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RIT Seeks Grant That Would Put Public Art in Historical Context

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

The statues of Frederick Douglass throughout Rochester are an example of public art in a historical context. Sculptor Olivia Kim, who led the Douglass project, is part of a team at RIT working on a proposal for a national grant that could reshape public art in the city. File photo

The Rochester Institute of Technology plans to apply for a grant that — if awarded — could reshape the city’s public art and public spaces by creating works or placing existing ones in the context of racial and social equity.

A team of professors is developing a survey for local organizations, leaders, neighborhood groups and individuals to gauge their thoughts on what types of monuments and art should be created and where it should be placed.

RIT is seeking to be part of the Monuments Project, a five-year, $250 million commitment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project was announced in October 2020 to support efforts to tell the stories of people or groups “who have often been denied historical recognition,” according to the Mellon Foundation. Information is at mellon.org/initiatives/monuments/

The grants will support “far-sighted, creative, conversation-shaping work” that will spur a new way of telling history.

Grants will fund new monuments, memorials, or historic storytelling spaces; provide context for existing monuments or memorials; or move existing monuments or memorials.

“… (M)any monuments stand at the center of an impassioned national conversation about race and power,” according to the Mellon Foundation.

The foundation already has awarded $4 million to Monument Lab in Philadelphia. The independent public art and research studio works with artists, activists, and community leaders across the country to re-envision public spaces through stories of social justice and equity.

The work at RIT is in its early stages, according to spokesman Bob Finnerty.

“We’re in the exploratory phases of looking at this and working with community groups to see what they would like to do,” he said. “We’re putting together a group of professors who have history and arts backgrounds and we’re looking at this from a multidisciplinary perspective and what we can do to work with the neighborhoods and communities to do this.”

He described the status at this point as the professors doing their homework.

As part of the assignment they’ve given themselves, sculptor and RIT professor Olivia Kim has sent an email to several people, which they’ve forwarded to others and is beginning to circulate among neighborhood organizations.

Kim said the RIT team is working on a more thorough survey. The starting point is the following set of questions:

  • Where do you think a public monument or memorial should be placed?
  • What kind of monument or gathering space would you like to see?  (Your answer can also include usage of technology, such as QR codes and virtual reality.)
  • Are there specific people or groups of people who you would like represented?
  • Are there specific themes or ideas that need to be expressed or shared in the form of public art?  Consider how your choices can affect future communities.
  • Is there a public memorial or monument that should be moved or recontextualized? Example, moved to a museum as opposed to being displayed in the community.\
  • Are you already spearheading a project? Please specify when you began your project, who is involved and at what point you are at in the process of accomplishing it. 

Kim is well-known for her work on the Frederick Douglass sculpture project, which placed monuments of the abolitionist throughout the city.

Kim has posted a video on her YouTube channel that doesn’t name the Monuments Project but asks, “Do you want new monuments?”

She says monuments and memorials honor the people and stories and “help communities remember their dreams of a bigger vision so future generations and continue that pathway forward.”

In that context, she asks, “What wisdom do you want to pass along to younger generations? …… It is our responsibility to clarify the past and shape the present and the future. ”

The narration is over a backdrop of sculptures and murals in the city and around the world.

The Rev. Julius Jackson, who has been associated with Kim in projects about Douglass, is supporting her and RIT’s work on the Monuments Project.

He said he was inspired by Andrew Young, who was at the groundbreaking for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial said, “keep turning the dirt” in the quest to create space for memorials that provide historical context.

“I’m encouraging others to do the same,” Jackson said. “You’re turning the dirt on that which has been buried, meaning history.”