Art History

Walla Walla City Council unveils Whitman statue, stables for further studies | governments | Pro Club Bd

Walla Walla’s statue of missionary and pioneer Marcus Whitman will remain where it has stood for the past 30 years, at least for now.

City council members voted 5-2 during a session on Wednesday, July 13, to keep the statue near downtown Walla Walla pending further study, rather than move it as per Walla’s recommendation Walla Arts Commission.

Councilors Brian Casey and Susan Nakonieczny, who voted against the measure, also supported leaving the statue where it is, but said they supported replacing the statue with a plaque or another statue , which may represent the Cayuse to add historical context, rather than further investigating the distance, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes.

Councilors who favored further study argued there had not been sufficient discussions with Whitman College, where the statue now stands, or with the Fort Walla Walla Museum, which had been suggested as a destination should the statue be removed .

City officials also said no formal talks were held to establish the official position of the Confederate tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Rather than making a final decision in the ongoing public controversy over whether the Whitman statue should stay or go, Wednesday’s vote was just another step in a process that officially began late last year.

The motion to deaccession, or remove, the statue of Marcus Whitman was submitted to the city in October 2021 by Emily Tillotson, a professor at Walla Walla University.

This deaccession process, which allows a city resident to request re-examination of a public work of art owned by the city, was created specifically in response to complaints about the statue of Whitman, Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain told UB.

The Walla Walla Arts Commission voted unanimously during a May 11 session to remove the statue of Marcus Whitman from its current downtown location and preferably move it to the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

This vote came after months of meetings and public contributions, during which the commission considered whether to simply dispose of the statue, add plaques or other educational information to contextualize Whitman’s story, leave it unchanged, or move the statue to a new location, among other options relocate .

However, the museum had not officially agreed to house the statue, so the commission also recommended the formation of a subcommittee to facilitate negotiations with this organization.

But the Art Commission’s recommendation was non-binding, and Walla Walla City Council has final authority over the statue.

On Wednesday, council members were offered options similar to those of the art commission: discard the statue, move it, contextualize it, or do nothing.

While the council voted on Wednesday not to do anything for now, that doesn’t prevent them from reviving the issue in the future after more information has been gathered. However, it is not immediately clear how long this process could take.

lengthy debate

The public comments made during Wednesday’s council meeting were largely a continuation of arguments that have been made for and against the statue’s removal in recent years, including during previous council meetings.

Between the Arts Commission vote in May and Wednesday’s meeting, city officials received a series of letters overwhelmingly opposed to the removal, including from the family of Avard Fairbanks, the famous artist who created the original statue .

Many comments to the city instead called for additional artwork, plaques, or other objects to contextualize the history of Whitman and the area’s indigenous people.

“More than 50 years ago, I was taught that the interaction between Marcus Whitman and Native Americans is complex,” Washington State University professor Eric Johnson, who grew up in Walla Walla and attended Whitman College, said during the meeting on Wednesday.

“But we weren’t taught the level of complexity. There was an imbalance and that imbalance needs to be corrected.”

However, removing or relocating the statue, Johnson and others argued, would amount to erasing the region’s history.

Members of the public who supported the statue’s removal, including Tillotson, argued that the statue does not depict history but instead honors a history of colonial America. As society changes, Tillotson said Wednesday, so do the stories it chooses to honor.

“The first monument to be removed in the United States was the statue of King George III in 1776,” Tillotson said. “People are still digging up pieces of King George in their gardens and lower Manhattan.”

The historical accuracy of the statue itself has been a subject of debate.

In 2020, a local team of Whitman College art researchers reported that Fairbanks had depicted Marcus Whitman not as a man, but as a symbol of “frontier mythology.”

“The statue tells us a lot, and it has a rich and fascinating story, but again, this story is not the story of Marcus Whitman, it is not the story of Walla Walla Valley, and it is not the story of Whitman College, said Libby Miller, director of the Maxey Museum at Whitman College and professor of art history, during an arts commission meeting in September 2020.

dr Grant Fairbanks, whose father created the Whitman effigy, acknowledged in a letter to council members that the statue’s design was in part a symbolic representation of Whitman’s role as “explorer/frontier” but argued that this was a characteristic, not a mistake, and demanded that the statue remain.

“In a biographical work it should be more than an image; it should inform the viewer of the achievements, ideals, and nobility of the personified,” wrote Fairbanks. “The resemblance should be idealized to reflect WHY the subject/person is being honored.”

Others criticized the relationship of the researchers and members of the arts commission to Whitman College.

“A majority of the arts commission has strong ties to a college that dropped the name ‘missionary,’ dropped the name ‘pioneer,’ and unearthed a monument to Narcissa in the middle of the night,” Johnson said, referring to the school mascot’s name change and the newspaper and the removal of a memorial to Whitman’s wife.

Some council members criticized the argument that members of the college had a political agenda or otherwise could not be legitimate participants in the debate.

“We’re doing this personally, you know — the people who are delivering this message are ‘X’ and that’s really an invalid argument,” Councilor Gustavo Reyna said. “This is really a difference of opinion, perspectives. It’s not personal; let’s not do it like that.”

A Tale of Three Whitmans

The original statue of Marcus Whitman by Avard Fairbanks stands tall in the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

Debates over whether Whitman statues should be displayed in places of honor were not just local. Two other, older copies of the same depiction by Marcus Whitman, originally created by Fairbanks in 1953, have also come under scrutiny in recent years.

The state legislature first considered replacing the original statue in the state Capitol and the first copy in the state Capitol in 2019, though that legislation stalled.

Similar legislation was introduced in 2021, focused only on the statue in the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, which passed overwhelmingly.

The DC statue is replaced with the likeness of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribesman and environmental and treaty rights activist who died in 2014.

The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall selection committee has also considered the process of removing the Whitman statue in the state capitol at Olympia, although questions have been raised as to whether that committee has the legal authority to proceed with that process.

Marcus Whitman Olympia statue

A statue of Marcus Whitman stands in the Marble Halls of the Washington State Capitol at Olympia.

The statue of Marcus Whitman in Walla Walla is significantly younger than the others. In 1991, then-Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Heyner secured R-Walla Walla $53,000 in the state budget to create a definitive copy of Fairbank’s Whitman statue.

It was the last chance to create a new statue before the original form was to be destroyed, according to an article in the Seattle Times, which described the procurement as a “pig barrel policy” required to get the budget passed ensure.

Cast by the Walla Walla Foundry, the statue was unveiled in 1992 near where downtown Walla Walla meets the Whitman College campus.

Although the statue now sits on property owned by Whitman College, it is owned by the city as required by the 1991 legislation.

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