CHICAGO — Late last month Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she “fully expects” to return a controversial statue of Christopher Columbus to its former pedestal in Grant Park.
That was concerning news to members of the mayor’s committee reviewing Chicago monuments, emails obtained by the Chicago Tribune show.
University of Illinois at Chicago art history professor Lisa Lee sent an email to the committee and city officials on March 29, saying she “was surprised/astounded/perplexed/flummoxed/distraught by the Mayor’s comments about the Columbus statue ... and I am wondering if you might be able to give us an update about the status of the report or any other insights if possible?”
She was followed by Northwestern University art professor Michael Rakowitz, who said he wanted to be recused from the report because he wasn’t able to participate much but echoed Lee’s concerns.
“It’s great to know the draft report is ready. However, if the Mayor moves forward and reinstalls the Columbus statue, it seems to me that she is making that decision unilaterally, yet our names as a committee will inevitably be attached to that decision,” Rakowitz wrote. “While I have not been present for the conversations with communities, I cannot imagine that this is what we would have decided as a committee. In my view, this is not OK in terms of process and reduces our ‘report’ to a symbolic illusion of process.”
Artist Amanda Williams echoed their concerns “regarding the integrity of this committee’s process in relation to recent news stories regarding the status of the Columbus statue(s).”
Sources with knowledge of the committee’s work told the Tribune it will not recommend Columbus statues’ return.
Lightfoot’s office released a statement Thursday saying the city’s “efforts throughout this process have not been about a single statue or mural, but about creating a formal process that will reflect our values and elevate our rich history and diversity.”
Asked about the frustrations in the email thread, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events acknowledged that “this has been a long and often difficult conversation, but the advisory committee and public should rest assured that their hard and sincere work is meaningful and in no way ‘symbolic.’ ”
The city is “in the final stages of evaluating recommendations about current and future monuments,” the spokesperson’s statement read. It did not address the committee’s recommendation about Columbus statues.
Lightfoot ordered Columbus statues removed from Grant Park, Little Italy and South Chicago in summer 2020 after a clash between protesters and police injured numerous officers and demonstrators, placing the city at the center of a broader national debate over controversial monuments.
Amid unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Lightfoot formed a committee to conduct a broad review of monuments as part of what she called “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”
That committee’s work has been repeatedly delayed, but a draft report is now complete, the emails show. Its work could present Lightfoot with fraught choices. Part of the commission’s work involved making recommendations for new exhibits, but it also focused on identifying monuments for potential removal.
The committee still hasn’t made its findings public, but Northwest Side Alderman Nick Sposato, 38th, who also was a member of the group, said he doesn’t agree with its recommendations about Columbus.
“History is history, good, bad or indifferent,” Sposato said.
Lightfoot’s handling of the Columbus statues has generated criticism from all sides. Comparing the debate over Columbus statues to those about Confederate Army monuments being removed in other cities, Lightfoot initially resisted calls to take down the monuments and said she favors acting “to not try to erase history, but to embrace it full-on.”
But she ordered the removals after unrest at Grant Park in July 2020, leading to criticism from Columbus supporters who believe she caved to mob rule. At the time, Lightfoot said the statues’ removal would be “temporary,” though the possibility of bringing the massive statue in Grant Park back raises public safety concerns as it could again become a battleground.
Erin Harkey, Chicago’s commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, responded to the concern expressed by committee members with an attempt to reassure them — and a plea.
“Staff has been in this with you, and we have worked hard to ensure that this process was fair and transparent. Please allow us an opportunity to share the report that we’ve drafted; we believe that it achieves the goals that this committee set out with,” Harkey wrote. “It will be our job, with your support, to advocate for and implement the recommendations outlined in the report. We’re deeply committed to doing that.”
One member of the committee, Alaka Wali, Field Museum curator of North American anthropology, told the Tribune that the concerns raised by others on the email thread were broadly held. But, Wali said, “the committee did a very good job of considering the topic of what to do with the statues and took the time to listen to many Chicagoans in public forums and through feedback on the website.”
“The report, with our recommendations, will reflect these deliberations,” Wali wrote in an email. “Personally, I am more optimistic that the Department of Cultural Affairs is also supporting new public art that broadens the ways in which the city recognizes and celebrates the achievements — collective and individual — of so many people of more recent history!”
Rakowitz, one of the professors who raised concerns, said he thinks the Columbus statues send a negative message to Indigenous people that a man who enslaved and killed many people deserves to be honored.
“That to me is cruelty, not controversy,” Rakowitz said in an interview.
Even before the unrest sparked by Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, cities around the country were grappling with controversies over monuments that celebrate Columbus, Confederate leaders and other historical figures. Some have been marked with graffiti. Others have been pulled down.
Activists have urged that public art do a better job of representing a broad spectrum of American life, something Lightfoot said the Chicago effort will accomplish.
“The Chicago Public Art Guide,” a 96-page survey by the cultural affairs department that was last updated in 2014, shows more artwork celebrating mythical women than real women. People of color are broadly underrepresented, too, in the city’s public art.
In addition to inspiring a thorny debate over public monuments and history in Chicago, Lightfoot’s handling of the Columbus statues has inspired two lawsuits.
Former Park District attorney George Smyrniotis filed the lawsuit against the city last month alleging that Lightfoot blocked a deal the district made with an Italian American group to allow a Columbus statue to be displayed in a parade. The suit also claims Lightfoot made obscene remarks aimed at government lawyers during a contentious meeting.
“Get that f------ statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint.
Lightfoot also allegedly made obscene comments to Smyrniotis and the Park District’s former general counsel, according to the lawsuit, which alleges she called them “d----” and asked, “What the f--- were you thinking?”
“You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians. ... You are out there stroking your d---- over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint. “My d--- is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d--- in Chicago.”
Lightfoot has broadly blasted the complaint as “wholly lacking in merit” and called his claims “ridiculous.”
At the same time, the city and Park District are defending a lawsuit filed last July by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans asserting that the removal of a Columbus statue in Little Italy violated a deal signed in 1973 to keep the monument on display.