Rethinking how public art portrays history in Portland


City is flagging monuments that no longer align with the city's values

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) —  As monuments and statues become targets of vandalism and criticism around the country, conversations are being sparked even here at home. ​

The City of Portland is currently putting a lot of consideration into every piece of public art in Portland right now. ​At Jefferson High School, for instance, is where a statue of Thomas Jefferson once stood before protesters tore it down. Jefferson is one of the founding fathers who owned hundreds of slaves in his lifetime and wrote books including explicitly racist assessments of his beliefs of the biological differences between blacks and whites. ​

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited national and local conversations around public art and what it conveys. ​The city and Regional Arts and Culture Council are extensively reviewing Portland’s public art collection.​

They’re flagging monuments to remove that no longer align with the city’s values. Public Art Director Kristin Calhoun says as we evolve as people, our knowledge of the world evolves too. ​

“I think it recognizes who we glorify, but it also recognizes who was left out of the conversation and who wasn’t reflected in the conversation,” Calhoun said. “I think those are also important things to consider.​”

In addition to larger racial issues for flagging monuments, another part of the evaluation process for removing a statue, she said, is public safety.

“We have to make sure that if it feels like a sculpture is going to fall or that somebody could drag it into the street, that’s not a good thing,” she said. “We definitely have to factor that in.” 

Calhoun encourages people to learn more about our true American history versus how it’s been portrayed.​

“I would just say for people to really look hard and think hard and continue to do their own research about how history is represented, how history has been represented and how we share the conversation with the entire community,” she said.​

She also says the uniqueness of this moment in our history shows the power of art in how we communicate — that’s why taking this action is so important. ​

The City of Portland recently adopted anti-racist statements.​ They and the art council are using this, along with input from community partners, to help evaluate which statues to remove.​

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