The Easy Way Is Not Always the Best Way
When I was tasked with creating a video about a statue in Richmond, Virginia, what I had first thought would be a simple project about a public art piece became much more complicated than I had ever imagined. But thank goodness for complications, because I am so grateful to have been able to share the complex story of the monument to Maggie L. Walker, a civil rights pioneer and the first woman to be memorialized as a statue in the city of Richmond.
Why the Maggie L. Walker Monument?
At Americans for the Arts, we are always looking for stories that demonstrate the transformative power of the arts and how the arts can impact people's lives in positive ways. In June of last year, when we learned about the unveiling of the Maggie L. Walker Monument in Richmond, we were interested in showing how public art can foster greater community engagement. Ellyn Parker, Richmond’s public art coordinator, told us how it took almost 20 years of community effort to honor Walker’s incredible legacy. With such an intriguing backstory, we were immediately hooked.
It was an incredible journey to make our video, “A Monument to Maggie,” because we quickly realized it would be impossible to tell the story of this particular public art piece without also telling how Walker’s life, work, and legacy relate to our current world. To me, any less felt like a disservice—not only to the people who participated in the video, but also to the people and organizations that Americans for the Arts serves and the wider audience we hoped to reach.
Maggie L. Walker
Maggie L. Walker is an important historical figure in the struggle for equality in our country. She is an icon in Richmond whose legacy is still felt today. Yet outside of the Richmond area, few people know about Walker’s life. She was an advocate for civil rights and the first African American woman to start a bank, one of many independent ventures she pursued to create and sustain economic security for Richmond’s African American community during the era of Jim Crow.
The Maggie L. Walker Monument, designed by artist Toby Mendez, was community-driven from the start, and the community support for the monument overflowed during the unveiling on July 15, 2018. Witnessing the joy at honoring a figure so ahead of her time was a truly moving experience. People danced, sang and hugged. “It’s about time,” people said. “This is history.”
During the making of the video, through interviews with those involved in the planning process for the monument, we had learned just how much time and effort it had taken to overcome the many challenges to finally reach this moment. When the monument was uncovered I had to hold back tears. I hope the scenes in the video from the unveiling convey the happiness and excitement of that day: the joy of finally being able to honor, recognize, and memorialize an African-American woman and Richmond native.
The Monument, Location, and Overcoming Conflict
I didn't anticipate how the excitement and anticipation surrounding the unveiling would keep many interviewees from talking candidly about the challenges of bringing this public art to Richmond. Everybody we spoke to agreed that the biggest challenge was to convince some parts of the Richmond community of the importance of the monument’s location in properly honoring Walker and her legacy. To do this, an oak tree at the site needed to be removed. Yet, because feelings were strong on both sides of the issue of whether to remove the tree, few people wanted to speak on the record about it.
Charlottesville and Drawing Lessons from Public Art
Shortly after production for the video was finished, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia—about an hour west of Richmond—resulting in violent clashes and the tragic fatality of a young woman. At the center of the events in Charlottesville were monuments that tell a different story of our country. It was clear to me that we could not shy away from the difficult conversations surrounding these two very different types of monuments.
The story of the Maggie L. Walker monument in Richmond is an example of a diverse community coming together, having disagreements, and working through them to reach a common goal: to honor Maggie L. Walker properly. To me, this is the heart of the story of making this public art piece. In the wake of Charlottesville, it was more important than ever to show how public art can be a source of unity rather than division.
A two or three month video project turned into a six-month intensive project. Because we started the production at the unveiling, it was challenging for us to show the journey of the art-making, which began years before. Thankfully everybody in Richmond that we talked to was very helpful and wanted to help us tell the story. We were able to get footage of public hearing meetings and events, documents, and archival photos. I also researched news coverage in Richmond that ultimately helped us tell the story properly.
Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation
I hope that “A Monument to Maggie” begins to show how the public art-making process can foster a sense of community, help people work together, deepen dialogue, and let us work through our differences to make sure that the arts and culture represent us all. Conversations about truth and reconciliation may not be easy or comfortable, but the easy way is not always the best way.