In the midst of the state government complex in downtown Raleigh, a park is taking shape that is nothing short of remarkable. Reginald Hildebrand, who teaches African and African-American history at UNC-Chapel Hill, calls the site “Freedom Grove,” where historically, plantation slaves would come together to talk and learn.
Since 2001, Hildebrand has co-chaired the North Carolina Freedom Monument Project, which will recognize and honor the African-American experience in North Carolina. Adjacent to the State Archives and across from the State Legislative building, the Freedom Monument will be a contemporary interpretation of a freedom grove for all North Carolinians.
The project is becoming an exemplary case study in the development of a public art commission. It began as an idea that was amplified by hundreds of voices from across North Carolina and then brought before a public review process that included curators and arts professionals. The result is a prominent site that will engage hundreds of people every day–elected officials, school groups, government staff and visitors touring the Capitol.
Eight sites in Raleigh were evaluated, but securing this location at the heart of state government is an extraordinary accomplishment, as the monument will physically, symbolically and reciprocally face the government and its policies.
Public art combines a community’s desire for expression with an artist whose skills (in addition to genius and problem solving) must include site analysis, project administration, negotiation among competing interests, and comprehending a cacophony of voices proffering direction. The public artist must also have patience, and a willingness to accept that review agencies, the public, government, benefactors, peers and outside designers and engineers will influence and reorient any work in progress.
Permanent public art commissions take a long time. Before selecting the artists, the organizers of the Freedom Monument took two years to collect memories of struggle and oppression from people across the state. Then statements of qualification from artists were narrowed from 108 to 30 artists, and eventually four short-listed teams were invited to create conceptual proposals. On Feb. 27 of this year, public artist Juan Logan, landscape architect David Swanson and historian Lyneise Williams were chosen to develop their ideas for a series of 12 interactive works of art that give form to the experiences of tension, hope, ingenuity and resilience–subjects at the core of this project.
The next step in this process is for the artists to present their work to those who first expressed their visions for the monument almost five years ago. In May, detailed design proposals will be considered by the North Carolina Historical Commission, which will decide if it approves the use of state property for this project.
Hildebrand describes the public process as inclusive: “The artists have thought deeply about the ideas that were [earlier] expressed at community meetings held at various places across the state, and have created a public space that not only reflects those ideas, but also the very open and public way in which they were gathered. The monument is actually a space that invites people to enter and tarry with their own memories and hopes … it will be a ‘living’ public art space.”
The monument’s sculptural experiences reinterpret obstruction, anonymity, the concept of freedom, the power of social activism and the interaction between historical time and the present. Translated into granite, slate, fieldstone and water, the work invites the visitor to climb on top of an auction block, try to squeeze through a jagged crack in a granite wall symbolic of the Jim Crow era, decipher the patterns of the plaza’s paving to discover the routes of the Underground Railroad, and read a quote and then start a conversation about it over lunch in the amphitheater. Lead artist Logan hopes that the experience of the monument will create “moments of transcendence and reflection, such as when walking around the fountain and reading the engraved words ‘Polaris,’ ‘exodus,’ ‘ownership,’ ‘north’ and others. Some of the words will be partially obscured by water flowing over various parts of the fountain. When people touch and connect with the individual elements of the monument, we hope that each will see themselves differently.”
Learn more about the project at www.ncfmp.org.
Janet Kagan is a principal in the Percent for Art Collaborative, which assists governments, nonprofits and private interests with public art initiatives. She also serves on the Public Art Network Council of Americans for the Arts and the board of the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission.