Charleston’s Commission on History voted Wednesday to wait for more information before it makes a decision on a request from Los Angeles museum curators to borrow the John C. Calhoun statue for an exhibit featuring similar figures that stood as monuments until recent years.
Commissioners expressed concerns during the nearly two-hour virtual meeting that the Calhoun monument could be used to put Charleston in a bad light or as part of a politically charged collection.
Curators with LAXART, a Los Angeles-based arts group, are seeking monuments like Calhoun — Southern and Confederate figures — to install as part of an exhibition at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art alongside works by present-day artists. During a presentation about tentative plans for the 2023 show, co-curator Hamza Walker of LAXART said organizers have secured commitments for statues from Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Bradenton, Florida; and are looking at figures in North Carolina and Virginia. Walker said a scholarly written component would also be developed as part of the project.
“The goal of the project is to mark what is an historic moment … a moment when we are made aware of the fact that we are living through history,” Walker said in a 30-minute presentation to members of the Commission on History, including outgoing City Councilman Harry Griffin.
The intent of the exhibition, Walker said, was not to drag anyone living or dead through the mud.
“This is not at all an exercise in shaming anyone that’s not at all what this exhibition is about the furthest thing from our mind,” he said. “This is a teachable moment.”
Attorney Robert Rosen remained among the most skeptical of the panel.
“You said the object of this was not shaming. I’m not convinced to that,” Rosen said. “I think that whole logic of the whole enterprise is a shame. But I could be convinced to the contrary.”
Ultimately, the commission voted to put off the decision until it got more information from Walker about the artists and figures who are planned to be associated with the project. But city council can decide the issue on its own, regardless of what the commission concludes.
History commission member Michael Allen, who worked for the National Park Service for nearly 40 years, said discussion about how to interpret the monument is an important next step for the city and people who learn about history going forward.
“What we’re dealing with tonight is sensitivity,” Allen said. “I would say this we’re in a time in a season where things that perhaps has been hidden in plain sight has not often been addressed.”
Rosen, who has written books on Jewish and Charleston history, specifically seized on Walker’s mention of a written component.
“A notable roster of scholars really doesn’t impress me,” he said. “There’s some notable scholars, so called … who have been writing a lot of, shall we say, unacceptable, unfactual, politicized history.”
Thursday morning, Rosen told the City Paper he was talking about The New York Times‘ 1619 Project, a Putlizer Prize-winning 2019 collection of essays about fundamental American inequity rooted in enslavement, that has been criticized by conservative media and political figures. The project’s creator, Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, has also become a lightning rod figure. Rosen called her “a hack from The New York Times.”
Nonetheless, Rosen, who has donated heavily to South Carolina Democrats over the past decade, said there may be a path forward for the proposal.
“If what we’re doing is putting on a political rally and using the Calhoun monument as part of a political event, I would be opposed to sending it,” Rosen told the City Paper. “If it’s a program that respects the true facts of history and what actually happened, then I’m open to it.”
But regardless of whether Charleston agrees to loan the L.A. museum its 6,000 pound monument, Walker said some figures will be commemorated in the exhibition even if their likenesses are not represented.
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 foundation for secession over states rights 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 that 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. Those plans have not come to fruition, and the 6,000-pound monument remains in storage.