Complicated lives, complicated statues

The current Black Lives Matter protests have caused a nationwide rethinking of what types of statues belong on public display as representatives of our history and culture. If we decide to replace some statues with new ones, then even more complex decisions have to be made on who to honor and how to portray them.

D.C.’s statue of Marion Barry, commissioned in 2016 and unveiled in 2018, touched upon a few of the complicated issues that go into deciding on a new statue.

Marion Barry statue in 2020 with a Black Lives Matter mask added. ©Karen Ramsey

Two things about the statue were easy decisions:

Location: putting the statue on Pennsylvania Avenue by the District Building was the obvious location for D.C.’s “Mayor for Life.”

Pose: Barry was known for his exuberant greetings, so the pose of him waving to passersby on the street was a uncontroversial choice.

But after those easy decisions, it gets a lot harder.

How do you honor a controversial figure?

Marion Barry’s political life meant so many different things to different Washingtonians – from public servant to jail, and back again, his life and legacy were almost larger than life.

The statue itself doesn’t express the many controversies around Mayor Barry, but the dedication ceremony reflected on his complex legacy while mentioning his flaws.

Sometime after Martin had a dream and before President Obama gave us hope, Marion Barry provided opportunity.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, on the dedication of the statue, March 2018

The common theme of those speaking at the dedication was that Barry created hope and opportunity for so many D.C. residents that had been historically ignored (A frequent Barry saying: “It’s a great day to be in Ward 8”).

D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton speaking at the dedication, March 2018 ©Victoria Pickering

A white sculptor?

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities went through what was considered a fair process at the time – the 11 members of a special commission started shortly after Barry’s death in 2014 to determine how to recognize and honor him, soliciting substantial community input with open meetings throughout the city.

The sculptor was chosen through a typical process – a call for proposals went out to regional artists, and the commission chose three finalists. One was white and two were black. All three of them created small models of their statue proposals, and then the commission members assigned a score to each of the designs. The highest total score went to the design by Steven Weitzman, the white sculptor.

Cory Masters Barry, the mayor’s fourth wife and long-term friend, had been part of the commission but was recovering from surgery and was not there during the final decision stage. At the dedication, she spoke about how she was initially very troubled by the decision to not choose an African American sculptor, but gradually got won over by the way that Weitzman worked to capture the essence of Barry, in consultation with her, and described how she and the sculptor became close friends during the process of creating the sculpture.

Ten years before the Barry statue, Weitzman was selected by the D.C. arts commission to create the statue of Frederick Douglass that is in the Capitol’s Visitor Center. So two of the most prominent statues of African Americans in D.C. were created by a white sculptor. Going forward, there’s likely to be much more recognition of how selections like this shut out the voices of black artists.

The result

The statue has been up for over two years now, and at 8 feet tall, stands out prominently in one of the most iconic locations in the world, on Pennsylvania Avenue. As one of only a few statues of African Americans in D.C., it has become a valued part of the city landscape. As for its meaning to D.C. residents, judging by the large crowds at the dedication ceremony, it conveys a lot of history and meaning to those who lived through the Barry years.

Marion Barry’s fraternity brothers pose in front of the statue right after it was unveiled at the dedication ceremony, March 2018 ©Victoria Pickering

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