Controversial memorials review led by Ford Foundation president, cultural affairs commissioner

Singer Harry Belafonte, city Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and architect Michael Arad are among the 18 people that Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen for his commission on controversial memorials and statues.

The mayor announced his choices for the commission on Friday, naming Finkelpearl and Walker as co-chairs who will lead the group.

The commission, ordered by de Blasio back in August, is tasked with creating guidelines on how the city should handle memorials and statues that may be offensive or “inconsistent with the values” of the city, according to the mayor’s office. 

It will also review and offer recommendations on some monuments and other pieces that have been at the center of recent public discourse in the city, though the mayor’s office did not specify which items would be under scrutiny.

The panel’s recommendations on the memorials it reviews will be posted on the city’s website and will include a description of de Blasio’s “final decision,” according to the mayor’s office.

The group will have 90 days to come up with the guidelines and release its recommendations.

“There’s an important conversation taking place right now about history and representation in public art, monuments and markers,” de Blasio said in an emailed statement. “This diverse group of experts will be creating a thoughtful set of guidelines that acknowledge the complexities of history and the values that matter to us as New Yorkers.”

De Blasio had announced back on Aug. 16 that he would create a commission to review “all symbols of hate on city property” following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that was held in response to the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Since then, a number of city residents and local officials have singled out certain memorials or statues that they feel are offensive and should be part of the commission’s review, including the monuments to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle and Dr. J. Marion Sims in East Harlem.

The public will have a few chances to weigh in on the process. A public forum will be scheduled during the review process and a survey will be posted on the Department of Cultural Affairs website.

Finkelpearl said he was honored to be named a commission co-chair. “The members of the commission bring an incredible range and depth of knowledge to this important task, and I am sincerely grateful for their service.”

The other members of the commission include:

– Richard Alba, professor at CUNY Graduate Center

– John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society

– Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College

– Gonzalo Casals, director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

– Teresita Fernandez, MacArthur Fellow and visual artist with experience in public art

– Amy Freitag, executive director of the JM Kaplan Fund

– Catie Marron, editor of books on urban parks and public spaces and trustee of the New York Public Library

– Jon Meacham, Vanderbilt University professor and Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson

– Pepón Osorio, MacArthur Fellow and visual artist with experience in public art

– Harriet Senie, director of the Art History program and Art Museum Studies at City College of New York

– Shahzia Sikander, MacArthur Fellow and visual artist with experience in public art

– Audra Simpson, Mohawk anthropologist and professor of Anthropology at Columbia University

– John Kuo Wei Tchen, historian of Chinese Americans in New York City and associate professor at New York University

– Mabel Wilson, architect and associate professor at Columbia University

Some city agencies, including the parks and law departments, are expected to offer additional expertise to the panel.

The mayor’s office said more people could be added to the commission before its first meeting. A date hasn’t been set yet, but the meeting is expected to be scheduled for late September.