When Monument Lab curators Paul Farber and Ken Lum met at the University of Pennsylvania five years ago, they began discussing monuments. Lum was new to Philadelphia, working as a faculty member running the Fine Arts department at Penn. Farber had returned home to Philadelphia to teach in the Urban Studies program.
“We realized we were asking ourselves and our students pretty similar questions around what are the official histories that get represented in the city and what are the ones that are either left out of the story or actively pushed aside,” said Farber.
Fast forward to two months ago, and Philadelphia became an interactive playspace for artists and the public to discuss the proposed question: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”
Monument Lab, created in partnership with Mural Arts, took over the city for the past two months with 20 prototype monument installations spread out across the city, created by 20 different artists who focused on that proposed question.
“It’s just fascinating how artists reconcile different issues and then shine a light on a critical issue in a way that is unexpected,” Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden said. “Monument Lab did that, and I think that was what was so inspiring about it.”
Now, the city’s largest public art exhibition is officially over. Yesterday was the final day of the two-month project.
The future of the monuments
All of the pieces created for Monument Lab were meant to be temporary. But some of the work really resonated with Philadelphians, resulting in calls to make the installations permanent. One of those being Kaitlin Pomerantz’s On the Threshold (Salvaged Stoops, Philadelphia).
The monument is made up of salvaged stoops from demolished homes in Philadelphia, and represents the widespread demolition and construction the city is experiencing. Pomerantz explained that the stoop is the threshold between public and private, and that people seem to have felt at home while sitting on them in Washington Square Park.
“Starting on day one, I had someone come up to me and ask before they were even complete, ‘What can I do to get these to be permanent?’” said Pomerantz.
But the steps can’t stay in Washington Square. Independence National Historical Park, which oversees the nearby parks and monuments, said that although they were happy to have the stoops as a temporary exhibition, the maintenance and upkeep of the monument would be problematic. So the steps are headed to a handful of community institutions where, Pomerantz said, their next destinations will be determined.
Some of the other monuments have already been granted extensions. Hank Willis Thomas’ beloved All Power to All People afro pick monument in Thomas Paine Plaza, which sits just feet from the controversial Frank Rizzo statue, will be around through December. Two others will be up for about a year: Tyree Guyton’s THE TIMES at A and Indiana streets in Kensington, and Jamel Shabazz’s Love is the Message in Germantown’s Vernon Park.
The Future of the Data
Another critical piece of Monument Lab will be up through Dec. 10: more than 4,500 monument submissions — or data collected — that are on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, or the “central exhibition hub.”
Artists worked with the public through the exhibition at each monument site’s lab — those big, tan shipping containers you’ve probably seen— that invited people in to submit their very own monument proposals, as well as learn more about the installation at that site. Public proposals came in from people as young as 3 and as old as 91.
“In a show like this, which is utilizing both traditional art spaces and ones that are being kind of opened up or kind of prototyped, the idea is not to give creative license,” said Farber. “It’s to remind people that they have creative license already and to utilize those tools together in public spaces.”
This data set is vital to how Mural Arts hopes to implement new public art into Philadelphia. Although still in the planning stages, Golden said that soon, she, Farber and fellow staffer Caitlin Butler will meet to discuss their next steps.
In the coming months, a team of researchers will comb through the data to put together a report on their findings and present it to the city.
The findings will either be presented to city officials and policy makers behind closed doors, or during a public meeting inviting comment, Golden said. They’re hoping to have the report ready within the next six to eight months.
“It’s very important for all of us to make sure the data gets to people who are running the city,” Golden said. “It’s like a treasure trove of thinking around our civic landscape,” she said. “And that to me, is just an extraordinary asset to have.”