Why Indianapolis Must Re-Think Its Public Art. Now.

Closeup of Christopher Columbus's face on the Indianapolis memorial to him.
A bronze likeness of Christopher Columbus stands outside the Indiana Statehouse.

Photo by Hadley Fruits

It’s in the news practically every day right now: another monument that is cherished by some is suddenly being questioned, petitioned against, or yanked down by others. While most of these stories have focused on Southern states and their tributes to Confederate “heroes” that many find heinous, Indianapolis plays a significant role in this particular culture war. No other city in the United States devotes as much acreage to honoring veterans, and only Washington, D.C., has more monuments to veterans and military conflicts. Monuments, memorials, and public art have been a key part of the civic identity of Indianapolis for more than 100 years.

That’s all the more reason the state of Indiana needs a referendum on the November ballot to launch a commission to evaluate the meaning and purpose of the monuments, memorials, art, and names of places that define every public space throughout the state. This work should start now in the state capital. We must better understand what parts of our histories and legacies are represented in public, what these (sometimes quiet) messages communicate, and how we can improve them. I’ve been exploring, researching, and documenting the art and architecture in the public realm of Indiana for more than 15 years, and I know firsthand how challenging it can be.

But with a thoughtful, research-based process, we can appropriately update our public spaces while at the same time point to ways we can create new things that we can all be proud to celebrate. In light of the resurgence of the Movement for Black Lives, we know that this needs to happen now. Some of it already is.

Closeup of the plaque and bottom of Indianapolis's Christopher Columbus memorial.
This memorial to Christopher Columbus on the southwest side of the Indiana Statehouse depicts his arrival as that of a Roman god, with an Indigenous leader kneeling before him.

Two local memorials worth a closer look

Today, many of Indy’s monuments and memorials present a deeply problematic narrative for our state and country. These works deserve to be thoughtfully considered. For instance, the memorial to Christopher Columbus on the southwest side of the Indiana Statehouse presents what can easily be seen as a false narrative of the “discovery” of America, one that denies the existence of millions of humans that lived on these lands for centuries before European colonists arrived. This memorial features a bronze likeness of Columbus on top of a granite column carved with an allegorical scene showing a kind of Roman god arriving, with a stylized Indigenous leader kneeling before him.

The plaque at the front reads:








Around the country we have seen other monuments of Columbus smashed, removed, danced on, and thrown in the water. This Columbus was presented to the state of Indiana as a gift from the Italian immigrants of north-central Indiana in 1920. It was refurbished in the 1950s with the support of the Knights of Columbus and re-dedicated in 1992 by the Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission of Indiana. While it’s easy to read this monument as a literal celebration of Columbus “discovering America,” its placement 100 years ago could also be seen as a kind of social achievement for recent Italian immigrants struggling to establish their position in the United States. This was at a time when the Ku Klux Klan, which included Italians and Catholics among its targets, was rising to power in Indiana. The story is complicated, and deeply connected to issues of race and identity throughout the country.

A statue of William Henry Harrison on Monument Circle.
The statue of William Henry Harrison on Monument Circle.

Another problematic example is the 1895 William Henry Harrison monument on the northeast quadrant of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Born into a prominent political Virginia family in 1773, Harrison’s connection to Indiana comes from the 12 years he served as the Governor of the Indiana Territory in the early part of the century (1800 to 1812). His most notable accomplishment for Indiana was commanding the victorious army at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, which effectively eliminated that last opportunity for the Indigenous people of this land to halt the western advancement of “native-born” white Americans and immigrant European settler colonists. Under his leadership, Indigenous people were almost completely removed from what would become this state.

Without representation of the many great Indigenous leaders and people who lived in this area, the story of their removal is presented in a one-sided and completely misleading way. In a state and city named for Indians, there needs to be recognition of those who were on these lands before European settlers began invading in the 17th century. The sculpture and plaque that celebrates Harrison for conquering those who rightfully owned these lands before European arrival perpetuates the narrative of colonizer supremacy and denies a voice to those who were here before European arrival.

But while this kind of thinking might feel natural to many today, there were contemporary reasons for Hoosiers to celebrate William Henry Harrison in the late-19th century. Although a deeply segregated city, Indianapolis was thriving as a bustling center of commerce—this was the time in which the name “crossroads of America” came about. Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison both served as U.S. president, which established Indiana’s place among other significant states in the Union. The Columbus and Harrison monuments, and many of the others made during that time, are the byproduct of an Indiana political system that was completely dominated by white men.

What’s missing matters, too

The challenges in Indianapolis aren’t just about what exists in our public spaces—there are equally significant issues around what is missing. There is a dramatic lack of representation of Black citizens of this State in monuments, memorials, public art, and public spaces in Indiana. This problem found a flash of interest 10 years ago when the artist Fred Wilson proposed a project to copy and reimagine the limestone carving of a black man on the west side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. This man, reaching up with the broken chains of slavery to an allegory of Victory, is one of very few figural representations of a person of African descent in all of the monuments and memorials in Indianapolis.

Wilson proposed creating a new, and celebratory, sculpture from this representation and placing it in front of the City-County Building on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail as a way to showcase the African diaspora in the Americas. Ultimately, Wilson’s work found fierce opposition from parts of the Black community in Indianapolis and failed to gain enough public interest to move forward. For those who suggest that recontextualizing problematic monuments and memorials can be a solution, we can see from Wilson’s experience how difficult it can be to apply new meaning for monuments. Wilson is an expert who built a career out of recontextualizing artworks and artifacts within the museum context; doing so in the public realm proved to be a much more challenging proposition.

While his proposed artwork was being scuttled, there were statements in public conversations about how it could spark new conversations and lead to more meaningful changes in Indianapolis public art, but one of the only tangible things to come from these conversations is a 2015 work by Bernard Williams, Talking Wall. This piece is on the IUPUI campus, just off the Cultural Trail. It is situated between two parking garages on Blackford Street and practically invisible to downtown visitors.

The obvious lack of representation of Indigenous and Black people in our monuments is amplified by the fact that what is on view is also overwhelmingly gendered male. We need more representations of women in our public spaces. Our monuments, memorials, public artworks, and public spaces should better represent all of us, and represent values other than the conqueror’s.

We have a number of things to be proud of

Of course, there are some excellent monuments, memorials, public artworks, and spaces in Indianapolis. Take, for example, the Landmark for Peace Memorial, otherwise known as the Kennedy King Memorial, which was completed in 1995. This work at 17th and Broadway streets commemorates the place and spirit of the speech that Robert Kennedy gave in 1968 to a largely Black crowd the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Having spent my career working on and exploring artworks in the public space, I believe we should all feel fortunate to have such an excellent and fitting tribute in the city; it’s a great space any time of the year. The Chief Menominee Monument, which was dedicated in 1909 near Plymouth, Indiana, is another excellent and appropriate monument among many others around the state. This is a rare example of a monument honoring an Indigenous leader who was so clearly wronged. He and the nearly 900 members of the Potawatomi nation were marched out of Indiana, nearly 700 miles to Kansas.

Some change underway

Citizens around the country are asking questions about their monuments and memorials, and public spaces, and it’s time for Hoosiers to get involved, even while we hear vehement opposition to change from the highest levels of government. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the futures of our public spaces?

Serious conversations are happening in some parts of the state. In West Lafayette, there is a petition to remove the name of William Henry Harrison from a county high school and change the name of its mascot, “The Raider,” to something more appropriate.

Down in Bloomington, Indiana University President Michael McRobbie recently removed the name of segregationist Ora Wildermuth from the campus Intramural Center and replaced it with that of Bill Garrett, IU’s first Black basketball player. McRobbie also announced that the university would complete “a systematic review of all named buildings or structures on all IU Campuses.”

The state of Indiana should follow Indiana University’s lead.

Similar programs have been implemented, and there are organizations are already working on this kind of work around the country. Save Outdoor Sculpture! was a nationwide survey in the 1990s that documented nearly 32,000 outdoor sculptures. This program was jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Heritage Preservation, Inc. Here in Indiana, that program was administered by Indiana Landmarks, with more than 1,200 sculptures examined and documented.

The nonprofit organization Forecast has a program and set of tools to assess equity in public art, and the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab  has been facilitating useful conversations around monuments since 2015. The tools exist to evaluate the meaning of what is in our public spaces. There are places to share our data and information to be part of something bigger, like Data for Black Lives. The only question is, is there political will to work together to really look at our communities?

We can do this

While the state is grappling with managing the pandemic, this call to action might be seen as too bold at this time. But it is not unrealistic.

This work must be seen through the lens of Indianapolis’s bicentennial celebration. We can see that for over half of its formal existence, Indianapolis has been a city working to build a civic identity around monuments and memorials. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated in May of 1905, and by the 1930s, this identity was firmly established with the completion of the Indiana War Memorial Building. In addition, there’s the Indiana Statehouse, Indiana Central Canal, and the five-block Indiana War Memorial Plaza, which collectively make up the most significant downtown public spaces. Nearly every national television broadcast of sporting events in Indianapolis features one or all of those public places. When Indianapolis is back to hosting those events, viewers will see our state capital and these places with different eyes.

Finally, it must be understood that this work will not fix all of our problems, much less the most troubling parts of systemic racism, but it will show that representation and words matter. A willingness to change and evolve will help us care about the present and future of our state and city.

McCoy is the founding Executive Director of Landmark Columbus Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to caring for, celebrating, and advancing the world-renown cultural heritage of Columbus, Indiana. He has a long history of creating unique solutions to complex cultural heritage challenges. 

Fruits is a freelance photographer working exclusively in the state of Indiana and the Midwest as a collaborative creative in support of community and organizational mission activities, visual content creation, art landscape and architecture documentation, historic preservation efforts, and a broad range of educational, cultural heritage, design, and public outreach initiatives.