Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but, in the case of a rally held on Saturday at the base of a controversial sculpture, it was more a matter of civil liberties than artistic taste.
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) led the protest against the planned removal of “The Triumph of Civic Virtue,” an icon that has been prominently displayed near Borough Hall in Kew Gardens for three quarters of a century, to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Reports indicate the move could happen as early as this week.
Speaking to the gathering of concerned citizens, Vallone had a message for Mayor Bloomberg: “Leave our ‘Virtue’ alone. Leave it here and restore it to its former glory. It’s art.”
The 22-ton sculpture, which was designed by acclaimed artist Frederick MacMonnies in 1920 and had already adorned City Hall in Manhattan prior to coming to Queens, depicts a nearly naked muscular male trampling several female figures, representing evil sirens, and is seen by some as demeaning and biased against women, a symbol of male oppression.
But the statue has many supporters, among them Jon Torodash, founder of Civic Virtue, an advocacy group that wants to see the statue left where it is.
“The statue is a famous work of art,” Torodash said. “This neighborhood has no equal to it. It was quite a miracle that Kew Gardens could get a hold of it.”
Art historian Richard Iritano, executive director of the organization, called the statue “a monumental work of allegorical art that banishes corruption and vice and should be viewed, not banished in obscurity among the dead.”
Andrea Crawford, chairwoman of Community Board 9, said, “We have been advocating since 2006 for its restoration. We were not contacted [about the move]. We found out from Peter Vallone and press releases.”
The board’s district manager, Mary Ann Carey, said, “The statue does not represent what people who don’t know any better are saying.” She, too, indicated that “the board was not notified” of the decision to move the statue. “Design and Construction made the decision. We found out from press releases from the borough president’s office.”
The impending move, Vallone said, “was designed so no one would know about it. The board knew nothing about it. The people of Queens never knew about it. We want the mayor and the Design Commission to hear us.”
The commission authorized the move on Nov. 13, at a hearing held two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit. The timing struck many as inappropriate.
“We did not know about the hearing,” Crawford said. “To take public art and place it in a private location is absolutely outrageous.”
The city, however, said the hearing was properly noticed — well ahead of the requirement that it be announced 72 hours ahead of time.
A city spokesman also defended the relocation in an emailed statement.
“Green Wood Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark with one of the largest outdoor collections of 19th- and 20th-century statuary, including the monument to James Wall Finn by Frederick MacMonnies," the spokesman said. "The relocation of Civic Virtue by Frederick MacMonnies to Green Wood is part of a public-private initiative to ensure the long-term preservation of the sculpture. Civic Virtue will remain fully accessible to the public, and we are working on establishing a vibrant, welcoming public space in Queens while the statue is on loan to Green Wood.”
Speaking on a personal level, Vallone added, “As the father of two daughters, if I thought it was sexist, I wouldn’t be here.”
He sees the statue as “a Greek mythological portrayal,” and said, “If you oppose this statue, there are so many others you’d have to oppose. This is a Queens statue.”
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said the sculpture was commissioned by the city at a cost of $60,000. To give it to a private cemetery, she said, would be a “disservice to our city. Civic Virtue should stay here in Queens.”
Estimates to restore the work have ranged from $900,000, a figure quoted back in 1998, to $20 million.
“I can’t get any answers as to who would be paying,” Vallone said, but he indicated that MacMonnies’ family might foot the bill.
Torodash, who used the rally as an opportunity to formally announce he will be running as an independent candidate against Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) next year, called the commission’s actions “the most flagrant use of secrecy and neglect.
“The people of Queens are losing out,” he said.
When asked about the possibility of replacing the statue, as has been suggested by Borough President Helen Marshall and other elected officials, Vallone responded, “I’m not here to discuss replacing the statue. I’m here to discuss restoring and keeping it here. No statue in Central Park would be allowed to decay like this.”
While standing at a nearby bus station with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Aida Lopez, who has lived in the area for 35 years, represented the opinion of many area residents when she said, “I’ve seen the statue since I lived here. It needs to be cleaned. But there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s art.”
Update: This story was modified a day after it was posted to include the city's position.