Washington’s National Mall, which hosted the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987 and a remembrance for Covid-19 victims last year, will see its green acres transformed into a temporary exhibit next summer that reimagines the role of monuments in the narrative of American history.
The exhibit, announced Wednesday by the Trust for the National Mall, is part of a $4.5 million initiative for new programming at the park that emphasizes equity and inclusivity.
“Normally for artists you work in isolation, but it’s about being vulnerable and acknowledging the audience,” said Derrick Adams, sculptor and one of six artists commissioned for the project.
Adams hopes to set up his proposed work — a playground that explores stories of desegregation in and around the capital — near the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Children will see it as a beacon of education,” he said.
The other artists in the exhibition, titled “Pulling Together”, are Vanessa German, Wendy Red Star, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Ashon Crawley and Tiffany Chung. They were all selected because of their experience producing work on democracy and public memory, said Paul Farber, director of the nonprofit Monument Lab.
“The prompt asked the artists to reflect on the untold stories about the mall,” Farber said. “There were a few themes that we were interested in, including diaspora, migration, displacement and civic gathering.”
The National Mall has been described as the country’s civic arena, where protesters marched in defense of human rights and political debates. The exhibit will be the first organized group art exhibit in the park’s history, said Teresa Durkin, the trust’s executive vice president.
“As for permanent commemoration, it’s a long, very expensive and sometimes controversial process,” she said. “We believe that having alternatives will allow more people to participate and be heard.”
Salamishah Tillet, a New York Times contributing critic who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Critics, curates the exhibit with Farber. She said the public’s relationship with monuments has grown in recent years alongside the social justice movement, and one of the aims of the exhibit was to provide people with “prototype monuments with which they can interact physically, see each other and gather”.
Funding for the Trust for the National Mall’s broader initiative, called Beyond Granite, comes from the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project, which began in 2020 with the aim of spending $250 million to improve the diversity of the memorial landscape of the country. The project funded an audit of the country’s monuments by Monument Lab, which determined that of the 50 people most often represented by monuments in the United States, 88% were white men and half were slave owners.
Durkin described “Pulling Together” as a pilot arts program for the National Mall, where until recently the focus was primarily on restoration and maintenance projects.
“Our hope is that we will learn everything we need to create a sustainable program that the trust would manage,” Durkin said, “so that we can continue to help people come forward and tell their stories.”