Baltimore’s four Confederate monuments eventually head to California.
Mayor Brandon Scott said he had approved a request to loan the statues for an exhibit at a Los Angeles museum called MONUMENTS, which is organized by an organization known as LAXART and is slated to open in fall 2023.
“We will send them,” he said. “All.”
The approval comes six months after Scott rejected LAXART’s request to borrow the statues, even though other cities had agreed to make theirs available.
The mayor said he initially had questions about the loan application, but his concerns were addressed.
“We had to work on some things, but we decided to do it,” he said.
Once the exhibit is over, the statues will return to Baltimore and the city will once again have to decide what to do with them, he said. “We’ll see what happens after that.”
Elizabeth Hughes, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, also agreed to the loan following a discussion with board trustees last month. Hughes’ approval was necessary because the Trust has a deed of easement that covers three of the four artworks.
The four monuments are the statue of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson in Wyman Park; Bolton Hill Soldiers and Sailors Monument; the Confederate Women’s Monument which stood near University Parkway and Charles Street, and the statue of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in Mount Vernon Place. Taney’s statue was controversial because he gave the majority opinion in the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford, denying citizenship to freed slaves in 1857.
The four statues were taken down nearly five years ago as part of a wave of removals of Confederate statues and other monuments from public property in US cities, following protests that they were symbols racism and should not be displayed on public property.
Then-Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the statues in Baltimore to be taken down in the middle of the night on August 16, 2017, after hearing that protesters might tear them down. She later said she wanted them removed from public view “quickly and quietly”, to avoid clashes.
All but the Taney statue are covered by a state easement that requires the city to maintain and preserve them and make them accessible to the public, and gives the Maryland Historical Trust authority to approve any proposed changes to their condition or their location. They are currently stored on city property out of public view.
More than 150 Confederate statues and monuments have been taken down across the country in recent years due to their racist associations.
The idea behind the LAXART exhibit is to display toppled Confederate monuments in juxtaposition with newly created artwork that “responds” to it and helps place the historical works in a larger context. This is the first exhibition that aims to bring together disused Confederate monuments and thus associate them with new works.
According to the LAXART website, the exhibition will be held at “LAXART and The Geffen Contemporary” at the high-profile Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and will be accompanied by a scholarly publication and a “robust slate of educational programs.
LAXART Director Hamza Walker co-curates the exhibition with renowned artist Kara Walker (no relation) and MOCA Senior Curator Bennett Simpson. Walker said last year he hoped to bring about 16 works to Los Angeles – “if we get all our wishes” – and then commission at least seven or eight new works for the exhibit. He said then that he was in talks with six or seven municipalities to borrow monuments plus two colleges, a museum and a family that owns a monument he would like to include in the exhibit.
Although based in Los Angeles, Walker has personal ties to Baltimore. He went to high school at the Polytechnic Institute of Baltimore and has family in Baltimore. He knew about the monuments and about Pugh’s decision to pull them down. He calls them “the Baltimore quartet”.
Walker said he wanted to display the Baltimore statues because he thinks they have an important story to tell.
“These are great examples” of works from the era, and each is different from the others, he said. “Taney, Stonewall and Lee are the known historical [figures]. Two of them are allegorical, which is interesting. There are historical reasons and historical reasons of art. These are excellent examples of the Confederate century.
As part of his effort to borrow statues for the exhibit, Walker told the mayor of at least one other city that Baltimore officials had agreed to make his monuments available when no arrangement had been finalized.
“As of today, we have confirmed that Baltimore will loan us the four landmarks they removed from the city in 2017,” he wrote in June 2021 to John Tecklenburg, the mayor of Charleston, SC In his letter, Walker said he was also looking for statues from Austin, Texas; Richmond, Virginia, and Durham, North Carolina
Walker and his associate, Hannah Burstein, said in an email message today that they were thrilled to have the Baltimore landmarks included in the exhibit.
“We are very grateful to Mayor Scott (and the Maryland Historical Trust) for agreeing to loan the four Baltimore landmarks that were removed in 2017,” they said. “The exhibition would not be possible without the support of municipal lenders who are ready to meaningfully engage with this hard-to-heal story and move forward.”
The Baltimore monuments are valuable additions to the exhibit because they “touch on many different aspects of the national conversation surrounding Confederate monuments,” they continued.
“Each is significant as an object of art, having been made by prominent artists of the time and providing entryways to talk about historical memory, the use of public space and the lost cause” – an interpretation of the American Civil War considered by historians to be a myth that attempts to preserve the honor of the South by presenting the Confederate defeat in the best possible light.
As of this month, they said, “we have nine confirmed lenders for the show and some, like Baltimore, are lending us more than one monument. We are still in negotiations with five other lenders. In total, we expect to have between 15 and 21 decommissioned monuments” in the exhibition.
Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for the Historic and Architectural Preservation of Baltimore, said Walker contacted the city after learning that Scott had declined his request to display the statues and asked the mayor to reconsider.
Holcomb said Walker’s correspondence was followed by another series of discussions involving LAXART, the mayor’s office, the city’s legal department and the Maryland Historical Trust, which led to an agreement this spring to send the landmarks in California. Holcomb said one of the mayor’s concerns was about the state easement and how it would affect a potential loan. He said LAXART has agreed to cover all costs of shipping the monuments to Los Angeles and insuring them, so no taxpayer funds will be involved.
Holcomb said city leaders understand the curators are highly valued, that their exposure could change the way people view race in America, and that it could be a positive exposure for Baltimore if it was part of the dialogue.
“This exhibit has the potential, the opportunity, to really move this country forward in these conversations about race that need to be done,” Holcomb said. “The mayor had a really good hunch, after hearing about the exhibit, to say, yes, Baltimore should be a part of it…Once he figured out that the bumps in the road were manageable to ride through, to so to speak, he thought it was a great idea.
Holcomb said the exposure of the exhibit could also help Baltimore find suitable permanent housing for the monuments. He said part of the story Baltimore can tell is the difficulty of finding suitable locations for the works that have been dismantled and the efforts Baltimore has made — efforts that have yet to be successful.
“We have this whole process in place,” he said. “We had sent standard letters to people interested in receiving these monuments. We called cemeteries with Confederate soldiers. We really tried. We had a list of about twenty interesting places. Some were like the Jefferson Davis home museum. We even got a letter of interest from the Ku Klux Klan… We wanted to know what their interpretation plan was, what their implementation plan was, how they were doing. [move them]. We wanted to make sure they had the right message.
When the four monuments return after being part of the Los Angeles exhibit, he said, “I hope they return with a different meaning – different meaning, different values.”
As works of art, aside from their role in celebrating certain individuals or groups, monuments are impressive, he said.
“These are probably the finest pieces of propaganda,” he said. “They are truly magnificent. If you see them on the ground, off their bases, walking around them, it’s a visceral experience. You just feel them in a different way.
It will be the second time since 2000 that Baltimoreans have sent a historic artifact to Los Angeles for public display. In 2002, the Archdiocese of Baltimore sent the original “cathedra,” or bishop’s throne, from the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore to be displayed inside a new cathedral in Los Angeles, the Cathedral Our Lady of the Angels. The purpose of sending the historic cathedra was to make a symbolic link between the first cathedral in America, that of Baltimore, and the most recent, that of Los Angeles. It was returned safely.