It is not often that a long-dead artist rises from the grave to make conversation with a politician about the role of public art. However, a statue located outside of Queens Borough Hall has prompted such a discussion.
“Civic Virtue,” by Frederick MacMonnies depicts a nearly nude man with a sword, towering over two vanquished mermaids. The sculpture was recently called sexist by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens and Brooklyn) and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) — an accusation that has been levied since it was first installed at City Hall in the 1920s.
“Defend my statue!” MacMonnies exclaimed in a 1922 New York Times article regarding the character of the piece. “Why should I? It needs no defense. It is a work of art, I hope, and as such an allegory and the representation of a quality.”
It turns out MacMonnies has many supporters. Community Board 9 District Manager Mary Ann Carey, who serves the area in which the statue sits, said that since Weiner focused the public eye on the sculpture, she has received inquires regarding its restoration. Private donors have offered to give a few thousand dollars each towards its upkeep. Several years ago, maintaining the statue was one of the top priorities of CB 9, but Carey said budget cuts had significantly impacted the board’s ability to raise the funds. She suggested a nonprofit group be formed to collect donations to repair the statue, which has turned grey due to acid rain.
“I love my ‘Civic Virtue,’” Carey said, “I have always loved the statue.” The Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn has offered to take the 20-foot high marble fountain, but Carey said her district does not want to give it up. “We don’t have that many artworks like this that are old,” Carey said.
Despite Weiner’s craigslist ad offering the statue up to anyone who could cart it away, Carey said “He’s got delusions of grandeur; he cannot sell it.”
The statue is owned by the city, and according to Mark Daly, a spokesman for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, it must go through the process of deaccessioning if it is to be given up. “Because this is so exceedingly rare it has to be looked into,” Daly said. “At the moment the congressman has proposed one way of disposing of it that we are reviewing.”
Women’s rights advocates including Ferreras said the statue, which appears to be a man stepping on two female figures, can be seen to glorify violence against women.
Carey said that’s not the case. “He’s got one foot on the ground and one foot on a stone and it’s not women there. What does domestic violence have to do with a mermaid?” she asked.
Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum of Art, called the statue sexist, but said that it should be left as it is.
He said much could be learned from work, which was made by the same sculptor who designed the archway at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
Commissioned before women gained the right to vote, but completed afterwards, “Civic Virtue” is notable if only for the uproar it has caused throughout its history.
Initially installed at City Hall, the statue was the subject of a hearing held after some members of the public deemed it offensive.
In 1941, then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took a dislike to staring at its backside and banished it to Queens, where it continues to cause the same ruckus it has throughout history.
However according to MacMonnies, viewers should not take offense. “There is no sex in the quality of virtue. It represents both man and woman, and both are represented in the figures of the youth,” the artist said when under fire in 1922. “Where would the fine arts be if such limitations were placed upon them, if such an allegory were always to be taken literally? The thing is ridiculous.”