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Competition Uses Design To Discuss Racism & Reimagine Monument Ave

Submission to the contest redesigning Monument Avenue titled "Bound"
This is one of the submissions to the contest redesigning Monument Avenue titled "Bound". It proposes installing wall-mounted panels around the Lee Monument inscribed with information about the history of the avenue and its creation. Gabrielle Jones/WCVE

Submissions from a national competition to redesign Monument Avenue are on display at the Valentine Museum.

“Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion” features 70 renderings of designs reimagining the historic Richmond street.

It's the second part of a multi-year initiative that organizers hope will encourage the community to talk about race in America.

Camden Whitehead is faculty at VCU’s mObstudiO and the competition’s project director. He said the racially motivated mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina compelled them to think about how to use design to talk about race and what to name the competition.

“Everybody was talking about Confederate statuary at that time, and clearly what [there] was once a lot of people devoted to, there were at the same time a lot of people hoping to demote them.”

Whitehead said their goal is to add concrete ideas to the conversation about Richmond’s Confederate monuments.

“We’re not very good at talking about race relations and the reason we held the competition was to get ideas in front of people so that they could maybe move away from their positions, and actually start talking about a physical proposal,” said Whitehead.

The competition, co-organized by VCU’s mObstudiO and Storefront for Community Design, started calling for those physical proposals last April. The Valentine opened a sister exhibit chronicling 400 years of Richmond’s public monuments last July.

“It’s a long journey but we think that this particular issue -- how do we remember -- is really important,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin.

The museum’s earlier exhibit went beyond Confederate statues showing all kinds of monuments -- from Arthur Ashe to the River Road Ghost Bike.

“When this opportunity came with Storefront for Community Design and MoB it was like the perfect bookend to a conversation that allows us to say now we know what the history looks like, we know the stories we want to tell as a community, now how do we do that,” said Martin.

Some of the entries cover the current monuments with veils, some dismantle them, and some erect other monuments alongside them. Adele Ball, the competition’s graphic designer and project manager said she noticed some themes among the proposals.

“There are several submissions that transform the existing statues, whether they are transforming the actual statues themselves or the bronze or putting them under water. There’s others that are thematically kind of like submerging the statues under the landscape. And then, there’s some submissions that are kind of like doing public or creative placemaking, and creating a space for conversation,” said Ball.

At the Valentine, 20 submissions are rendered on large boards. The remaining 50 can be seen on a rotating screen in the gallery. Visitors can vote for their favorite design to receive the "People's Choice" award. (Photo: Gabrielle Jones/WCVE)

Ball is also a graduate of VCU’s mObstudiO. She said the detailed, complex and layered entries surprised her.

“Some of the entries or submissions have changed the way I’m thinking about the space have been to kind of weave together different layers and narratives of history in beautiful and creative ways,” said Ball.

One narrative that’s been a topic in the community is question of if additional historical context should be added to the monuments. Martin said he thinks visitors will see innovative ways to do this in the exhibit.

“The mayor’s commission has said we need to interpret these, we need to provide context, and that doesn’t always mean putting up a sign," said Martin.

Camden Whitehead said the competition’s organizers hope to keep the conversation about Confederate monuments top of mind in the community.

“This competition is not necessarily to solve the issues on Monument Avenue, but to keep them in the discussion, to keep people talking about them,” said Whitehead. “This is in a way one step in a design process of solving a problem.”

A Facebook page called the Monument Avenue Preservation Group recently created a post calling for a boycott of the Valentine over the exhibit. In a statement the group said: “Monument Avenue, arguably one of the most special urban schemes in America, does not need subversive, jarring, unsympathetic ‘art’ masquerading as ‘context’ in order for people to understand its complex significance.”

The group is not affiliated with the civic organization the Monument Avenue Preservation Society according to that organization’s president, Bill Gallasch.

In a Facebook message, an administrator for the page said the group is run anonymously by several people, and is the social media presence of an organization called the Historic Monument Preservation Alliance.

In a statement, the Valentine said it neither opposes nor supports the removal of any monuments -- adding it hopes Richmonders of all backgrounds and opinions will visit this exhibition and begin the difficult but necessary work of reckoning with the city’s complicated past.

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