NYC Is Looking for Artists to Honor Four Influential Women

New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) is looking for artists to design four monuments honoring influential women in the city’s history. Initially announced in March 2019, projects to build monuments dedicated to Helen Rodríguez Trías, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Billie Holiday, and Katherine Walker are finally resuming progress after being stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, artists have until the end of the year to submit their proposals for these historical tributes, contending with the city’s longtime underrepresentation of historical women in its public art program. Currently, only eight of the nearly 150 public monuments of notable figures across the city portray women. The delayed projects are spearheaded by She Built NYC — an initiative first launched in 2018 in order to address gender inequality in New York’s monuments and sculptures.

The new artworks will be installed in four out of the five boroughs. At Lincoln Medical Center in downtown Bronx, a tribute to Helen Rodríguez Trías, the first Latinx president of the American Public Health Association, will recognize her advocacy work in reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS care and prevention. In Manhattan, a memorial will honor the legacy of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a schoolteacher who challenged racial segregation in 1854 when she boarded a streetcar that refused to accept Black passengers and ultimately helped end transit segregation in the city. An homage to Eleanora Fagan Gough, better known as Billie Holiday, will spotlight the celebrated jazz singer in her former Queens neighborhood at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, a venue located near many of the clubs at which she used to perform. And on Staten Island’s North Shore, a monument in memory of former lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker will celebrate her 35-year-long career during which she was credited with saving at least 50 lives.

Last summer, the New York City Public Design Commission unanimously approved Amanda Williams’s and Olalekan B. Jeyifous’s design for a monument of former United States Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and to run for the presidential nomination in a major party.

Anticipated to be completed by 2027, this monument will be situated at the southeast entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park alongside a new welcome center.

While the relaunch of She Built NYC’s projects is an important opportunity to commemorate New Yorkers whose work has previously been unacknowledged, it follows a rocky recent history in the city’s efforts to diversify its public art.

In August 2020, a 14-foot-tall bronze statue of women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth was unveiled in Central Park, becoming the first sculpture in the park’s 167-year-history to feature historical women (unlike the various statuary tributes to fictional characters, like Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose). However, the final result took more than a year of deliberations and an entire redesign of the original proposal due to its exclusion of suffragists of color.

Delays have also been an issue in projects announced by She Built NYC, such as the forthcoming monument honoring LGTBQ+ activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson first announced in 2019. Postponed to a later date yet to be announced, activists took the matter into their own hands on the trans activist’s birthday in 2021 by installing a guerilla bust of Johnson near the Stonewall Inn.

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