VMFA aims for ‘inclusivity’ in effort to reimagine Richmond’s Monument Avenue

Richmond
Confederate Monument Richmnond

Crews remove one of the country’s largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Before last week, visitors to Richmond’s Monument Avenue would have seen memorials to the Confederacy along the tree-lined street.

With the avenue’s last Confederate statue, a towering bronze sculpture of Robert E. Lee erected in 1890, now off its pedestal and in temporary storage, the initiative to redesign Monument Avenue is expected to begin by the end of the year.

But questions have arisen over how the effort will take shape.

Where’s the money for the project?

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) unveiled a $25 million investment proposal in December to fund plans for “a community-driven initiative” to reimagine four historical sites in Virginia, with nearly $11 million expected to help the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts transform Monument Avenue.

“We’re going to bring together urban planners, we’re going to bring together historians, historic preservation people and of course, art historians and most of all, artists,” VMFA Director and CEO Alex Nyerges said when the proposal was announced.

Northam’s proposal called for $750,000 to be set aside in the state budget for planning the concept and a $10 million down payment to start implementing the project, which is expected to begin with the Lee Circle.

“If there’s more funding that’s required, then we’ll look at those options, and some of that may be from the state, but some of it might be from the private sector as well, with grants,” Northam said in December.

Funding for the project went to VMFA in July, but state lawmakers agreed to reduce the initial investment in Northam’s budget proposal to $1 million over two years until after the museum’s official plan is presented next September. A spokeswoman for VMFA told 8News the initial funding will enable the museum to hire staff and launch the effort.

“Currently, VMFA is early in the process of hiring staff to work on the initiative and once program staff are in place, planning processes will begin and a timeline will be developed,” VMFA spokeswoman Amy Peck wrote in a Sept. 8 email.

The effort to transform Richmond’s Monument Avenue

The space around the Lee monument became a focal point for protesters demonstrating over police brutality and racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

The pedestal that held Lee for over a century was tagged with messages, mainly anti-racist and anti-police slogans and messages, speeches were made in front of the statue and memorials to those killed by law enforcement were placed in the traffic circle. After it was hit with graffiti, the Lee monument was named as the most influential work of protest art since World War II by the New York Times Style Magazine and made the cover of National Geographic.

While the Lee statue came down, the 40-foot-tall graffiti-covered pedestal remains in place. It won’t be removed from the circle until after VMFA proposes its concept for a reimagined Monument Avenue.

A fence installed around Lee Circle in January, a move criticized by activists who seek to reclaim the space, will also remain in place until further notice. The traffic circle was informally renamed in honor of Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer during an altercation in 2018.

“As people came by, it dawned on them that we had our own George Floyd and his name was Marcus-David Peters,” Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister and a third-party gubernatorial candidate, said in a recent interview. “That will always be the Marcus-David Peters Circle.”

VMFA does not have specific plans for a new Monument Avenue yet and the state has not given a response on whether memorials to Peters would be included, but Amy Peck, the museum spokeswoman, reiterated VMFA will form a coalition of different groups to help develop its concept.

“Inclusivity will be central to this initiative, which will kick off within the year, and it will involve community leaders, stakeholders, artists, urban planners, archivists, and historians in its planning and implementation,” Peck added.

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