St. Louis statues: a great tradition of public art

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

St. Louis has many great works of public art on display, throughout Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, and other locations in the city. They put to shame the public art of many other cities that are now more prosperous and populated.

During my recent visit, I accidentally stumbled on the statues of great white men, as I call them, in Tower Grove Park in the south central area of the city. Businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw of St. Louis believed that public art played an important role in the welfare of a city, and left a legacy, including the statues.

The statues I photographed depict William Shakespeare, Alexander von Humboldt, and Christopher Colombus—a man whose controversial legacy is questioned today. The statues, regardless of their merits, evoke a period of wealth and pride, when the city chose to promote art when it was at the apex of its economic and political power. Much of that art celebrates European civilization and few other traditions and races. St. Louis has always been a city that did not recognize the contributions of non-European groups until the late 19th century.

I also discovered a wonderful bronze sculpture in the Dutchtown neighborhood, in South St. Louis, just off Grand Boulevard. Atop a neighborhood gate entrance sat two jolly foxes, swigging from pints and likely smoking pipes. These are located next to the popular Ted Drewes frozen custard stand, where I gulped down a delicious dessert. Now this was a real discovery.

There are no jolly foxes where I live in Portland. I think we need some. We take ourselves far too preciously, and we forget other cities have understood the power of public art better than the new cool capitals of the United States.

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One comment

  1. Note, the park’s website has removed its statues page that used to reside here: https://www.towergrovepark.org/statues/. This could be because they redid a website? But I doubt it. They no longer list the park’s statues as resources, which seems more of a political decision than one that actually is based on providing park facts. You can search for “statues” (and I put in that link instead–and pictures, truncated in some cases will appear).

    I am in favor of being honest about what is in the park and why, even what is wrong. I noted in my essay the park’s artwork reflects the Western and white male version of history and art and culture, including the controversy now surrounding Christopher Columbus. The past, including ideas from the past we now reject, can still be acknowledged in a way that shows how views have changed over time. We can also render informed judgment.

    The city of St. Louis also recently removed a Confederate memorial in Forest Park following outcry of similar monuments in New Orleans. I had covered that monument on this website previously–search for “Confederate.” I had compared that monument to monuments erected of the Union forces. The legacy was simply erased without any discussion of it, and that is still possible to do. We missed a chance to describe the brutality of slavery and the institution of slavery in Missouri and St. Louis before the Civil War, or how the legacy of that war lived into the 20th century, as seen in the funding of the monument. We can and do have informed dialogue about history, and its many ills, all the time in our cultural institutions. We cannot learn if we do know and understand our past. It seems like this approach is going the wrong direction. Ignoring what is before your eyes is willful blindness.

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