Tucked into the corner of an East Baltimore impound lot teeming with discarded lampposts and street signs, four Confederate-linked monuments have sat for five years since they were removed from public parks around the city in the middle of the night.
Ever since that night Aug. 17, 2017, when they were hauled off to the lot and hidden away, city officials and historians have debated what to do with the bronze statues erected to honor Confederate figures. No home emerged until a Los Angeles visual art space called LAXART asked to borrow them for a new exhibit.
The large-scale exhibit, called Monuments, will open in the fall of 2023 and places contemporary art created by renowned Black artists alongside decommissioned Confederate statues removed from American cities after the 2015 killing of churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist and the deadly neo-Nazi rally Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Eric Holcomb, division chief of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said city officials are excited about the exhibit planned by nonprofit LAXART curator Hamza Walker and artist Kara Walker, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles curator Bennett Simpson.
“The interpretation of these monuments by this museum is actually going to be healthy and beneficial for the whole country and it’s going to move us forward in terms of our conversation about race and conversations about history,” Holcomb said. “We believe the monuments are going in really good hands with really smart people.”
The city’s law office still needs to approve a loan agreement with the museum before the statues, some weighing 7 to 14 tons, are loaded onto a truck and shipped to California. Baltimore is not paying any transportation costs, Holcomb said.
Then-Mayor Catherine Pugh in 2017 ordered the four statues, which were installed from 1887 to 1948, to be taken down from their pedestals around the city “quickly and quietly,” she said at the time. They included the Lee-Jackson Monument located in Wyman Park Dell, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue, the Confederate Women’s Monument on West University Parkway, and the Roger B. Taney Monument in Mount Vernon.
Taney was not a member of the Confederacy but the chief justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery in the lead-up to the Civil War.
The message the statues conveyed to Baltimore residents about slavery and the Civil War was wrong, Holcomb said, and the statues also posed a safety risk to people who threatened to pull them down.
The threat to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesville resulted in the Unite the Right rally where a counterprotester was killed when a man drove into a crowd.
Five years after the Baltimore statues’ removal, the monuments in the city-owned lot off Pulaski Highway in the Pulaski Industrial Area are secured in a metal fence and Jersey barrier enclosure. An art conservator inspected the statues in 2021 and determined each was in good condition, according to Monica Lewis, a city spokesperson.
The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, though, still is marked by red paint thrown on it by protesters before it was removed.
Holcomb estimated that the city received 24 offers to use the monuments. The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation asked each person or group how they planned to interpret the statues and most wanted to use them to positively convey the Lost Cause myth that the Civil War was an honorable fight over states’ rights, rather than a war over slavery, and that Jackson and Lee were great soldiers, Holcomb said.
“I think we’re starting to understand that Lee and Jackson were actually traitors,” he said.
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The Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers that opposed the removal of the statues in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment.
CHAP decided that LAXART was the best alternative use for the statues because it would help change the message of the monuments through artists’ interactions with them.
The exhibit will feature educational talks, performances, activities and workshops from art historians, politicians, artists and activists. The contemporary art on display will feature existing and newly created paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos. The exhibition will also be on view at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
“A frequent argument against removing monuments from public space claims that doing so is ‘erasing history’; we intend to do quite the opposite by examining these objects in their entirety with historical depth and nuance,” Hamza Walker wrote in a description of the upcoming exhibit.
The loan will last a year or more for the four-month exhibit. After that, it is unclear where the monuments will go.
Perhaps the exhibit will become successful and travel the country, Holcomb said, or maybe the bronze statues will be melted and recast to celebrate legendary Baltimoreans, as Mayor Brandon Scott proposed when he was a City Council member. But for now, the Maryland Historical Trust, which has an easement on three of the four monuments, does not want the statues destroyed, Holcomb said.
Scott did not respond to a request for comment via a spokesperson.
This article has been updated to correct how many monuments the Maryland Historical Trust owns.