A Monument to Maggie: Richmond's Journey Through Public Art to Honor a Civil Rights Hero is a short documentary that uses storytelling to show how art can help communities honor the past in order to heal. Our nation's public art is complex, and it is powerful—we must be mindful of that power. Public art reflects the stories and histories we most want to tell ourselves, the lessons we want to learn, the pride we collectively hold, and the priorities with which we craft our communities' futures. The presence (and absence of) people/events in the sculptures, murals, music, and imagery with which we commemorate history create the narrative we tell our communities.
We must recognize those who come together to have civil and just dialogues, and to meaningfully assess the value of their existing public art pieces, monuments, and memorials (and the need for new ones) in telling the narratives that their communities desire and deserve.
This documentary details how communities are strengthened through art. A Monument to Maggie details the challenges of Richmond, Virginia as they create a public art piece in honor of Maggie L. Walker, a local African –American civil rights leader, the first American female bank president to charter a bank in the United States, and the first woman to be memorialized in Richmond. By telling Richmond’s story, contextualized by its status as the former Confederate capital, other communities who are also struggling with ideas of history and memory can be inspired to move to action.
Americans for the Arts is a nonprofit organization committed to advancing the arts in America. We serve a membership base of local arts agencies and other arts professionals around the country who we provide with necessary tools, resources, and professional development to advocate for the arts in their communities. The Public Art Network (PAN) is one of the many programs that American for the Arts has developed to support public art professionals in the field. PAN is the only professional network in the United States dedicated to advancing public art programs and projects through advocacy, policy, and information resources to further art and design in our built environment.
Our strategy was to create a video that would work hand-in-hand with all of the other tools and resources that we work hard to provide the field around public art and placemaking/placekeeping. The Maggie L. Walker monument in Richmond, Virginia, was a great example to highlight because community members originated the project and community input informed every decision of the creation of the final monument.
Shortly after production for the video was finished, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia—about an hour west of Richmond—resulting in violent clashes and the tragic fatality of a young woman. At the center of the events in Charlottesville were monuments that tell a different story of our country. It was clear to us that we could not shy away from the difficult conversations surrounding these two very different types of monuments.
The story of the Maggie L. Walker monument in Richmond is an example of a diverse community coming together, having disagreements, and working through them to reach a common goal: to honor Maggie L. Walker properly. This narrative is the heartbeat of our story. In the wake of Charlottesville, it was more important than ever to show how public art can be a source of unity rather than division.
To amplify the story’s release, we implemented a strategy that spanned our events, social media, and blog. In addition to being published and promoted on our YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we create a series of blog posts that spanned a month with key individuals who were integral to the process (Melvin Jones, community activist and catalyst for the monument’s creation; Ellyn Parker, former Public Art Coordinator for the city of Richmond; Liza Mickens, great, great-granddaughter of Maggie Walker; Ajena Cason Rogers, Supervisory Park Ranger). We screened the film at our national Arts Advocacy Day event and published a story in our quarterly member magazine Arts Link.
We make our resources available across all of our social media channels, on our website, through members-only briefings and public art-specific listservs and groups, in regular email communications, and at screenings at our events. As a nonprofit organization with a small but mighty video team, we never aim to create the next viral sensation nor do we have the resources to create a large-scale production, only to thoughtfully and authentically tell the stories of our subjects, leverage that to create tools for our members, and bring visibility to the Maggie L. Walker monument and the community that helped create it.
The film was screened at our Arts Advocacy Day event and paired with a panel discussion featuring Americans for the Arts staff/filmmakers as well as the monument’s artist Toby Mendez. That event is regularly attended by 600+ arts advocates from around the country. Our blog series featured five authors over a one-month period and were widely shared across social media. After its release, we did a members-only webinar about the process of creating the film to inspire others to tackle similar work in their communities. In addition, an in-depth article was written in our quarterly magazine Arts Link which has an average circulation of 7,000+ readers in print.
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