Let it stay
There are better solutions to this needless public art argument
A sculpture that has been in place since 1983 is causing new controversy, as some Western New Yorkers call for its replacement and possible destruction. Others have a more measured solution: add a new artwork that provides the representational imagery missing in the current sculpture.
The sculpture is Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, by John Woodrow Wilson (1922–2015). As the photograph on this page shows, the eight-foot-high head is an imposing, stylized icon. Other works by Wilson (including a 2002 drawing of MLK) show that he was clearly capable of representational art, but his monumental heads from the 1980s were, in the artist’s words, intended to represent “a symbolic black presence infused with a sense of universal humanity.”
As artist and Spree art critic Bruce Adams notes, “Another sculpture of MLK by the artist has been on display in the Capitol Rotunda since 1986. It doesn’t exactly look like MLK either, and that’s the idea. The Buffalo head is a symbol of African-American power and wisdom, not a literal depiction.” Adams also points out that the Visual Artists Rights Act protects artwork, and attempts to “melt down” the work to make something new would face legal barriers.
Artist Edreys Wajed, who has participated in a local mural project commemorating African-American leaders, comments, “I would imagine that there were several moments and opportunities over the past three decades to remedy the discontent even if it were to produce a second, more accepted interpretation.” Painter Julia Bottoms, who also worked on the mural project, thinks that Wilson may not have been the perfect choice for a project where many constituents would have expected a literal depiction. But she adds, “I believe representational or not, this is a public work of art by a black artist, and that, in and of itself, is something to acknowledge and celebrate. If the community is asking for some sort of work of art that will better represent such an important figure as King, I think that request should be answered in the form of another more representational work of art being created alongside the Wilson sculpture.”
Another sculpture? Why not? Buffalo can always use more public art, especially art that promotes discussion and dialogue. As improvements continue in Martin Luther King Park and in all of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks, public art should play a strategic role.
See The Freedom Wall murals, by artists John Baker, Julia Bottoms, Chuck Tingley, and Edreys Wajed, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street. Be sure to also visit Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in its namesake park off Best Street, near the Buffalo Museum of Science.