SLO Council wants to ban monuments honoring people. They should be about ideas, instead

The San Luis Obispo City Council is taking a stand against public monuments that commemorate people — much to the dismay of at least one local historian.

The majority of the council with Carlyn Christianson dissenting decided to move forward at this week’s meeting with changing its public art policy to not include pieces that commemorate specific individuals in the wake of a controversial, proposed Teddy Roosevelt monument.

No vote was taken on the issue, which will come at a future meeting after the city’s staff drafts the new guidelines to be added to its public art policy.

“I think for so many reasons, the only policy that makes sense moving forward is to have a policy that celebrates ideas and ideals and not individual people,” SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon said.

Harmon initiated the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, saying “anyone worthy of a monument would not want one in the first place.”

“Why would we step into lifting up individual people who are undoubtedly, as we all are, complex, flawed people that have moments of genius and brilliance, but also moments where we make incredibly bad decisions?” Harmon said. “Yes, we are in the context of a historical moment, but that doesn’t excuse being racist, homophobic and misogynistic.”

Christianson said she didn’t support changing the city’s public art policy and did not join the council majority’s direction.

“To me, art is subjective and in the minds of beholder,” Christianson said. “...I don’t want a policy at all and I won’t vote to make a change to anything because I don’t think we need to do that.”

Paula Zima 2018 maquette (2).jpg
Model of proposed Teddy Roosevelt monument by sculptor Paula Zima. The SLO City Council directed its staff to disallow monuments of specific individuals as part of a planned new city policy. Pierre Rademaker Courtesy Photo

Harmon cited violence and even deaths over controversies regarding monuments in other parts of the country.

In 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, protester Heather Heyer was killed and several others were injured when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. plowed into them behind the wheel of a car. The rally was sparked by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The new public art policy wouldn’t extend to plaques that have been posted in the city, however, such as one near San Luis Obispo Creek honoring early 20th century SLO businesswoman and civic leader Queenie Warden.

Another plaque at Bishop Peak Reserve memorializes Swiss immigrants James and Sophia Goirgi Gnesa, who emigrated to SLO in the 1870s, and whose children donated 120 acres of land.

But historian James Papp, a member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee, said he disagrees with the council’s position to disallow any specific person from commemoration.

Papp told The Tribune that museums are filled with people who represent the past and made marks on society that were impactful, beneficial and sometimes flawed.

But Papp contended that individuals in history, in all their complexities, should be remembered.

“The desire to remember what is good and bad, warts and all about America — and it’s important to remember the really bad stuff, because if you don’t remember the bad stuff, you can’t get better — that should remain in the hands of people, groups and individuals,” said Papp, who leads walking history tours of the city through his business, Secret SLO.

Water droplets gather on the face of the Junípero Serra statue in January. The SLO City Council directed a new policy disallowing monuments of specific individuals in favor of ideas and ideals. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Papp said his walking tours sometimes involve discussions about local famous figures such as former SLO resident Ah Louis, who didn’t allow Chinese-American women in his store, Papp said.

A committee led by former SLO councilman John Ashbaugh organized an effort to add a monument of Roosevelt in Mitchell Park.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Legacy Grove Committee wrote a letter on the topic saying it would include “a frank description of Roosevelt’s overall record on racial matters, including the evolution of his views on Native Americans and other minorities. We invite our Native American neighbors to help us write this narrative.”

Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, gave a speech in SLO in 1903 and is remembered in part for his conservation of public lands, creating many new national parks, forests, and monuments preserving natural resources.

But the Northern Chumash Tribune Council wrote a letter to the council objecting to the idea of a Roosevelt statue, saying Roosevelt’s tenure was also marked by his support of the Indian allotment system. And Roosevelt infamously said, “I don’t go so far to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are.”

“I don’t think we’re making a mistake with this project,” Ashbaugh said at the meeting. “... The most prominent public art and most controversial remains the bear and child statue in Mission Plaza.”

Ashbaugh noted that another prominent piece of art in downtown SLO includes a statue of the Roman Catholic Spanish priest Junipero Serra.

“They provoke strong reactions from those who view them, not always positive,” Ashbaugh said. “But isn’t that what great art is supposed to do?”

Harmon suggested adding a diversity component to the public art discussion, which would encourage an “inclusivity, diversity and equity lens” in the work presented publicly in the city.

Council members agreed that diversity in art as a value that’s encouraged, but not required, would be acceptable.

“It would be very nebulous to put a requirement on every piece of art to be diverse and inclusive,” said Councilwoman Erica Stewart.

Clarification: This story has been changed to clarify SLO Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson’s position of dissent.

Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.