Seen from the end of Congress Street at the Eastern Promenade, the Cleeve and Tucker Obelisk stands before a backdrop of Casco Bay. It was erected in 1883 to commemorate the Cleeve and Tucker families, thought to be the first settlers of Machigone Neck, one of the original names of Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A volunteer committee that oversees Portland’s public art collection wants to make sure roughly 60 works on display around the city are presented in an appropriate historical context and include underrepresented narratives and points of view.

The effort, known as decolonizing public art, will likely be an ongoing process rather than a one-off proposition, according to James Cradock, chairman of the Public Art Committee, who is leading the effort. And it’s something that more cities and nonprofits are doing in the wake of the racial justice demonstrations that took place last summer, he said.

“We’re looking at the collection and assessing it, trying to determine how well it represents Portland as a multicultural and diverse place, which is part of the public art program ordinance,” Cradock said. 

Efforts to decolonize public art vary around the country. Some states and cities have been removing Confederate statues, for example. And a group of activists called Decolonize This Place is leading efforts to assess art in New York City.

In Maine, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor began decolonizing its collection about five years ago. The Abbe was founded in 1926 and named after a wealthy summer resident who collected early Native American artifacts in Frenchman Bay. As part of that decolonization process, the museum began telling Wabanaki stories and culture from the tribal perspective, instead of from the perspective of Maine’s Colonial settlers – and wealthy summer residents.

Chris Newell, director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Museum Director Chris Newell applauded Portland’s effort, while acknowledging the city’s proactive efforts to teach Wabanaki history in its schools, recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day and its overall welcoming attitude towards immigrants.

Newell said decolonization at the Abbe is an ongoing process, which has grown beyond re-examining its collection – it’s also led to a change in leadership. Newell, a native of Indian Township and member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, became the first tribal member to lead the museum last year and said half of the board of the directors are members of the Wabanaki Nation, which includes Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Maliseet and Abenaki.

Newell said it’s important to ensure that a public art collection, especially pieces that pay homage to individuals or commemorate historical events, represent the totality of history, not just a few hundred years of colonialism. He said ignoring or erasing the thousands of years of pre-Colonial history of indigenous people causes ongoing harm today.

“The reason you do it is not just because it’s good for native people,” Newell said. “It’s really good for everybody, because the history of indigenous genocide is something that we as human beings in the state of Maine all need to learn from because we’re all here now. So it benefits us all to learn the hard histories that happened in our homelands and do better as human beings going forward.”

Portland City Councilor April Fournier, who is the first indigenous person elected to the council, said she was excited about the decolonization effort, framing it as part of the ongoing work in the city about racial equity.

“We should also be very deliberate about the public things we do,” Fournier said, “whether it’s ordinances, art or performance events, so that we’re taking that same very intentional look at who are we representing, who are we impacting and who is being included in these conversations, so that we are not unintentionally harming a people by not taking the extra time to really take multiple perspectives.”

Portland’s effort was launched last summer as racial justice demonstrations were filling streets across the country, including in Portland, but is expected to gain steam in the coming months. Decolonization was identified as one of the art committee’s top goals for the current year.

Caitlin Cameron, the city’s urban designer who staffs the art committee, worked with a task force last summer to conduct an initial survey of the city collection. Of 60 pieces in the permanent art collection, including those in design, only 12, or 20 percent, were done by women and only two pieces were by artists of color: “Portland Brick” by Ayumi Horie and “Shattered Sphere” by Sarah Sze.

Cameron referred all questions about the decolonizing effort to Cradock.

Cradock said he believes the committee itself has diverse representation. And he noted “Portland Brick,” a piece by Horie and Elise Pepple that was installed in 2015 along India Street, does a good job of articulating the history of the diverse communities that once lived there. The work includes sidewalk bricks imprinted with stories about the neighborhood and its history.

However, Cradock said, the committee is currently examining the historical context around two pieces: the Cleeve and Tucker Obelisk on the Eastern Promenade and the “The Hiker” statue in Deering Oaks.

George Cleeve and Richard Tucker are believed to have been the first settlers of Machigone Neck, one of the original names of the land now known as Portland. A book written by William Jordan, “A History of Cape Elizabeth,” described Cleeve as a slaveholder. However, research conducted by the Maine Historical Society at the art committee’s request could find no evidence of that being true.

Unveiled in 1883, the obelisk is made from granite from North Jay and was the first monument installed in the city. Etched into the four sides of the monument are the four names for the city of Portland: Machigone, Casco, Falmouth and Portland. Also engraved are George Cleeve’s and Richard Tucker’s names and the names of the women in their families, an unusual addition for the times.

“Slavery was common in Maine,” Cradock said. “It was in York and Kittery as early as the 1660s, which overlaps with Cleeve’s time. But in terms of Cleeve being a slaveholder, they couldn’t find any corroborating evidence in historical records or contemporary documents.”

About 18 years ago, the city was offered as a gift a 7-foot bronze statue honoring Cleeve. It turned the statue down over concerns about his possible connection to slavery.

“The Hiker” is a statue in Deering Oaks Park that commemorates the American soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Filipino-American War. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The Hiker” monument in Deering Oaks is another piece getting a new look. The bronze statue of a white man holding a rifle, located near State Street and Park Avenue, honors American infantrymen who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Philippine-American War. It is one of about 50 such statues made and on display around the country.

Jamie Rice, library director with the Maine Historical Society, posted on the art committee’s website a video explanation of “The Hiker” that highlights its Colonial implications. She said the statue represents a change in America’s foreign policy, ushering in a period in which the U.S. more aggressively sought to impose its ideals throughout the world.

“The Spanish-American War itself also demonstrates a shift in American ideals and foreign policy,” Rice said. “Through the modern lens one can see that it’s very imperialistic in nature and demonstrates the American concept of becoming the protector of the Western Hemisphere.”

The Hadlock Field Family Sculpture sits at the entrance to the home of the Portland Sea Dogs. It was a gift from the baseball team’s owner and his wife to the city of Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

One other piece of Portland’s public art – the Hadlock Field Family Sculpture – generated controversy years ago. In fact, the art committee voted against accepting it as a gift to the city’s permanent collection, in part because it “did not feel the statue adequately represented the diversity of Portland’s population,” according to the committee’s website. However, the council overrode the decision and the piece was added to the collection.

Cradock said it’s too soon to say whether the decolonization effort would lead to any pieces being removed from the city’s collection. Such a process would include an art committee recommendation to the full council, which would have final say.

Officially removing a piece of public art in Portland is rare, but not unprecedented. “Tracing the Fore,” a series of saw-blade-looking sculptures surrounded by tall grass in the center of Fore Street and meant to evoke waves in the harbor, was removed about 10 years ago for aesthetic reasons.

Once the city’s collection is evaluated, Cradock said, the art committee as a whole will need to determine the best avenue for providing a more accurate and inclusive historical context. Those avenues could include updating the city’s website, adding explanations on the actual pieces or including them in outreach efforts, whether its coloring books for schools or presentations during First Friday Art Walks.

Cradock said the committee will also be looking at ways to better solicit work from a more diverse base of artists in the future.

“This could help with outreach, by letting people know the collection is evolving and is not this immutable thing,” Cradock said. 

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