Meetings of the City of Pittsburgh Art Commission are not known for heated debates. Attendees are much likelier to witness polite discussions of the architectural details of a new building, or how best to renovate a city park. But a pending debate may not only be fractious, but could concern the powers of the commission itself.
A tempestuous discussion already erupted at the commission’s August meeting, which was held online. Controversy was in the air: Commissioners would be hearing public comment on the city-owned statue of Christopher Columbus, in Schenley Park. The statue has stood for 62 years, but activists want it removed because of the famed Genovese navigator’s record of enslaving and brutalizing indigenous people.
A special public hearing is scheduled for Thu., Sept. 17. At August’s meeting, however, commissioners heard from the city’s law department, which they had asked to brief them on the process for deciding the monument’s fate. Three weeks prior, Commission chair Rob Indovina had asserted in a letter to Mayor Bill Peduto that according to the city code, authority over the removal, relocation or alteration of any city-owned public artwork rested with commissioners.
Some professed shock when assistant city solicitor Lorraine Mackler told them that while Peduto would likely follow the commission's recommendation, they were merely an advisory body.
“That’s news to me,” said Kilolo Luckett. Luckett was also on the commission in 2017, when it voted to remove the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland, which critics called racist; the statue was duly removed several months later. Luckett said at last month’s meeting that in October 2017, an assistant city solicitor told the commission that it had sole authority over artworks.
“The code hasn’t changed,” Luckett said. “This is clear as day.”
The code reads, in part, “Any work of art shall be removed, relocated or altered, in any way that may be ordered, by a vote passed, and approved in writing, by two-thirds (2/3) of all the members of the Commission, unless the work of art is attached to a portion of a building or other structure in process of demolition.” The ordinance on removing or relocating art does not mention the mayor.
Mackler, however, said that chapter of the city code must be read within the context of the mayor’s sweeping executive authority to handle city property as he wishes. Such a reading, she said, involved “very detailed rules of statutory interpretation,” including the parsing of Pennsylvania state law.
“It can get very arcane,” Mackler acknowledged.
At least some commissioners were unconvinced. “I would like to see where the mayor has the authority to make these decisions, and the art commission is an advisor,” said Luckett.
“You are making some things up here. This is so misleading,” she told Mackler.
Commissioners including Kary Arimoto-Mercer also objected to Mackler’s interpretation.
At one juncture, Mackler asked that commissioners who were questioning her via Zoom be muted so she could finish making a point.
“I’ve looked at this with laser focus,” Mackler said. But she declined to point out where in the code it explicitly said the mayor had the authority she claimed. (Peduto had also asserted he had final say in the matter in a letter to chairperson Indovina dated two days before the Aug. 26 meeting.)
During the meeting, Mackler repeatedly emphasized that the mayor appoints the commissioners – who are unpaid for their work -- and has the power to remove them at will. (Luckett contended that commission members can be removed only with the consent of City Council.)
Video of the meeting is archived on the city Planning Commission’s YouTube channel; discussion of the Columbus statue starts at about 1:14:20.
After 45 minutes of back-and-forth with Mackler, the commission moved to public comment without resolving the issue. But a former assistant city solicitor told WESA the commission’s interpretation of the city code is the correct one.
“The authority for the replacement and removal of public art in the public realm rests with the art commission, according to chapter 175 of the city’s law,” said Daniel Friedson, who left the law department in October, after nearly five years on the job.
Friedson, now in private practice, is well-versed in city codes governing commissions. For most of his tenure with the city, he said, conflict-of-interest rules prohibited him from working with the art commission on public-art projects because his wife worked for the city’s Office of Public Art. But he said he continued working with the commission, mostly on placement of telecommunications antennae.
He said Mackler’s interpretation was “not a careful reading of the law.”
“The whole point of these commissions is for public process to have a platform,” Friedson said. “What kind of message does it send to the taxpayers to say this public forum is really a farce, and the ultimate decision is made by the mayor, even though [attorneys for the city] can’t point to a law that says that? That is an abuse of power.”
The statue, by Italian-born sculptor Frank Vittor, was erected in 1958 and is one of thousands of Columbus monuments in the U.S. Calls to remove Pittsburgh’s statue date at least to the 1990s. In recent months, more than a dozen cities have removed Columbus monuments amid widespread racial-justice protests. Several more have been torn down or defaced by protesters.
At the Art Commission’s August meeting, 27 people commented on the statue. About two-thirds favored removal. Commission staff said that among people who had submitted written comments, 162 opposed removal, while 132 favored it.
At least two petitions concerning the statue are currently active on change.org. One to keep the statue has about 1,560 signatures. One to remove the statue has more than 14,100.
This week’s special public hearing is a standard part of the Art Commission’s process on whether to remove, relocate or alter public art. Participants can watch the YouTube Live stream, or comment via Zoom.
Commissioners will discuss the Columbus statue after the public hearing at their regular monthly meeting, Sept. 23.