COLUMBUS, Ohio — On Wednesday, July 1, the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue located at City Hall began, as requested by Mayor Andrew Ginther and agreed upon by the Columbus Art Commission, whose members are charged with approving the altering or removal of the city’s public art, among other responsibilities.

The seven-person body motioned to move forward with a number of tasks — including finding a replacement for the statue, as well as redesigning the Columbus flag and seal — in tandem with that decision.

As far as who or what will serve as the replacement, that decision will ultimately be left up to an assigned subcommittee, in tandem with public meetings announced by the commission that will come “in the near future.”

“The Columbus Art Commission supports the mayor in his commitment to find a replacement for the statue with public input and participation that is diverse and inclusive in its approach,” Columbus Art Commission Chair Diane Nance said in a statement, “and is committed to building trust with the community through a transparent process, recognizing the statue
may mean many thing to different people.”

Commissioners didn’t take the removal lightly. Matthew Mohr, a member of the art commission since 2018, thinks the statue was a beautiful contribution to Columbus — a gift from its sister city, Genoa, Italy, in 1955. He’s also saddened by the response from Italian Americans.

“My wife is Italian American, and, you know, [the statue] does represent the contribution of Italian culture and to some degree the struggle that they went through in assimilating to America. I can see their viewpoint,” said Mohr. “But at the same time, Christopher Columbus doesn’t seem to be on the right side of history. And if anybody does the research on it, they’ll find that this is the appropriate thing to do.”

Lisa McLymont was invited to join the commission last year, and became an official member in late June. In addition to being a designer and artist, McLymont is Black, queer and first-generation, “a walking pot of diversity” she jokes. She’s both honored and excited to be a part of the conversation, as being a part of these communities will color the perspective she brings to the commission.

Being a part of the conversation in an official capacity, she says that her understanding of what the statue represents for Italian Americans has expanded. However, she still firmly believes the city is ready for change.

“I learned recently that when the statue was erected, it was part of a basically campaign to raise the value of Italian lives,” she says. “[So] I am not in the camp or feel it needs to be broken down in a way where it can never be shown again. Again, that’s out of respect for the Italians that feel really proud about their legacy.”

For the artists on the commission, reconciling the removal of a work of art seems to be much more nuanced than likely the average person would allow. In their meeting last week, the commission spoke at length on how the statue would be preserved and cleaned of graffiti out of respect for the work. Yet there is an understanding among commissioners that if the time comes for a public work to move on, then it should.

Mohr says of his own work — the 14-foot, interactive 3D sculpture “As We Are,” currently on display at the Greater Columbus Convention Center — that if his work no longer felt representative of the people of Columbus, he would agree to the same fate.

“I’m hoping that it lasts for decades to come as a symbol of who we are,” he said. “But if it outlived its usefulness or its expression, then it should be taken down.”

McLymont shares similar sentiments.

“As an artist, I would say you make things and you let them go,” she says. “They are part of the public domain. The ownership is in the memory that I have of creating it. So to me, we all hold a part of the piece that’s created and put out publicly.”

She says for that same reason, she agrees that the community as a whole should be able to voice what the replacement is to become, keeping in mind the commission ultimately will not be able to please everybody.

“I understand my position on the art commission is to build up the voices that build and sustain the city,” says McLymont. “I am also aware that not everybody is going to be happy with everything that we do. But the main thought is we’re trying to open up things where everyone feels more welcome.”

“I suspect that not everybody will be satisfied, but I believe that public art should speak in a manner that goes beyond words,” says Mohr. “And so if there is a measure for the end result, I would hope that it incorporates not only a feeling of inclusiveness and diversity, but it expresses the hopes and some of the identity of what we’re striving for.”

Speaking personally, the commissioners do have ideas on where the statue should end up and what should go in its place.

Mohr is in favor of its display elsewhere — especially if Columbus keeps its name — where its historical relevance can be put into context.

“It is an expression of who we were at a certain time, and now that time has changed,” he said. “It still has historical value, but it doesn’t deserve to be lauded as a true expression of who we are as a community.”

However Mohr does hopes that, wherever the statue goes, there’s an educational component that goes with it.

“Of both the good that he did but also acknowledging, you know, frankly the atrocities that he did to the West Indies and enslaving people. It’s just an opportunity we have right now to make things at least a little better,” he says. “And really it’s an opportunity to move forward in a way that speaks to how Columbus has developed over its history and moving forward in a more inclusive, positive way.”

McLymont suggests the statue’s replacement could involve uplifting people of color, but would like to have that conversation once the dust settles.

“What I offered in the meeting was that Native Americans might need the light, until we see who the next hero is,” she says. She doesn’t mind a sculpture of John Glenn, she says, and really doesn’t mind one of Toni Morrison.

“All of those people are very important in our path of growth. But as far as establishing safety for a group of people, I think Native Americans would be first,” she says.

But, of course, there’s no quick answer to the question.

“I have to take time to parse through that, which is why I would propose that there is either nothing there or an abstract sculpture is there that represents the hope of Columbus,” she says.

In addition to moving forward with the removal, the commission voted to accept the job of redesigning the city’s flag and seal. Both Mohr and McLymont are on the subcommittee for the redesign, and will work with Columbus historians, local designers and others to reimagine what these official symbols will look like.

Mohr says his goal is to create something as popular as the city of Chicago’s flag.

“It’s beloved. And I think we got a shot at making something that’ll be proudly displayed on front porches and stuff like that,” he says. “I want it to become part of who we are, and in the best way possible.”

McLymont also hopes to create something that moves from the current, dated design to something that looks beyond just what we know today.

“My personal preference is not just to modernize and honor the past, but to also make space, to build a future we can grow into,” she says.

There hasn’t been a set timeline for the redesign, but both artists are excited for the possibilities and the opportunity to help shift Columbus forward — with the community’s help.

“I know there’s so much talent around this town and so much understanding of who we are as a city,” says Mohr. “This is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I’m jazzed.”

“I’m excited about what other designers will think and propose, even artists,” says McLymont. “I’m really looking forward to learning more about what’s in this community and mold toward that. I feel like I’m a very empathetic designer, so my approach is to listen very widely, get all the thoughts and parse that into something that lots of us can be proud of.”

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