After five Portland monuments were toppled in 2020, some city and community leaders called for a robust public engagement process before any decisions were made about their reinstatement.
The city partnered with Lewis & Clark College late last year to determine what that public engagement process would look like. A committee of artists, educators, urban planners and public historians has been meeting for the last six months to explore how community members can navigate the complicated history the monuments represent. They recently presented a report to the city with their recommendations, which include public talks, arts programming, walking tours and an archive.
Jess Perlitz is an associate professor and head of sculpture at Lewis & Clark College. She led the Monument Engagement Process Committee and joins us with more details on its recommendations.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. In the cataclysms of 2020, five Portland monuments were either toppled or removed. They included the statues of three US presidents and a former editor of the Oregonian, along with a statue commemorating settlers who arrived on the Oregon Trail. Late last year, the city convened a group of artists, educators, urban planners, and historians to help come up with a way to approach public monuments going forward. After six months of work, the committee presented a report to the City Council last week. They are calling for a new paradigm, one that starts with deep and sustained public engagement. Jess Perlitz is an associate professor and head of sculpture at Lewis & Clark College. She led the Monument Engagement Process Committee and she joins us now with more details. Welcome back to the show.
Jess Perlitz: Thank you, it’s an honor to be here.
Miller: It’s great to have you on again. So just to be clear, was the city asking your committee to make specific recommendations about what should happen with these particular statues, what should happen to Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln? Or were they asking you to do something else?
Perlitz: Yeah, I think that’s an important clarification. The report was really about how to engage with the question of these monuments, not only the five that came down, but also just the question of monuments in general in our city, both now and in the future. The task of the committee was really to think about how we can engage with these monuments, the specific monuments and monuments more generally, with the hopes that eventually a decision could be made. But those decisions were in no way the task of the committee.
Miller: Would you have taken part if the job were, what should we do with these five statues, should we replace them as is, should we do something else? Would you have accepted that?
Perlitz: I think that if there had been deep public engagement work and it was a robust committee of various people, I might consider it. But this task at hand was, I have to say, infinitely more interesting to me, because it felt to me it was about setting up the playing field or thinking about the landscape in which those decisions eventually have to be made.
Miller: It barely even needs to be said here, but this task for your committee was not done in a vacuum. It comes at a time when all across the country, cities and states and institutions are dealing with this exact same question: what should we do with problematic monuments, and how do we think about new monuments going forward? What were some of the best practices, recent or otherwise, that you looked at for inspiration or emulation?
Perlitz: I think that that was the really important starting point for us, and for us to remind folks who also were concerned about the state of monuments here, was that we are not alone. There’s very specific histories and nuances that are particular to Portland, Oregon. But really across the country this was happening. There were some unprecedented times that are the summer of 2020 that spurred this on that sort of opened up some incredible opportunities. But also that the history of monuments being taken down as they are tied to power and political change has really been happening forever in our history.
So when we looked at what other cities were doing around the nation following the summer of 2020 as monuments across the country became flashpoints for the broader discussions that were wanting to be had, we saw quite clearly that it was cities where they could embrace public engagement as something that needed to happen over time, not hurried. And ones that they were able to approach without a sort of understood outcome, where it was about exploring the questions rather than immediately trying to seek the answers, were the ones that seem to be most successful. We had some really concrete examples too of this unprecedented moment of the summer of 2020, where you could look at somewhere like New York where prior to the summer of 2020 they were able to convene committees of experts that could make these decisions in a matter of three months. But now we are realizing, not only that this is infinitely more complicated, but also that it’s a real opportunity.
And so everybody sort of following that summer has sort of started to embrace or tried to embrace a broader timeline. Or at least the cities and municipalities that were doing that seem to be having a much richer kind of public engagement and conversation. And then there were even cities where they were able to form funded art projects or initiatives out of it that hopefully will continue for years to come. So that’s what we found to be the most sort of successful model that we felt was important for Portland, and Portland actually has the capacity to do, we believe.
Miller: What about the opposite? Sometimes negative examples can also be helpful. What are mistakes that you think Portland can avoid?
Perlitz: Some of the mistakes I think we’ve seen it in other situations in history, it’s just where you incorporate a kind of public opportunity for public feedback or dialogue, but really it’s a moment for folks just to get their voice on record, and then yet still a group is gonna be convened and a vote is gonna happen and a decision is gonna be made. So in a way that those voices gathered or their opinions taken in are sort of used then to document that people had an opportunity to say something, but in actual effect it doesn’t change the vote, or the committee that’s brought to the table.
Miller: I’m glad you brought it up that way, because I’ve often wondered, we happen to be talking here about this important question about monuments, but you could easily see the version of public comment that you just described as maybe happening all the time in terms of legislation, whether at the city level, at the state level, or the federal level. I sometimes think about that scene at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when after all the adventure, this thing just gets put in a box and you know, stacked away in this gigantic archive. It sometimes feels from the outside like that’s what happens with public comment. But how are we to know that public comments aren’t being treated that way? Where is the evidence that something has actually been listened to from the public’s point of view?
Perlitz: It’s a good question. The way that this report was framed in terms of the public engagement was a sort of more creative approach than is typically used, but what we’re also finding is one that, across the country, that cities are trying to embrace, which is really using art as a tool for being able to have those conversations. And ideally, our recommendations were that there are things like walking tours and scavenger hunts, art programming, public talks and conversations in an archive. But even that recommendation of an archive is not as some kind of static document, but in fact that something that is used in order to gather oral histories, various documents, and for that in and of itself to then be used for programming as a pedagogical resource for teachers to be teaching from. And it’s something that’s sort of ever tumbling along and growing, a kind of a more dynamic approach to thinking about what an archive is and can be.
Miller: And that “dynamic” word seems important here, because the various versions of public engagement that you’re talking about, they all in different ways seem more active than someone providing spoken or written testimony to a bunch of bureaucrats. It seems like the act itself, in at least your intention, is that the act of taking part in this process will feel more meaningful for members of the public who do it.
Perlitz: Totally. That, I hope, is the exciting part of this, that we really approached it thinking about conflict transformation rather than resolution-
Miller: What’s the difference in those two: conflict transformation as opposed to resolution?
Perlitz: This is a moment where there are lots of polarized opinions. And in the end when a decision gets made, if some of these monuments are put back, if they aren’t, there are always gonna be people that are very unhappy with that ultimate decision. The hope was to transform how that conflict plays out, that if we seek to try and resolve the conflicts that are sort of leading to these monuments having come down in the first place, we’re gonna get nowhere.
But if we think about using that conflict as a way to actually dig in, to engage, to start being able to hold complicated conversations and conflict in the public spheres and to use that as a way to propel these conversations and this kind of public engagement, there’s a hope that that transforms the landscape, the playing field in which this is happening. Because what we saw was that, if we’re thinking about these specific monuments, is that they become these flashpoints, that they’re holding much more than what they actually are. They are the powerful symbols that monuments become. And the the hope is that if we can do this deep public engagement, that it transforms how that conflict plays out, that if people are given opportunities to engage in ways that are really creative, that become things in and of themselves, that maybe there’s room for if those monuments go back, that there’s a feeling that there’s a robust enough conversation happening that that we can sort of transform how those monuments have become the apex of the conflict, and locate it sort of elsewhere. That was the desire, or the thinking about transformation rather than resolution.
Miller: I’m curious, since we’re talking about how the city should proceed going forward, what can you tell us about the kind of process, or lack of process, that there was before the installation of the sculptures or monuments that led to this? I’m thinking first of all about the Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Harvey Scott statues. What did the city of Portland do before those were put up? And to what extent was there Portlander engagement?
Perlitz: I think there has been Portlander engagement in various levels, sometimes not at all. Sometimes there have been committees that have made recommendations that have or have not been listened to. I think one of the things that we can see clearly from this is that there has not been a consistent approach for how these things go up in our public spaces, and that this moment really called for a real renovation of how that plays out.
And also, you can see quite clearly that in these moments where the people have not felt like they have been able to have a vote or been listened to, that these monuments become quite problematic quite quickly. The truth is that this moment when all of these monuments came down, it was people also asking for us to think about how these things hold our values, and what kind of narratives they represent. I don’t know that, in this moment, how the city had actually put them up would have affected that.
I think what’s being called for right now, it’s an exciting moment, it’s around thinking about how these public monuments, these things that are located in our public spheres, can be activators, be more dynamic than they actually have been. It’s a moment where we can think about if some of these monuments go back, what goes up with them or next to them that keeps that history sort of as something much more actively engaged.
Miller: Is part of the problem here just the question of time? I guess I’m wondering how you feel about the notion of term limits or expiration dates, or at least maybe renewal dates on monuments, some mechanism that says after 25 years, a group of engaged citizens, representative members of the community, can get together again and talk about whether or not a monument still feels relevant to them. How would you feel about a mechanism like that?
Perlitz: I think it’s great. I always hesitate when it’s around a very prescriptive sort of timeline. I do think though that the idea that we can always be using these monuments to sort of revisit, does this still matter, and in what way, and what has changed, I think it’s really important. I think my hope coming out of this moment for our city, for cities across the country, is that there can be some mechanisms in place, and that we can be less afraid of actually having those conversations, that we can use them for a kind of robust public engagement, super creative programming that really sparks a kind of civic engagement that I think a lot of people are hungry for. And that maybe those monuments stay, maybe they change, maybe something augments them, maybe they come down. But regardless, there’s a way in which the histories are honored through that, and that we allow for change. And that sometimes the change is through the actual monument itself, and sometimes that changes through the ways we have the conversations or how we unpack or uncover those histories that they hold.
Miller: The sense I got from public comments at the City Council meeting where you presented your recommendations is that there are a lot of people who might not want to hear that our founding fathers, for example, were imperfect. I also think it might be hard to change the mind of people who took chains and rope and a blowtorch and red paint to Teddy Roosevelt, to his statue I should say. And you touched on this a little bit when you were talking about the transformation of conflict as opposed to solving conflicts. But what’s a realistic best case scenario in your mind in terms of how members of the public, who in the end are likely to feel very differently about specific figures, what will go through their minds when they walk by a future statue?
Perlitz: I know, it’s so hard. I guess my hope is that if we do a deep public engagement process, and that we have these mechanisms in place, people have felt like their voices are heard and continue to be heard. So in some way, in some way these monuments are forever changed now. How can we honor this call for conversation? It’s very simplistic, but from the beginning, our team really felt like, across totally vast political divides, the thing we can all agree [on] is that history matters. And is there a way that we can do some deep public engagement work that can allow for us to continue to have these differing opinions and to hold that kind of conflict? I just don’t think we’re that practiced at it. This is one of the profound ways that art can function as a tool for civic society, and I wonder if this can start to help us build some of those muscles to be able to hold that conflict.
I think that archive, or the interpretation of this moment becomes really important, so that if those monuments go up or if they come down, that in some way we are not forgetting about this moment, and these conversations that we’re trying to have, so that there is a way in which if they are up, they can sort of lead us to those conversations, whether it’s through plaques or interpretation or an ongoing program. And if they are down, where we are also similarly trying to remember where they were and why this was so hard.
Miller: Largely, what we’ve been focusing on in this conversation, in addition to robust public engagement, is the who or the what of the memorial, who should be more memorialized or what? But I’m curious about the ways that you think about the how, given that you are a professor of sculpture. What new forms monuments could take that could actually in their own way change this conversation?
Perlitz: Yeah, I think that’s what I was sort of inferring around the tool of art in this moment, that art is a really a nice thing for us to turn to as a facilitator in this moment. There’s no decided definition of even what a monument is, but we do know that there are these markers, and that they hold pride and they hold remembrance and things that are important. And we also know that they hold coerced power and really particular values and complicated narratives. And in this moment where we’re trying to think about how do we activate them, how do we keep them as dynamic as a way to talk about both sides of that, there is room for us to be thinking about the process by which these things go up as being part of it. And I think art really lends itself towards that, where the discipline of art really allows us to ask questions where we don’t necessarily have answers. And it also, in many situations, allows us to think about the process rather than the product. And there is a whole movement in contemporary art of rethinking the monument that does just that, that tries to think about the process, the context, the materials, the permanency, all as, in a way, a part of the making.
Miller: Is that likely to mean in the end fewer equestrian statues and busts, models that have been with us literally for thousands of years?
Perlitz: Yeah. Literally thousands of years, things change. Before those there was something else. And as we see things change, I think we will still know and learn from those busts and those folks on horses. There’s not a way that they disappear completely, right? It is an important part of the history. Yeah, I do think it’s changing. I think if we look at the way contemporary monument work is playing out, it’s absolutely very different. But in many ways, it’s also directly in conversation with that history, it comes out of that history, why people are trying to push or pull and take different approaches to how we make these markers.
Miller: Jess Perlitz, thanks very much for your time today. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Perlitz: Thank you so much.
Miller: Jess Perlitz was the leader of Portland’s Monuments and Memorials Project. It’s the committee the city of Portland convened to give them suggestions of how to engage the public in this big question about current and future monuments. She is an associate professor and head sculpture at Lewis & Clark College.
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