Heated but peaceful crowd at first hearing on public art focuses on Castleman

The John Breckinridge Castleman statue in Cherokee Triangle, the morning after it was vandalized with paint in August. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Wednesday night, Mayor Greg Fischer’s Commission on Public Art met in the Old Jail Auditorium to discuss “pieces in its inventory that can be interpreted as honoring discrimination, racism, bigotry or slavery,” according to statements released by Louisville Metro and echoed by Anna Tatman, the current COPA chair.

Approximately 80 people attended the meeting. All the public art in Louisville — hundreds of pieces — was up for discussion, but of the 31 speakers, all but two spoke about the recent controversy surrounding the John B. Castleman Monument. The other two spoke about the need for more statues honoring women, and the statue of George Dennison Prentice, which is currently located in front of the Louisville Free Public Library.

Tatman and Sarah Lindgren, Louisville Metro’s public art administrator, each offered opening statements stressing several key facts including that COPA would not be taking any decisive action or a vote that evening, and that the meeting’s primary goal was to hear statements from the public. They also mentioned that online comments had been gathered and released, and that the comment page was still open.

Tatman also stressed the meeting was not focused on other contentious public issues such as the names of streets or buildings.

Castleman was a Confederate Civil War veteran, who was eventually pardoned and served in the U.S. military during the Spanish American War before settling down in Louisville. He served on the parks commission, and is credited with creating the Olmstead Parks and also with segregating them, though the veracity, details, and meaning of those facts remain disputed.

The facts of this history — Castleman’s actions and character after the war as well as the severity of his treason and violence during the war — were the topic of many speakers, including the first several people at the podium.

After the events in Charlottesville, Va., the Castleman monument was vandalized and became a lighting rod for discussion in news media and social media.

The first speaker, James Pritchard, spoke in support of the monument, calling those who protested against the statue “people with a good mission who are misinformed and misguided.”

Pritchard went on to assert that not only was the Castleman Monument, not a Confederate statue, but praised Castleman as a hero of the post-Civil War Louisville:

“I find it strange that a man who — after the Civil War — dedicated his life to the community, a man who attempted to heal the wounds of war, and a man who dedicated himself to racial harmony in this city, might be disrespected as a racist. He was a bridge between the enlightened paternalists who we all respect as the founding fathers, and the heroes of the civil rights movement.”

Pritchard’s statements typified the majority of comments in favor of leaving the statue unchanged; Castleman was flawed but ultimately good, to be praised for his postwar behavior, that the Castleman Monument isn’t actually Confederate, but monuments that are should be removed from public.

Throughout this first round of speakers, the audience sat in tense but respectful silence.

With the eighth speaker, local author and historian, Emily Bingham, the tenor of the meeting changed.

Emily Bingham | Photo by Leslie Lyons

“Monuments are not history. Changes to them do not change history or the past. They are expressions of power from the society that erected them,” Bingham said.

She was the first of several speakers to address the power struggles in the early 20th century, discussing the implementation of Jim Crow Laws, and other efforts of post-Civil War Confederate sympathizers to enact racist and discriminatory laws. She also discussed what she categorized as racist elements in Castleman’s own biography:

“Castleman joined the late 19th-century movement to reunite the country, so long as northerners recognized Jim Crow practices and the folly of implementing racial equality…he joked in his autobiography about a slave who regretted buying his own freedom, begging to go back into bondage.”

Bingham finished with the meeting’s first suggested plan of action, referencing the contributions Castleman made in equestrian society:

“Perhaps he and his mare, Carolina, can find a home where horses are honored, at the Kentucky Horse Park.”

Maybe it was the quality of her speech — she is a professional writer and speaker — or the fact that she had voiced the first opinion in support of removing the statue, but at the conclusion of her remarks, a number of the meeting’s attendees broke into applause.

Thereafter, most speakers, either for or against the removal of the statue for various reasons, were also treated to applause, and even occasional hisses and boos from the audience.

Several veterans spoke, including Aaron Spalding, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant and veteran of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In both those countries, me and my brothers and sisters fought to restore democracy to foreign nations and foreign peoples…. and I’m here to honor John Castleman, one of my brothers and fellow veteran who fought for democracy during the Spanish-American War.”

A solid but not overwhelming majority of the speakers seemed to favor keeping the statue in place, either saying that it was not a Confederate statue, that is was beautiful art, or that the city must not erase history, but as the meeting continued, more attendees began to speak against the statue remaining in public.

The audience became more vocal and divisive until a quick scrum in the audience nearly broke out when a man in a brown suit and blue shirt reached over and across two rows of seats in an attempt to physically stop heckling from statue removal supporter Donny Greene.

The man in the suit —whose identity could not be confirmed — was gently restrained by the people around him, and after a few terse words not audible to the audience at large, returned to his seat, departing with a few other attendees shortly thereafter.

Greene asserted after the meeting that the man in the suit had offered to step outside and fight him.

While the audience remained vocal after this incident, they seemed to calm somewhat.

COPA’s first public art meeting | Photo by Eli Keel

After remarks concluded, there was a brief recess, and the commission returned to share their thoughts and remarks on what they had heard, as well as discuss next steps with the attendees.

Commission members present included Tatman; Bob Marino, founder and CEO of Soniram LLC; Christopher Reitz, assistant professor of UofL’s critical and curatorial studies and gallery director of Hite Art Institute; Cathy Shannon, co-owner of E&S Gallery; Glen Stuckel, District-17 Metro Councilman; and Shannon Westerman, art, commerce and education consultant.

Most commissioners spoke about continuing the conversation, suggesting that a definition of terms related to the discussion and criteria for “art” be established to help promote a successful public dialogue.

The only commissioner to speak directly against the statue was Cathy Shannon, the only African-American member, and one of only a handful of people of color at the meeting, which was predominantly Caucasian and older residents.

“From my perspective, it was hard to hear this monument being glorified. I appreciate Mayor Fischer even being willing to visit the idea of taking down these monuments, because they are atrocious for many people. They monuments represent the worst time in this country, and it is time to move them.

“I don’t think there was this kind of debate when these… pieces of metal, it’s hard to even call them artwork, were created. If it’s about the artwork, I think we have a lot of talented sculptors out there that can create a man on a horse.”

Further meetings will be announced in the coming weeks, with a focus on alternate times and locations to make them accessible to a diverse group of people. For details, to peruse other public art, or to offer comment, visit the COPA website.