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November 9, 2017

City Vote to Remove Controversial Stephen Foster Statue Draws Mixed Opinions From Faculty

Stephen Foster Memorial Statue

The Pittsburgh Art Commission voted unanimously to remove a statue honoring Pittsburgh songwriter Stephen Foster from the city-owned parklet on Forbes near the Carnegie Museums.

The controversial 10-foot bronze statue of American composer Stephen Foster is coming down. And some Pitt faculty members have mixed feelings about it.

The Pittsburgh Art Commission voted unanimously Oct. 25 to advise Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to remove the public art piece from the small parklet on Forbes Avenue next to the Carnegie Museums. Created 117 years ago by sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, it depicts the composer perched on a rock while writing music and a toothless, raggedly dressed, barefoot black man seated at his feet strumming a banjo.

While Moretti may have intended to project the idea that Foster took inspiration from black music, some Pittsburghers have long claimed the statue to be racist, showing a white man’s superiority over a black slave.

The statue is neither Pitt-owned nor situated on Pitt property; however, a committee of University faculty, staff and students was convened more than a year ago at the request of Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pamela Connelly to study the statue in response to concerns raised by students.

Those concerns gained new attention this fall, following a violent march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The city’s commission heard more than an hour of public testimony at an Oct. 4 meeting and accepted comments from community members via email. On Oct. 25, the committee voted to remove the statue from its location in Oakland and to have the Department of Public Works take possession of it. A second motion was made to have the statue removed within six months and to have a new home be found for it within a year from that point. It also passed unanimously.

Kirk Savage, a professor of art history at Pitt and noted historian of public monuments, said that it was the right decision. He said the juxtaposition of Foster, seated in gentleman’s attire and in the art of composing, and the black musician seated below him, creates “an insidious racial binary.”

Savage added: “The difference here is not horizontal but vertical and hierarchical. White-black, up-down, culture-nature, thinker-entertainer, gentleman-pauper, master-slave — all these binaries combine to communicate a clear racial storyline that confirms the superiority and power of white culture.”

Assistant Professor of Art History Sharin Fozi agreed.

“Art historians are always trying to help people see that the study of visual representation has to move beyond what is being shown, and to address how it is shown,” she said.

But not everyone feels the statue should be hauled away.

Laurence Glasco, associate professor of history, said “the statue has unfortunately become mixed in with Confederate statues that do, in fact, assert white supremacy and domination by honoring men who fought to preserve slavery.”

Glasco says Foster was not a racist, but someone who had black friends in Pittsburgh from whom he came to love and appreciate black music.

“The statue is patronizing but basically sympathetic,” he added. “The black figure may be smaller and at the feet of Foster, but he is the one making the music. He is the teacher, Foster the student recording the music.”

Both Savage and Fozi, who submitted their views to the commission in a letter signed by 40 Pitt faculty members and graduate students, suggested that the Senator John Heinz History Center consider accepting the Moretti piece. They say that way, it could be examined in the appropriate context.

But Savage said there are financial costs to safekeeping a large sculpture as well as “metaphorical costs” to the institution’s brand.

“We have seen this play out with Confederate statues,” he said. “Interestingly, a lot of museums have rejected those offers because when push comes to shove they just don’t want to deal with such divisive, destructive objects, even if those objects do have artistic or historical value.”

Savage and Glasco will join other experts including Deane Root, chair, Department of Music, and director, Center for American Music; Christel Temple, chair and associate professor, Department of Africana Studies; and Heinz History Center President and CEO Andrew Masich to examine the issue of public monuments and memorials at a moderated panel discussion later this month titled “American Memorials in the 21st Century: A Monumental Mess?” The event is the latest in the University Forums on Current Issues series developed earlier this year by the Office of the Provost. Click here for more information about the upcoming event.


Sharon Blake,, 412-624-4364


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 6

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