Preserving Confederate Monuments?


A coworker forwarded me the email below, a few months ago right after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. This letter was intended to be written from an art historian’s perspective. Those who signed onto the letter, argue that while confederate monuments should be taken down, they could be preserved for their artistic and educational value, and art historians should be involved in the conversation surrounding their removal. I’d be interested in hearing how others view this letter. Should these statues be removed and then conserved in spaces like museums? Personally, I am uninterested in the preservation of these monuments. As was discussed in many of our readings, these monuments are not historical artifacts but vestiges of a present that is meant to glorify white supremacy and intimidate those who do not fall under the crafted picture of the glorious “past”.  I would love for the professionals who signed on to this letter to make a similar dedication to displaying art by black Americans that also tell stories of slavery, racism, and oppression. I think we have collected a surplus of work by white men who aim to show us/tell us about history, art, culture through the perspective of white men.

You can read the letter below.


“We are still adding names . . . please spread the word.

Standing Up for Justice — and Art

Confederate monuments have been physical and symbolic sites of conflict in the past week, and for good reason. The toppled monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, and defaced statue of Robert E. Lee on the Duke University campus are just two of more than seven hundred memorials to named or generic Confederate soldiers erected during the Jim Crow era. These monuments, along with state-sponsored legislation and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, worked to institutionalize and venerate white supremacy and warn African Americans against exercising their full citizenship rights. Today, Confederate monuments continue to do this powerful ideological work: they heroicize the Confederacy, feed the “Lost Cause” mythology, and in public spaces, demonstrate a continued disregard, or apathy, for previous and current victims of slavery, racism, and oppression. As Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans put it:  “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”

Mayor Landrieu is right. And yet, as historians of American art, many of us see Confederate monuments in another light as well: as the creative projects of artists, architects, and monument companies who deployed the styles of the era to fulfill commissions at particular historical moments. Some of these artworks showcased their creators’ technical facility, and, in some cases, consummate skill. All of these works normalized and naturalized the deeply ingrained racism of the period and helped sustain it for over a century. Recent events have exposed the monuments’ original agenda, revealing how much work still needs to be done to realize the ideals set forth in the nation’s founding documents. As art historians, we seek inclusive and respectful ways to negotiate the tension that exists between recognizing these monuments as historically significant art objects and understanding them as troubling symbols of the legacy of institutional racism.

As historians of American art, we are trained to document, analyze, and preserve visual expressions of the ideals and values that play vital roles in our national life. For those of us committed to understanding the lives of objects, the destruction of art and material culture begs us to question their history and context anew: why they were created, where they were located, who was intended to see them, and how they have been interpreted at different historical moments. We believe that this comprehension is particularly important for artworks that relate to events and movements that have undermined our country’s democratic aspirations. Whether inspiring admiration or contempt, historical works have much to teach us about the past and how it has shaped the present.

In the next few days, months, and years, Confederate monuments will continue to fall or be defaced in a tradition of iconoclasm, or image-breaking, that has been recorded for thousands of years. As Sarah Beetham writes: “The video from Durham makes iconoclasm look easy. A bit of rope, a ladder, one hefty tug, and suddenly it no longer mattered how many laws North Carolina had passed against altering monuments. And if I had that thought, I probably wasn’t the only one. That means this is going to happen again, and probably soon. And we don’t know where it will happen next.”

In considering the fate of Confederate monuments, there are many objectives and points of view to consider. We encourage communities across America to be thoughtful and comprehensive in their considerations, and to distinguish between works in need of removal, relocation, better interpretation, and artistic counter-installation; and those that should remain in place (for example, those that already are in cemeteries). An archival effort should be undertaken, nationwide, so that we will be able to bear witness in the future and not lose the complex histories embedded in these monuments. Thankfully, much of this does not need to be invented. More information and pictures, for example, can be added to the Smithsonian American Art Museum Inventory of American Sculpture online. Many holocaust museums around the world, and civil rights museums in our own country, display images and objects in a manner that is honest and unflinching, but also respectful to victims and their descendants.

As historians of American art, we should be part of any conversation about the fate of monuments and other visual symbols. We spend our professional lives using works such as these to educate Americans about their past and to see their present moment with greater clarity. Art is meant to elicit an emotional response: it is our job and privilege to help explain the nature of these responses through responsible, respectful, and thoughtful education and presentation.

  1. Kate Palmer Albers, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Arizona
  2. Julie Aronson, Curator of American Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings, Cincinnati Art Museum
  3. La Tanya S. Autry, Curator of Art and Civil Rights, Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College
  4. Julia Tatiana Bailey, Terra Foundation for American Art Research Project Manager
  5. Austen Barron Bailly, The George Putnam Curator of American Art, Peabody Essex Museum
  6. Anne Marie Barnes, Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator, National Sporting Library & Museum
  7. Rachael Barron-Duncan, Assistant Professor of Art History, Central Michigan University
  8. Samantha Baskind, Professor of Art History, Cleveland State University
  9. Karen Bearor, Associate Professor of American Art and Theory, Florida State University
  10. Rebecca Bedell, Associate Professor, Wellesley College
  11. Wendy Bellion, Sewell Biggs Chair in American Art, University of Delaware
  12. Avis Berman, Independent Writer and Art Historian
  13. Susanneh Bieber, Assistant Professor, Departments of Visualization and Architecture, Texas A&M University
  14. M. Elizabeth Boone, Professor, University of Alberta, and Executive Editor, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art
  15. John P. Bowles, Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History and Affiliate Faculty, Institute of African American Research, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  16. James C. Boyles, Teaching Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University
  17. N. Mishoe Brennecke, Professor of Art History, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee
  18. Margaret Bullock, Curator
  19. Amanda C. Burdan, Associate Curator, Brandywine River Museum of Art
  20. Carolyn Kinder Carr, National Portrait Gallery Deputy Director and Chief Curator Emerita
  21. Sarah Anne Carter, Chipstone Foundation
  22. Emily Clare Casey, Assistant Professor of Art History, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland
  23. Michael Clapper, Associate Professor of Art History, Franklin & Marshall College
  24. Carol Clark, Professor Emerita, Amherst College,
  25. William L. Coleman, Associate Curator of American Art, Newark Museum
  26. Benjamin Colman, Curator
  27. Wanda M. Corn, Art History Professor Emerita, Stanford University
  28. Robert Cozzolino, Curator of the Dispossessed, Minneapolis
  29. Roger Crum, Professor, History of Art, University of Dayton
  30. Meredith Davis, Associate Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey
  31. David B. Dearinger, Director of Exhibitions and Susan Morse Hilles Senior Curator of Paintings & Sculpture, Boston Athenæum
  32. Miguel de Baca, Associate Professor of Art History, Lake Forest College
  33. Marybeth De Filippis, Art Historian
  34. Anna M. Dempsey, Professor of Art History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
  35. Jane Dini, Independent Scholar
  36. Erina Duganne, Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Texas State University
  37. Julie Dunn-Morton, Curator of Fine Art Collections, St. Louis Mercantile LIbrary Art Museum, University of Missouri – St. Louis
  38. Charles C. Eldredge, Hall Distinguished Professor of American Art and Culture, University of Kansas
  39. Shannon Egan, Director, Schmucker Art Gallery, Gettysburg College
  40. Jeannine Falino, independent Curator, New York
  41. Peter Hastings Falk, Editor and Curator, Artist Discovery Group
  42. Susan C. Faxon, Curator of Art before 1950, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy
  43. Madeleine Fidell-Beaufort, Independent Scholar
  44. Ruth Fine, Independent Curator, Philadelphia
  45. Megan Holloway Fort, Independent Scholar, Brooklyn, New York
  46. Kathleen A. Foster, The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art, and Director, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  47. Rebecca Foster, President, Society for the Preservation of American Modernists
  48. Ellery Foutch, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Middlebury College
  49. Cynthia Fowler, Professor of Art, Emmanuel College
  50. Jacqueline Francis, Associate Professor, Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies, California College of the Arts, San Francisco
  51. Alice T. Friedman, Grace Slack McNeil Professor of the History of American Art, Wellesley College
  52. Deborah Frizzell, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, William Paterson University Department of Art
  53. Laura F. Fry, Senior Curator and Curator of American Art, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
  54. Vivien Green Fryd, Professor, History of Art, Vanderbilt University
  55. Emily Gephart, Visual and Critical Studies, School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University
  56. Sheila Gerami, Ph.D, Independent Scholar, Brooklyn, NY
  57.  William H. Gerdts, Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of the City University of New York
  58. Sarah Kate Gillespie
  59. Lee Glazer, Curator of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
  60. Amelia Goerlitz, Fellowship and Academic Programs Manager, Smithsonian American Art Museum
  61. Susanna W. Gold, Ph.D., Independent Art Historian and Curator
  62. Sarah Gordon, Ph.D., Independent Scholar, Washington, DC
  63. Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor of Art, Wellesley College
  64. Wendy Greenhouse, Independent Art Historian
  65. Randall Griffey, Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  66. Nancy Whipple Grinnell, Curator Emerita, Newport (RI) Art Museum
  67. Brian E. Hack, Director, Kingsborough Art Museum (KAM), CUNY Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn, NY
  68. Stephanie Hackett, Independent Scholar
  69. Monica Anke Hahn, Assistant Professor of Art History/Honors Curriculum, Community College of Philadelphia
  70. Kenneth Haltman, H. Russell Pitman Professor of Art History, University of Oklahoma
  71. Ellen Handy, Associate Professor, The City College of New York
  72. Helen A. Harrison, Stony Brook University
  73. Elizabeth S. Hawley, Ph.D. Candidate, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  74. Stephanie L. Herdrich, Assistant Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  75. Melanie Herzog, Professor of Art History, Edgewood College
  76. Elizabeth B. Heuer, Associate Professor of Art History, University of North Florida
  77. Patricia Hills, Professor Emerita, Boston University
  78. Camara Dia Holloway, Co-Director, Association for Critical Race Art History
  79. Catherine Holochwost, Assistant Professor of Art History, La Salle University
  80. Laura Holzman, Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
  81. Craig Houser, Lecturer, Co-director of Art History, City College of New York
  82. Elizabeth Hutchinson, Associate Professor of Art History, Barnard College/Columbia University
  83. Patricia Johnston, Rev. J. Gerard Mears, S.J., Chair in Fine Arts; Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Visual Arts, College of the Holy Cross
  84. Matt Johnston, Associate Professor of Art History, Lewis & Clark College
  85. Brandon Neal Jones, Independent Scholar
  86. Patricia Junker, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum
  87. Joseph D. Ketner II, Foster Chair in Contemporary Art, Emerson College, Boston
  88. Marianne Kinkel, Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Washington State University
  89. Miriam Kienle, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Kentucky
  90. Jackie Killian, independent historian, Grants Manager, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  91. Page Knox, Adjunct Professor, Art History Department, Columbia University
  92. Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  93. Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Princeton University Art Museum
  94. Lara Kuykendall, Assistant Professor of Art History, Ball State University
  95. Helen Langa
  96. Susan Larkin, Independent Scholar
  97. Karen Leader, Associate Professor of Art History, Florida Atlantic University
  98. Elizabeth Lee, Associate Professor of Art History, Dickinson College
  99. Valerie Ann Leeds, Independent Scholar and Curator
  100. Theresa Leininger-Miller, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Cincinnati
  101. Audrey Lewis, Curator, Brandywine River Museum of Art
  102. Diana L. Linden, Independent Scholar
  103. Michael Lobel, Professor of Art History, Hunter College
  104. Amy Lyford, Professor, Modern Art History, Art & Art History Dept., Occidental College
  105. Barbara Buhler Lynes, Sunny Kaufman Senior Curator, NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale
  106. Barbara J. MacAdam, Curator
  107. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts
  108. Jessica Marten, Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art, Memorial Art Gallery
  109. Nancy Mowll Mathews, Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art, emerita, Williams College Museum of Art
  110. Hayes Peter Mauro, Associate Professor in the Department of Art & Design at Queensborough Community College, CUNY
  111. Jessica MayDeputy Director and Robert and Elizabeth Nanovic Chief Curator, Portland Museum of Art
  112. Justin McCann, Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies, Colby College Museum of Art
  113. Laurette E. McCarthy, Ph.D., Independent Scholar and Curator
  114. Eva McGraw, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY
  115. Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Telfair Museums
  116. Eve Meltzer, Associate Professor of Visual Studies and Visual Culture, New York University
  117. Lenore Metrick-Chen, Associate Professor of Art and Cultural History, Drake University
  118. Kenneth John Myers, Curator of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts
  119. Sarah M. Miller, Adjunct Professor of Visual Studies, California College of the Arts
  120. Anne Monahan, Independent Scholar
  121. Erin Monroe, Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
  122. Amy M. Mooney, Associate Professor of Art History, Columbia College Chicago
  123. James Moore, Director Emeritus, The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History; Lecturer, Honors College, University of New Mexico
  124. Ann Lee Morgan, Independent Scholar/Art Historian
  125. Julia R. Myers, Professor Emerita of Art History, Eastern Michigan University
  126. Jane Necol, Adjunct Lecturer, New York
  127. Jennifer Noonan, Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in American Art 2017-2018, Associate Professor of Art History, Caldwell University
  128. Travis Nygard, Associate Professor, Art History, Ripon College
  129. Bibiana Obler, Associate Professor of Art History, George Washington University
  130. Kate Nearpass Ogden, Professor of Art History, Stockton University, Galloway, New Jersey
  131. Elizabeth L. O’Leary, Independent Scholar, Richmond, VA
  132. John Ott, Professor, Art History, James Madison University
  133. Nell Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University
  134. Andrea Pappas, Associate Professor, Art History, Santa Clara University
  135.  Lisa N. Peters, Visiting Assistant Professor, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn and Lecturer, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn
  136. Erin Pauwels, Assistant Professor of Art History, Tyler School of Art, Temple University
  137. Caterina Y. Pierre, Professor of Art History, CUNY Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn, NY
  138. Christine B. Podmaniczky, Curator, Brandywine River Museum of Art
  139. Frances Pohl, Professor of Art History, Pomona College
  140. Joyce C. Polistena, Professor of Art History, Pratt Institute
  141. Jonathan Prown, Chipstone Foundation
  142. Paul Ranogajec, Independent Scholar
  143. Susan Rather, Professor, Art History, The University of Texas at Austin
  144. Akela Reason, Associate Professor, History, University of Georgia
  145. Rebecca Reynolds, Curator and Board President, Manship Artists Residency + Studios, Cape Ann
  146. Caroline M. Riley, Lecturer, Department of Art and Art History, San José State University
  147. Ellen E. Roberts, Harold and Anne Berkley Smith Curator of American Art, Norton Museum of Art
  148. Bruce Robertson, Professor, History of Art and Architecture, and Director, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara
  149. Letha Clair Robertson
  150. Brandon Ruud, Abert Family Curator of American Art, Milwaukee Art Museum
  151. Mary Savig, Curator of Manuscripts, Archives of American Art
  152. Erika Schneider, Associate Professor of Art History, Framingham State University
  153. Kristin A. Schwain, Associate Professor of American Art, School of Visual Studies, University of Missouri
  154.  Harriet F Senie, Director:  MA Art History, Art Museum Studies, The City College, Art Department
  155. Tanya Sheehan, William R. Kenan, Jr. Associate Professor of Art, Colby College
  156.  Lesley Shipley, Assistant Professor of Art History, Randolph College
  157.  Meredith Shimizu, Associate Professor of Art History, Whitworth University
  158. Julia Sienkewicz, Assistant Professor of Art History, Roanoke College
  159. Susan M. Sivard, Independent Scholar
  160. Allison C. Slaby, Curator, Reynolda House Museum of American Art
  161. Naomi H. Slipp, Assistant Professor of Art History, Auburn University at Montgomery
  162. Dr. Gerald Silk, Professor of Art History, Tyler School of Art, Temple University
  163. Janice Simon, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of Art History, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia
  164. Marc Simpson, Independent Scholar
  165. Jessica T. Smith, The Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art, and Manager, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  166. David M. Sokol, Professor of Art History, Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago
  167. Allison M. Stagg, Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, Freie Universitat, Berlin, Germany
  168. Rachel Stephens, Assistant Professor of American Art, The University of Alabama
  169. Joyce Hill Stoner, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of  Material Culture, University of Delaware, Paintings Conservator, Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation, and Director, UD Preservation Studies Doctoral Program
  170. Jonathan Stuhlman, Senior Curator of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art, Mint Museum
  171. Dr. Marin R. Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Art History, Keene State College
  172. J. Gray Sweeney, Professor of American Art, Arizona State University
  173. Diane Tepfer, Adjunct professor, University of Maryland University College
  174. Evie Terrono, Professor of Art History at Randolph-Macon College
  175. Thayer Tolles, Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  176. Amy Torbert, Barra Foundation Fellow in American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  177. Bailey Van Hook, Professor of Art History, Virginia Tech
  178. Anne Verplanck
  179. Marissa Vigneault, Assistant Professor, Art History, Utah State University
  180. Shannon Vittoria, Research Assistant, American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  181. Alan Wallach, Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art and Art History and Professor of American Studies Emeritus, The College of William and Mary
  182. Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs & Curator of American Art, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia
  183. Peter Wang, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, Saint Mary’s College
  184. Melissa Warak, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Texas at El Paso
  185. Tiffany Elena Washington, Independent Scholar
  186. Jennifer Way, Professor of Art History, 1945 to the present, University of North Texas
  187. Sally Webster, Professor of American Art, emerita, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
  188. Terri Weissman, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  189. K. L. H. Wells, Assistant Professor of American Art, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  190. Amy Werbel, Associate Professor of the History of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology
  191. Christina Weyl, Independent scholar & curator
  192. Gordon Wilkins, Assistant Curator, Peabody Essex Museum
  193. Kristina Wilson, Professor of Art History, Clark University
  194. Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor, Architectural History, University of Virginia
  195. Jennifer Wingate, Associate Professor of Fine Arts, St. Francis College
  196. Paula Wisotzki, Professor of Art History, Loyola University Chicago
  197. Tobias Wofford, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Virginia Commonwealth University
  198. Bryan Wolf, Jones Professor, Emeritus, Stanford University
  199. Phoebe Wolfskill, Assistant Professor, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University
  200. Natalie Wright, Chipstone Foundation
  201. Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge, American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  202. Leanne Zalewski, Associate Professor of Art History, Central Connecticut State University
  203. Karen Zukowski, Independent Scholar
  204. Jennifer A. Zwilling, Curator of Artistic Programs, The Clay Studio
  205. Bryan Zygmont, Associate Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Art History at Louisiana Tech University
  206. List is alphabetical, please add your name above”


2 thoughts on “Preserving Confederate Monuments?”

  1. I agree with you as well. I don’t think saving the statues does anything productive. In my opinion, it’s white privilege at work. I think we/art historians need to learn to “let art go,” especially if in almost any form it is shown* it is negatively affecting a large group of people.

    *Here is a video of a fallen Confederate statue in Durham, NC. I think this is the only way these statues can be shown that are productive (lol), but it actually could be pretty powerful, especially if it were to be left there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.