Charleston History Commissioners Concerned Over Loan Request For Calhoun Statue
The Charleston History Commission on Wednesday voted to wait for more information before making a decision on a request by Los Angeles museum curators to borrow the John C. Calhoun statue for an exhibit featuring similar figures which were monuments until recent years.
Commissioners expressed concerns during the nearly two-hour virtual session Encounter that the Calhoun monument could be used to put Charleston in a bad light or as part of a politically charged collection.
Curators at LAXART, an arts group based in Los Angeles, are looking for monuments like Calhoun – figures from the South and Confederates – to install as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA alongside works by current artists . In a presentation on tentative plans for the 2023 exhibit, LAXART co-curator Hamza Walker said organizers have secured engagements for statues from Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Bradenton, Florida; and look at numbers in North Carolina and Virginia. Walker said a scholarly writing component would also be developed under the project.
“The aim of the project is to mark what is a historic moment … a moment when we realize that we are living through history,” Walker said in a 30-minute presentation to members of the Commission on the history, including incumbent Councilor Harry Griffin.
The intention of the exhibit, Walker said, was not to drag someone alive or dead through the mud.
“This is not at all an exercise in shaming someone who is not at all what this exhibition is about the thing furthest from our mind,” he said. “It’s a good time to learn. “
Lawyer Robert Rosen remained among the most skeptical of the panel.
“You said the object of this was not shame. I’m not convinced of that, ”Rosen said. “I think the whole logic of the whole business is a shame. But I could be convinced otherwise.
In the end, the commission voted to postpone the decision until it gets more information from Walker on the artists and personalities who should be associated with the project. But the city council can decide the matter on its own, regardless of the commission’s conclusion.
History commission member Michael Allen, who worked for the National Park Service for nearly 40 years, said the discussion of how to interpret the monument is an important next step for the city and the people who find out about history in the future.
“What we’re dealing with tonight is sensitivity,” Allen said. “I would say we’re at a time in a season where things that maybe hid in plain sight weren’t often touched on.”
Rosen, who has written books on Jewish and Charleston history, specifically grasped Walker’s mention of a written item.
“A notable list of academics doesn’t really impress me,” he said. “There are notable scholars, so-called… who have written a lot of, shall we say, unacceptable, non-factual, and politicized stories.
On Thursday morning, Rosen told the City paper he was talking about The New York Times‘1619 Project, a collection of 2019 Putlizer Prize-winning essays on America’s fundamental inequalities rooted in slavery, which have been criticized by conservative media and political figures. The creator of the project, Time journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, also became a lightning rod figure. Rosen called it “a hack of The New York Times. “
Nonetheless, Rosen, who has made big donations to South Carolina Democrats over the past decade, said there may be a way forward for the proposal.
“If what we are doing is to organize a political rally and use the Calhoun monument as part of a political event, I would be opposed to sending it,” Rosen told the City paper. “If this is a program that respects the real facts of history and what really happened, then I’m open to it. “
But whether or not Charleston agrees to loan his 6,000-pound monument to the LA museum, Walker said some figures will be commemorated in the exhibit even though their likeness is not depicted.
Calhoun was born in Abbeville and served as the seventh vice president of the United States. He died 10 years before the Civil War, but laid the groundwork for secession on the rights of states and described slavery as “a positive good”. Calhoun is buried at St. Philip’s Church in downtown Charleston. In 1896, decades after his death, the modern monument to Calhoun was erected along the street which had been renamed in his honor.
In 2020, Charleston City Council voted to remove the statue with the intention of moving it to a museum. These plans were unsuccessful and the 6,000-pound monument is still in storage.