The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs has commissioned artist Vinnie Bagwell to create a public work to replace the Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, the nineteenth-century gynecologist who experimented on enslaved black women to achieve his medical breakthroughs.
After the city unanimously voted to take down the Sims monument in April 2018, the department put out an open call for a replacement sculpture. The four finalists were Bagwell, Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley. On Saturday, seven city-selected panelists voted 4-3 in favor of Leigh’s proposal, a bronze figure surrounded by holly hedges and flowers, titled After Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey, Henrietta, Laure, and Anonymous.
The decision to commission Leigh immediately provoked outcry from some local community members and activists from groups such as the Washington Street Advocacy Group and East Harlem Preservation, some of whom have advocated for the removal of the Sims statue since 2007. They said they felt the community had expressed overwhelming support for Bagwell’s proposed Victory Beyond Sims, a monumental, eighteen-foot angel.
“I believe the city’s process in a way is somewhat biased for famous contemporary artists who are often more abstract,” Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, told the Observer. “The city put people in the pool who had not expressed interest in the matter.”
Marina Ortiz, the founder of East Harlem Preservation, said: “We were blindsided . . . The whole point of the event was for the artists themselves to engage with the community, and the only artist that actually came was Vinnie Bagwell.” (Leigh, Mutu, and Wiley sent representatives or presented via video, while Bagwell presented in person.)
In response, Leigh withdrew her application, saying in a statement: “I greatly appreciate that my proposal was selected by the committee. However, I am aware that there is significant community sentiment for another proposal. Since this is a public monument in their neighborhood, I defer to them and have withdrawn my work.”
Noting that “African Americans have been tremendously marginalized in public art,” Bagwell said she hopes “to balance the narrative for marginalized people.” “The most important thing is that it’s public art, and it’s really important to engage the community and to keep them very much involved in the process,” she told Artnews. “In this instance, I am delighted because the community showed tremendous favor for my work, and that’s my goal.”