The fate of the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park will be up for discussion starting this week when the City of Pittsburgh Art Commission hosts its first meeting on the issue.
The meeting will take place virtually on Wed., Aug. 26, kicking off proceedings to remove and relocate the statute. The statue is the latest piece of public art that has generated controversy as people have become more vocal about Columbus' legacy of violence against indigenous people and his connection to slavery.
Made by sculptor Frank Vittor, the statue was erected in 1958 and is owned by the City of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto created the Art Commission to review the situation and recommend how he should proceed.
“Public art is an essential element of community identity, public history, and evolving culture. It reflects and reveals who we are and what our communities mean to us,” says Peduto in a press release.
He cites how the commission previously decided on the removal of the Stephen Foster statue in Oakland's Schenley Plaza. The statue, which was erected in 1900, came down in 2018 after many criticized it as racist for its depiction of Foster looking down at a Black, shoeless man playing the banjo.
“I know that the Art Commission will take this opportunity to thoughtfully lead the city through this evaluation with the backdrop that the public process is very important,” says Peduto.
The Columbus statue situation takes after a national trend regarding public art after the removal of Confederate monuments has sparked heated, sometimes deadly protests. BBC News and other outlets reported that, in late July, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the temporary removal of Columbus statues in the city's Grant and Arrigo Parks after protesters attempted to topple one of them.
These acts coincide with the growing racial and social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, as protesters see the statues as glorifying figures who owned slaves or defended the ownership of slaves. Cities and states across the country have also chosen not to observe the annual Columbus Day federal holiday, replacing it with Indigenous Peoples' Day, which focuses on honoring Native American culture and traditions.
The Pittsburgh Columbus statue has also been vandalized over the summer with phrases like “murder” and “OG PIG” spray-painted on it, which prompted the city to take action. In June, KDKA noted that some disagreed with its possible removal, with Peduto’s former chief operating officer, Guy Costa, saying that Columbus remains an important symbol to Italian-Americans like him.
But many have spoken out against the statue. A June change.org petition calling for its removal has so far collected over 14,000 signatures.
The Art Commission's public process also includes a “special hearing with opportunities for interested members of the public to give testimony to the Art Commission and a period of online engagement during which the public can express their opinion and recommend action to the Mayor to leave the statue unchanged, remove it, replace it, or alter it in some way.”
The Art Commission will discuss the Columbus statue and future public involvement on Wed., Aug. 26, at 2 p.m. Information can be found on the Virtual Art Commission page.