The Central Indiana Community Foundation announced today that it has terminated Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum project. The proposed sculpture, considered by some critics the most significant public art work proposed in America in many years, had long been on life-support.
Nota bene: I’ll add to this post as information becomes available. Update, 4:40pm ET: Wilson talks with MAN about CICF’s termination.
The backstory: In 2009 a CICF-funded Indianapolis civic organization and project called the Indianapolis Cultural Trail – a pedestrian/cycling path that connects far-flung Indianapolis neighborhoods – commissioned Wilson to create a public artwork. Wilson, who describes himself as being of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian descent,” proposed an artwork that took as its point of departure the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, a 30-story-tall, neo-classical enormity located at the geographic midpoint of Indianapolis. Designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz, it was erected in 1901-02. One of the figures on the memorial is an African-American man, apparently a former slave (as symbolized by his muscular, bare torso and by the way he is holding a recently broken chain and shackles). Indianapolis has the second-most public monuments of any American city, but according to Wilson this figure is the only African-American depicted in any of them.
Wilson’s proposed sculpture, titled E Pluribus Unum [rendering above via the ICT], would have reproduced that figure isolated and relocated it from its position on the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Wilson would also have removed the signifiers of human bondage, resulting in his literally and figuratively freeing the African-American figure from references to slavery. Into the figure’s outstretched arm, the arm that the figure uses to reach up toward the white man on the monument, Wilson would have placed a flag that celebrated the African Diaspora. Wilson’s sculpture would have been visible from the existing memorial, thus pointedly critiquing its paternalism.
This past summer, CICF and Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard announced that they would no longer support citing the sculpture there and the project entered several months of limbo. In the immediate wake of that decision, Wilson initially told MAN he was unsure of whether he was willing to move forward with the project at another site, but in late September he said he’d try to work with CICF on a new location.
“Indianapolis is crazy not to go ahead with it,” Los Angeles Times art critic and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Knight said in July. “Wilson is a first-rate artist. Not only is this one of the most provocative ideas he’s come up with, it’s one of the most compelling ideas for a public art project that I’ve encountered in a very long time.”
Since then, CICF held four community forums on the future of the project, forums that proved to be CICF’s way of distancing itself from the project: “[O]ver 90 percent of the participants requested that the project not move forward. This was consistent with the other public input that was received by CICF over the past 12 months,” the organization said in a press release.
The vast majority of the fault for the project’s demise goes to CICF, which has done the wrong thing at almost every opportunity. CICF initially pledged to hold community meetings about the project, then failed to do so for 11 months. The original purpose of those public forums was to foster dialogue about the Wilson project in an attempt to build community consensus around it, but by the time CICF fulfilled its promise, the meetings ended up being used by CICF as a separation mechanism. (Ironically, in its project-canceling press release, CICF said that its “decision came after the conclusion of a two-year community input process,” a period which was dominated by CICF not conducting the community input process it had promised.)
CICF’s delay in holding the promised meetings about the artwork allowed a small but vocal band of opponents to emerge in the summer of 2011, The ad hoc group that called itself ‘Citizens Against Slave Image,’ even though the person represented in Wilson’s sculpture was a free man. That group used racially inflammatory language and imagery and an abundance of outright falsehoods, including a shameful ‘slave wanted’-style poster, to oppose the project.
Worse, CICF repeatedly treated the artist poorly: Often Wilson learned what was going on about key details of his project from other people, including journalists.
“We are deeply disappointed that our city will not be able to experience the powerful demonstration of the intelligence, bravery, and leadership of one of this century’s most celebrated and important artists,” Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson said in a statement. “Fred Wilson’s concept was to make a compelling work for this place, at this time. It is our hope that one day, Indianapolis will have a great work by Fred Wilson.”
As of publication time, Wilson could not be reached for comment.
It remains to be seen if any work related to the project will remain in Indianapolis.
Related: MAN’s complete coverage of the Wilson project is available here.