook. And Visbal's attempts at moving Fearless Girl beyond that context have hit a serious roadblock.
"As long as State Street or anyone else uses the artwork as a brand, then she's not free," Visbal told Gothamist during a recent interview.
That sentiment is at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit filed by State Street in 2019 (to which Visbal has filed a counterclaim) and has been complicating matters in Lower Manhattan. Both Visbal and State Street are claiming they own certain rights to the work and want different outcomes.
Olivia Offner, a spokeswoman for State Street (which permanently vacated its New York City offices during the pandemic), told Gothamist the company was "pleased with the outcome" of Tuesday’s Landmarks vote and "will continue to work diligently with the City of New York to ensure she is permitted to remain."
But Visbal would like more than an extension and is pushing for Fearless Girl to become a permanent piece of public art in New York City, standing on its own and separated from its origins with State Street.
Since State Street owns the current statue, Visbal said she offered to donate a new casting to the city, which they could own. The city declined to comment or confirm the offer, but this would not be the first replica from Visbal. The New Yorker previously reported that the artist "made twenty-five editions of Fearless Girl and two artist’s proofs. She sold eight replicas, for up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars... [and] also sold more than a hundred miniature versions for about six thousand dollars each."
In 2019, Artnet shed some light on where some of these pieces landed: One went to "a real estate investor in Oslo, who installed the work in front of that city’s Grand Hotel, which he owns, as well as to Maurice Blackburn, which specializes in personal injury, class actions, and financial services."
State Street's lawsuit was filed after these sales were made. Since then, the NY Times reported that the artist "has already spent close to $2.75 million in legal fees." (Visbal said on Wednesday that number is now up to $2.85 million.)
With the Department of Transportation and other city agencies working directly with State Street, Visbal claims she had not been alerted of Fearless Girl's recently expiring permit. When she found out, she traveled to New York, most recently on Tuesday to hold a press conference in front of the NYSE. There, the artist was joined by representatives from women’s organizations and local officials.
"What the Fearless Girl represents to so many young girls is equivalent to what the Statue of Liberty represented to immigrants,” said City Council Member-elect Christopher Marte, who was among the group. “We need to make sure that this statue stays here, and not just temporarily, for the next three years — permanently. At this time when women's rights are being threatened in this country, we need to amplify more of this symbolism... not only in New York City but around the world.”
Visbal said that due to the ongoing lawsuit, she is unable to bring Fearless Girl statues to other countries.
Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group and a public art activist who is helping Visbal navigate this process, told Gothamist, "I specifically am concerned with the precedent of allowing a corporation to have long-term control of public art, especially artwork that it openly uses as advertising."
The original State Street plaque that was at Fearless Girl's feet is now gone, however, there is a nearby sign provided by the DOT with language that Visbal was not consulted on. It states, in part, that the statue is meant "to celebrate the importance of having great gender diversity on corporate boards and in company leadership positions."
Visbal disagrees with this narrow vision, and on Tuesday said that she worked with various women's organizations to determine the meaning of the statue.
"Fearless Girl officially stands in support of women in leadership positions, equality, equal pay, the education of women, education in the workplace for the prevention of prejudice, and the general well-being of women," she said, and is asking the city to place a plaque back at the statue's feet "that states exactly what she stands for."
While Landmarks has now paved a way for Fearless Girl to stay, and to remain under State Street's name, Mitch Schwartz, press secretary at the Mayor's Office, told Gothamist, "At this point, a determination on the statue’s future isn’t really possible until the new year" after the Public Design Commission's next meeting in January.
Fine told Gothamist, "It will only be removed from the current spot if the Public Design Commission rejects it ... It is hard to say what will happen at these commissions, but, in my view, the way that the city is treating the artist and stretching the law and precedents here won't help."